Putting Two Charter Questions On The Ballot Is Just The Start
By Michael Lewis
In sending two charter questions to voters, Miami-Dade commissioners last week scratched the surface.
Don’t quit now.
They wrapped term limits, a pay hike and a ban on outside jobs into one question, eased citizen petition drives in another and called it a day.
We need a new day to finish the job.
In pushing hot-button issues, commissioners turned down the heat from critics threatening recall. But they didn’t fully review the county charter, a task the document itself mandates every five years. The fifth year is 2012.
The heavy lifting of sifting key questions to offer to voters is yet to come. The commission dais isn’t the spot to do it. Deliberations of a review team are the best venue.
That’s because county government has too many moving parts. Tinkering with one affects others. Careful study of how speeding up one gear affects others is crucial.
Among vital questions the commission bypassed are broad structural changes in the county.
The most fundamental would place every area under city or village as well as county control, as the original 1950s charter intended. That would leave the county with broad policy authority and control of area-wide services while giving local decisions to local bodies. That’s the case now in our cities, but not elsewhere.
To get such broad views, countywide voting on commissioners from individual districts would restore a structure that used to work well. That effective body was nine members, not today’s 13, another question for voters.
An effective county manager lubricated that earlier engine. Voters since required any mayor to be both political leader and nuts-and-bolts manager. That hit-or-miss pairing succeeds only if we elect that rare political leader who also is a talented manager. We might not want to trust to luck to do that.
Charter review might also probe commission slush funds, escalating campaign spending, commissioners’ power to sway contract awards and — should January’s referendum fail — commission pay, term limits and outside jobs.
The microscope should examine recall as a political weapon. That weapon can be misused, so perhaps recall "gun control" would restrict use to morally or legally corrupt behavior as opposed to voting "incorrectly."
Any good review would probe further. It would reject some changes — maybe most. But it would do what the charter demands: assess needs every five years.
The commission can set a review format. It could legally do the job itself. But that’s equivalent to a doctor removing his own appendix: possible, but too painful to be effective.
Commissioners Joe Martinez, Sally Heyman and Jose "Pepe" Diaz last month aired their own charter team ideas. That was a good start, but all three crafted plans to give the commission control of a review. That would skew outcomes.
Better an arm’s-length review: Ask 13 well-placed organizations to each pick an expert for a six-month study, with the guarantee that anything nine review team members recommend would go to a public vote.
Commissioners, after all, aren’t anxious for a political appendectomy that might wind up slicing out an outmoded power. That appendectomy would help cure the community but dump a personal appendix.
For maximum voter participation, Commissioner Bruno Barreiro is adamant that charter recommendations go on next November’s presidential ballot. He’s right.
And, guess what? That leaves plenty of time to name a charter team, let it reflect and add its prescriptions to that ballot.
Note: it’s not always reform. Not every proposed change is good. Not every enacted change is guaranteed to be healthful.
But questions for a review team are in the air. They deserve airing by an independent body. The best ideas must go on the ballot.
Then, it’s up to the voters — the proper arena for such major decisions.
Last week commissioners scratched the surface. Now, let them follow the spirit of the charter — our constitution — which calls for a thorough vetting of county structures every five years.