As Big Issues Wait Commissioners Fritter Away Free Time
By Michael Lewis
Do county and city commissioners have too much free time?
That might explain the hours they endlessly putter with minor issues rather than focus on our community’s major problems and opportunities.
Even when they finally get around to big issues, they too often detour onto minutia that paid administrators are far more suited to handle.
The problem is almost universal. Even the best officeholders embroil themselves in time-consuming squabbles not worth their energy.
In just the past two weeks, we’ve chronicled these hour-eaters:
nTwo Miami commissioners delayed votes they’d had on their radar for months — who will run the James L. Knight Center and who will handle affordable housing above the Gusman Center — because they want to study issues they should already have pored over and upon which administrators had fully reported.
nThe 13 Miami-Dade County commissioners spent more than four hours debating who should run small passenger lounges at Miami International Airport, a matter upon which airport officials had already decided, yet commissioners overruled their firm request. Now everybody gets to do it all over again.
nA Miami commissioner blocked a Christmas tree sale and an Oktoberfest in Brickell because — imagine! — Brickell is too busy. Marc Sarnoff wasn’t too busy, though. He noted that since he hadn’t studied and approved the idea in advance, it was a no-go. Happy holidays!
nCounty Commissioner Javier Souto felt similarly. He tried to block conceptual plans for a soccer complex on grounds he hadn’t OK’d the idea in advance, and he reproached the parks director for not seeking his consent to try to create a soccer hub.
It seems the idea came from — horrors! — the sports world, which falls in a different commissioner’s purview. Talk about a turf war!
nThe county commission has spent hour upon hour debating whether Jackson hospital can hire outsiders to run some emergency services — involving a handful of jobs that then might not belong to the hospital union. We imagine commissioners next will plan the work schedules of hospital employees, one by one.
nCounty commissioners solemnly stood firm against texting while driving — one of any number of non-issues that don’t fall under their jurisdiction that they pontificate upon, vote on and then forget. But it sure sounds good.
Most of these issues — the soccer complex a notable exception — don’t belong on agendas at all. If they must be there, they should consume far less commission wind power, if only as an energy conservation measure.
Half the issues are power plays, half turf wars and half just plain foolish — with halves overlapping to make a single waste-of-time whole.
Commissioners shouldn’t have a role in most contracts. Charter amendments at both the county and city levels are needed to change that.
Unfortunately, that helpful change would undercut the role of lobbyists, who earn very nice livings indeed representing contract hopefuls as they coax commissioners to override the decisions of staff to select "better" firms — that is, their clients.
We’re sure nothing in writing requires commissioners to make themselves look foolish X number of hours per year for lobbyists who can guarantee reelection campaign contributions — but they sure act like something does.
Maybe it’s all the time commissioners must kill somehow rather than grapple with long-run policies of land use, water availability, economic infrastructure, transportation, job creation and the like — the issues that should have top priority.
At the City of Miami, whose budget struggles are legion, its commission for several meetings has been too "busy" to discuss the last item on its agenda: the city’s economic condition.
But it had plenty of time to debate the glut of events in Brickell that will crowd out a Christmas tree sale for residents.