Monday, January 15, 2007

For Strong Mayor by gimleteye

The Miami Herald's Sunday editorial endorsement of the strong mayor measure was welcome and unexpectedly so.

Unexpected, because the Herald editorial board has been comatose on the dysfunctional state of local government: an unreformable majority of the Miami Dade County Commission.

Much of the criticism we have leveled at the Herald is on the lack of stories important to our daily lives (that often end up in letters to the editor or the Neighbors section) connecting the good, the bad, and the ugly to editorial positions it has staked out—like the one on Sunday.

Today’s edition provides an example where an additional editorial could reinforce very important news.

Business Monday features South Florida’s Economic Outlook, “The slowing real estate market and the rising cost of living are weighing down the region’s growth”. For the Herald editorial board, the report offers many points of entry to comment on how the unreformable majority of county commissioners puts our economic growth at risk and to reflect on the issue in relation to the strong mayor vote in one week.

It is one thing to raise again and again these points in a blog—but it is time for the editorial board to dust off the cobwebs. Do a few sit-ups or jogging in place: make the case for the strong mayor with the evidence at hand—interminable traffic, overburdened infrastructure, poisoned drinking water aquifers, a fleeing middle class… the county commission has no answer for its conduct and the Miami Herald needs to hold it accountable, now, BEFORE the strong mayor vote one week from today.

We would like to address Merrett Stierheim’s letter to the editor, “Wrong solution for Miami-Dade”, that counters the Herald position and ours, point by point.

Mr. Stierheim’s first point follows the argument of Miami Today, that considerably more preparation needs to be taken before considering an amendment to the county charter that lacked transparency or public input.

It is an odd argument to make, given the fact the strong mayor referendum was contested in court, every step of the way, on its course to collecting the required 130,000 signatures to qualify for a special election.

As to the lack of transparency or public input, as a former county manager Mr. Stierheim is intimately familiar with how agenda items hostile to the interests of a majority of county commissioners are bottled up and discarded before they ever reach the dais at County Hall.

Asking this county commission to embrace reform of its own practices is a fool’s errand, as citizens have discovered, as Mayor Alvarez discovered, and as Miami Herald reporters know.

Mr. Stierheim says that Mayor Alvarez already has a bully pulpit to be a leader on critical issues facing this community and already has strong powers. This is plain wrong. Under the current structure of government, the mayor's bully pulpit is an ill-suited tactic.

While Mayor Alvarez does have veto power, it is ineffectual because county commissioners—in its original votes on contested measures the mayor opposes—manages its majority to assure an override.

As to the question of the county manager becoming badly weakened or “politicized” over the charter change, we are puzzled by Mr. Stierheim. He was county manager, himself, and has experienced the jockeying for position and currying of favor by county commissioners within departments.

Maybe Mr. Stierheim was convinced of his own power, but we would note that in his long and storied career of public service, many of the ills in our communities evolved to the state of intractable problems.

We like George Burgess, the current county manager—but the rank politicization of county government that occurs today, not at some time in the future, is due to the interference by the lobbying class and special relationships cultivated by big campaign donors and county commissioners.

Stierheim is deeply concerned that the “wrong” strong mayor will eviscerate professional management in county departments. We are less polite than the Herald: we contend it couldn't be worse and use an example that the mainstream media has simply failed to grasp: the contamination of drinking water aquifers that supply 2.3 million people with cancer-causing benzene.

It is a horror. It happened, in part, under Stierheim’s own watch, and it was due—simply—to a government insulated from criticism and protected by a political elite organized by big campaign donors.

Now, none of this may change under the strong mayor—but the public is guaranteed by this measure to have a single official elected county-wide who can be fired by voters.

Who is going to be fired over the benzene scandal in the water department? (We could go on and on about Bill Brandt, the water chief who did, finally, take a fall—but that’s a story for another day, and he wasn’t fired for allowing a cancer causing substance to get into our drinking water aquifer.)

In response to Mr. Stierheim’s fear that the professional management of the county will be politicized, we have made the point repeatedly: a county manager has less to fear from a good strong mayor that he does from a corrupt county commission.

In the case of a bad strong mayor, we would fully expect that stories of influence peddling and corruption would have a far better chance getting to the public, if the Miami Herald and other mainstream media will report those stories—that is where the balance is.

Why would it be easier?

First of all, there are no checks or balances today on the power of the county commission to meddle—at ANY level of the county bureaucracy. Imagine yourself to be a professional manager or a smart and committed professional staffer: you are looking over your shoulder at any time of the day, to try to understand where the next threat to your integrity is coming from—it could be any one of the unreformable majority.

That is a lot of people: at least seven county commissioners and their influence peddling to keep track of.

A strong mayor structure of government will offer much better protection to the integrity of government and civil servants committed to their job responsibilities—if the mainstream media will do its job as independent journalists and not insiders currying favor with wealthy power players.

Mr. Stierheim’s final point follows Miami Today: this matter needs more study, “a thoroughly public, transparent and nonbiased process to review our home-rule charter and the structure of county government.”

Well. We have said this before: Miami Dade county government is where good studies go to die. Studies that do surface have the paw-prints of special interests all over them. No better example than the Barbara Jordan "inclusionary zoning ordinance" that utterly failed, after a year, to help constituents in the direst need for affordable housing.

What the public wants or needs gets redacted out of studies, often crafted by "study groups" or "advisory committees" whose balance is predetermined according to special interest representation, as carefully as possible to preserve the illusion of fairness and equity.

We’ll take our chances with a strong mayor, who we can fire at election time, understanding full well that the qualification of candidates who regularly pop up in Miami Dade county politics need improvement.

Are Miami Dade voters ready to be more discerning? We can’t wait to find out.

The castle walls of County Hall are high and smooth as marble. Citizens who have tried to climb those walls know they will walk safely through downtown Baghdad before they have a chance at access to their own government.

In the coming days, it is vitally important for the Miami Herald to support its editorial position with increased coverage on the county commission and the issues at stake for Miami Dade’s 2.3 million residents and annual budget of nearly $7 billion.

Vote for the strong mayor.


Anonymous said...

Who reads the Herald anyways anymore?

Anonymous said...

How many times have we heard the mantra coming from the county commission, "30,000 people a year are coming here"? According to the Herald Business section, we have not had a net growth of "30,000" a year since 1999 and even then it was not 30,000. The population growth has decreased steadily since 1999, while we continued building for "30,000 a year". In 2005 net increase was near zero. Even at 30,000 a year, that translates to 10,000 housing units (average 3 people/family). Look at the State of Florida stats, they are much more accurate.The county has a history of inflating projected population growth, maybe because those numbers justify construction. So now what do we do with the houses built for "30,000" a year that have not come to Miami-Dade for the past 7 years? Maybe workforce housing?

Anonymous said...

V o t e T o d a y !
Yes, it's a Holiday, but the Early Voting Polls are open 11-7!

The polls in county are open for voting, even if the county offices aren't. So, it is a great time to vote... take your picture ID and get to the polls! No lines, no parking jams!

Anonymous said...

I find it hard to believe that houses build to sell at 400k can be used for work force housing unless some of us get B I G raises or we turn them into multi-family homes.

Arin said...

The strong mayor question brings up an issue that has long plagued government: the fight against bureaucracy. Democracy was a wonderful invention back in Greece when the entire city of Athens literally had a say in what happened within their community. As the world population grew, it became less and less practical to conduct government that way. In the United States, many people are left out when it comes to their say although we keep claiming that everyone is represented. At least with a strong mayor, we would all be able to walk into the mayor's office and have our voice heard, rather than have our requests filtered through ten different people before something happened. The City Manager and the commission are not responsible to the people, so they're able to get away with such nonsense as the housing scandal. We need to return to a purer form of democracy and it requires small steps such as actually having our elected official held responsible for mistakes that are made. Hopefully, come presidential election time, the people will have their voice heard as in the midterms. Democracy should be about accountability and we don't have that in Miami-Dade county, hence, it's very easy to call us a third world country, comparable to people like Castro, Chavez, and Ahmadinejad of Iran who leave their people completely out of the loop. We need to take personal responsibility as well and not let the big monster of government we've created eat us all alive.

Anonymous said...

Former County Manager Stierheim uses as one of his reasons for opposing the executive mayor amendment that "...the county commission will lose no power while the county manager will be stripped of all power and authority." And this is one of the best arguments for voting YES - the county manager should have no power nor authority because he is an appointed PUBLIC SERVANT, not an elected official. The job of the county manager is to manage the county resources, and leave the policy decisions to the elected officials who were chosen by the voters to do just that.

Another inconsistency I find is when he mentions that the doctrine of separation of powers is all about checks and balances. And again I couldn't agree with him more - that is exactly what is missing from the current form of county government where the commissioners have all the power and no checks or balances.

By voting YES we will accomplish accountability, checks and balances, efficiency, and curbing excessive authority. And if the majority of voters don't like how our county is being run, we have 2008 to hold the mayor accountable and vote him out.