Friday January 5, 2007

Strong mayor debate

Strong mayor debate

At the strong mayor debate last night. Senator Gwen Margolis argued for the proposal, Commissioner Sally A. Heyman argued against; and Nancy Liebman, president of the UEL, MC’d. A very good meeting, and all three had a lot of interesting things to say, but it wasn’t completely satisfying, and I’m less certain of which decision is right then I was going in.

The gist of Margolis’ argument was that under the current system, county department heads who form alliances with a few of the commissioners become very difficult for the county manager to fire, since thel thirteen commissioners directly hire/fire him. She cited successful cities that have a strong mayor. She pointed out all the corruption and scandals that have plagued the government, and was adamant that a single person, accountable to all the people of the county, was the solution. On the other hand, she was short on reasons why a single person is inherently less corrupt then thirteen. Also, she seemed torn, repeating “this is about an issue, not a specific person,” but also citing the talents of Carlos Alvarez as a reason to vote for the proposal.

Heyman was very adamant that the corruption/scandal situation was not tolerable. But she argued that the solution was to enforce anti-corruption laws, strengthen the ethics committee, and weed out the bad department heads, who are the real problem. She pointed out that a strong mayor was a dangerous concentration of power, and anti-democratic in the sense that the locally-elected commission is more directly accountable to the people. She also pointed out that giving the mayor direct hire/fire power over department heads makes those positions more political (currently the non-elected county manager makes those decisions), and that those decisions are not subject to change by the commission, even by a super-majority, under the proposal. However, for all her insistence that corruption was a long-standing problem, she didn’t give a satisfactory answer as to what could be done about it, and why it hadn’t been done up to this point (she wasn’t for term-limits — surprise). And her argument that since the only legal requirements to be mayor are a minimum age of 18 and a 3-year residency in the county (vs. a long list of professional qualifications to be hired as county manager), we might well end up with someone unqualified in the job, was just bizarre. Does she not think the voters consider a candidate’s qualifications?

That’s it in a nutshell — uncompelling arguments on both sides. Some other things that came out of the discussion:

That’s the high points. Genius of Despair was there, and here’s what he had to say. MKH and Rebecca Wakefield were also present, so maybe their thoughts soon. The debate continues; the vote’s on January 23rd.

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  1. I have a political past    Fri Jan 5, 09:06 AM #  

    Thanks for the breakdown, Alesh. Like you, I’m not certain how I feel about this issue. But I DO know that the current commission, with a couple of exceptions, is doing a terrible job. They should be ashamed of themselves, to be as corrupt and inept as they are and let all these scandals unfold under their watch. What they’ve done for housing and taxes is just as deplorable.

    They’re a useless bunch of assholes, particularly Seijas, Moss, Martinez and now Barreiro, who, if there ever was a puppet chair, is it.

    Even if Alvarez is not the best strong mayor candidate, maybe this is still a better option than continuing to let the commission ruin Miami-Dade without being held accountable.

  2. Alex    Fri Jan 5, 09:39 AM #  

    I wasn’t sold on Alvarez at all (worked on the Morales campaign), I thought he was an status-quo, empty-suit type, but he has surprised me at times and overall I like his performance enough that I’m not worried about handing him more power. Sure, one single powerful person is not the solution to abuses of power, corruption or behind-the-scenes dealings, but it’s easier to focus the accountability spotlight on him/her (remember Penelas/Shiver/Gittens for example). 13 commissioners make the picture fuzzy, with pet projects, alliances, donors, buddies, etc.

    It is a big decision that unfortunately, due to the public’s misunderstanding of the pros and cons, is going to come down to demagoguery as always. But in my 12 years in Miami, when I think of who has fumbled more, the commissioners or the mayor, I have to say the commission has the worse record. So I’ll be voting for the strong mayor.

  3. Dave    Fri Jan 5, 02:10 PM #  

    Personally I think its a bad idea. Currently departments heads are usually people who have worked their way up through the department and are generally extremely competant. Under this proposal they will simply be appointed by the mayor, probably to campaign personel similar to how the president appoints cabinet heads at the federal level (think Bush appointing Brown to head FEMA as an example of what could happen). Dont think of how a person like Alvarez would handle this power think of how a scoundrel like Pinellas would handle it since history has shown his type are more likely to get elected to the post than Alvarez’ type.

  4. alesh    Fri Jan 5, 03:06 PM #  


    That’s a very serious fear. I was thinking about Michael Brown too. But if department heads are extremely competent, “usually” is the operant term.

    The other fear, BTW, is that the mayor would put people in those positions that would help his political friends. Yikes!

  5. County Observer    Sat Jan 6, 04:49 PM #  

    The current system with 13 County commissioners does not work. Only 1 or 2 are competent enough to run a small non-profit. The other 11 to 12 commissioners are idiots drunk with power. We have another idiot for a County Manager who couldn’t uncover a scandal unless the lowly Herald writes him a 8 part series.

    We need a change. Let us try a Strong Mayor system. By the way, Carlos Alvarez has stated on the record that if the Courts determine a successful yes vote means a significant change to his duties that he will resign. And run again. Alvarez is so positive this change is absolutely necessary that he has offered to resign, to run for the new Strong Mayor post.

  6. al rinker    Sun Jan 7, 07:49 AM #  

    The county manager knew of the problems in housing but the commission protected the click there. Without better commissioners, and that won’t happen without campaign finance reform, who is to stop the mayor and commission from even more corruption, after all the same people pay the bills to get all of these people elected anyways? Sure Alvarez is great but what about Mayor Azara, or Seijas?

  7. Alex Rodriguez    Mon Jan 8, 01:37 AM #  

    Jimmy Morales would make a great Mayor. Or Jose Garcia. How about Robert Rubin? He graduated from Miami Beach High School. He now makes $30 Mil per year working on Wall Street. The public should demand an excellent Auditor. The 13 idiot commissioners should demand an excellent Auditor, but 10 of them will not.

  8. Jonathan    Mon Jan 8, 12:49 PM #  

    A lot of people would make good mayors, but that’s not the question. The question is how to set up the system in such a way that if a terrible mayor gets elected he can’t cause too much damage.

  9. Spike Simkins    Thu Jan 11, 10:53 PM #  

    Easier to watch 1 Mayor than 11 to 12 idiot County Commissioners…

    And who is watching the idiot County Manager? Who elected him? How often does he have to run for re-election? What would we do without the Herald or Dan Ricker’s Watchdog report exposing the “scandal a week”? Obviously, George Burgess is clueless.

  10. alesh    Fri Jan 12, 06:53 AM #  

    The “it’s easier to watch one person” argument is pretty persuasive; that’s pretty much the only one the Eye on Miami guys have hung their hat on.

    Unfortunately, we’re not watching the mayor like a boss watches an employee, because once a mayor is elected he’s in for four years. So long as he keeps his corruption within reasonable levels, he can be less then free of corruption. Shit: even GWB got re-elected.

  11. mkh    Fri Jan 12, 08:29 AM #  

    Yes, I just look at the damage GWB has done without the support or approval of most of the nation, and shudder to think what might happen here, given the precarious position in which we find ourselves already. Couple that with the opportunity to build a political machine to ensure the mayor’s cronies/party stay in power forever, and you just have a different kind of corruption.

  12. alesh    Fri Jan 12, 08:54 AM #  

    Yes, mkh.

    But the possible corruption of the alternative looks attractive compared to the documented, widespread, and uncertain corruption of the present system.

    How do you not vote for trying something else?

  13. mkh    Fri Jan 12, 11:39 AM #  

    I don’t know, I’ve never been big on the “Wow, this frying pan’s hot, maybe the fire will be cooler!” decision process. Also, systems aren’t corrupt, people are. This commission may have — no, clearly has — issues, but I remain unconvinced that the system is at fault. If the concept of “vote the bum out” works as a safeguard against a powerful and corrupt mayor, why hasn’t it worked against this commission?

    Personally, I don’t see anything but a different set of problems coming from a strong mayor, and I can see even greater difficulty in changing the system again if it doesn’t work, due to the creation of an entrenched patronage system. But I can still understand the passion of the “anything but this” crowd, and I certainly don’t think anyone is wrong to take the opposing view.

  14. nonee moose    Sat Jan 13, 07:17 PM #  

    There’s plenty of trepidation to try something different. Good points, everyone…

    I do think we’ve reached the tipping point, where the great unknown is not as scary or undesirable by comparison as the status quo.

    Consider also the reality of exactly how much damage can ONE person do to the county in 4 years. I don’t happen to think it’s that much, again, by comparison to the currently entrenched.

    The process moves slowly, even for bad things. Major bond issues have to be approved by referendum, so there are at least some safeguards against the county waking up bankrupt all of a sudden.

    The personnel decisions then become qualifiable in due course, just as non-governmental personnel decisions are. What can be technically classified as patronage is not inherently bad, only when it goes wrong. And again, hte strong mayor offers an easier trail of accountability to follow.

    The risk of electing the wrong person for the job has always been present. The strong mayor system doesn’t in and of itself increase that risk. Voting on a different way of doing things, and this one in particular at this time, carries with it a greater significance than the mere change in structure. It signals a personal agreement to take on the responsibility, as voters and active participants in the democratic process, of ensuring that all those advantages of the strong mayor system are given a chance to work. I would say the same thing if we were considering a move from strong mayor to strong commission. And the laws of nature being what they are, I will probably have that chance somewhere down the line…

  15. UMst7d    Sun Jan 14, 12:46 PM #  

    I am normally wary of concentrating power in government. However, we have a real problem with lack of accountability in the county commission.

    A good number of the commissioners have their arms elbow-deep in the pockets of developers. Martinez in particular has practically made it his mission to pave over the entire state and choke us in a sea of traffic. 80% of the voters were strongly opposed to last year’s proposals to move the urban development boundary (who wants more development and traffic!?!). The proposals nearly passed, and the commissioners voting in favor have not been held accountable. Why? Several people hit the point already; there are too many commissioners to keep an eye on. Unfortunately, quite a few residents don’t even know who their commissioner is, let alone the issues their commissioner stands (and votes) for. A single mayor is easier for many people to keep track of.

    A couple of the best cities in the country have strong mayors: New York and Chicago. Is there corruption there too? Yes. Is there more cronyism there? Probably. Are these cities managed better than Miami? Absolutely – far better. And that’s what I care about most. I would take the “Daley Machine” over Miami’s current insanity in a heartbeat.

  16. Resident    Sun Jan 14, 01:19 PM #  

    We need a Strong Mayor system. The last two Mayoral candidates, Carlos Alvarez and Jimmy Morales are both superior to 11 or 12 of the idiot commissioners. It is impossible to remove an incumbent commissioner. They are in for life, unfortunately for the taxpayers. It is much easier to watch the Mayor and his activities.

  17. alesh    Sun Jan 14, 04:00 PM #  


    systems aren’t corrupt, people are.

    Right, and guns don’t kill people. Look, different systems are conducive to corruption to different degrees. I think the founding fathers recognized that, and we have the US constitution. In this day it’s difficult to say that the three-branch system of government prevents corruption with a straight face, but it actually does — it’s a night/day difference from the systems that existed before.

    Sorry about the lecture. Truth is that “strong mayor system will be better” is something that I’m choosing to believe sort of as a gut feeling. I couldn’t draw you up a neat flowchart that proves it or anything.

    The question for me (and Sally freely admitted that the commission had been corrupt for decades) is, “what OTHER proposal can be put forth to clean up the corruption, and why hasn’t it been done before?” (OK that’s two questions.) Unless I get some sensible answer, I’m hopping in that fire.

    nonee moose~

    And again, the strong mayor offers an easier trail of accountability to follow.

    I think that hits it on the nose. But do I understand you correctly as saying that a change in this case is inherently good, because it shows the voting public as being engaged?


    A couple of the best cities in the country have strong mayors: New York and Chicago.

    They were ringing the crap out of that one in the debate. Unconvincing, unless I get a graph or something showing which cities have strong mayor vs. strong commission and relative corruption rates. This is like saying “I know a couple of smart blonds, so that brunette is probably a ditz.”

    Also, fwiw, those are cities and this is a county. Different scope of government.

  18. nonee moose    Sun Jan 14, 10:07 PM #  


    In short, yes.
    An engaged populace is a vigilant one. The truth is that given certain circumstances at certain times, any system— including 13 single member districts with more collective power than a countywide executive— can be a better alternative than any other. Said differently, each combination serves to address different ills that pervade at different times. The single-member districts were instituted to address disenfranchisement of minority constituencies which could not muster enough numbers for representation against county-wide participation from the far reaches. But it fostered the entrenched feifdoms which vex us today. Does that mean that single-member districts are inherently bad? Well, it depends on what you’re trying to fix.

    Assuming the strong mayor proposal prevails, which I believe would be good under the current circumstances, it will not last forever. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily. I can see a time where we will be looking the other way, and someone may get elected which shouldn’t have. And that may touch off this debate in reverse. And there will be good reasons to “go back to the way things were”. And perhaps at that time we should heed those reasons.

    It’s sturm and drang. Nothing more.

  19. mkh    Mon Jan 15, 08:03 PM #  


    No worries about the lecture. I’m in agreement on some of your points, but my gut has a different opinion than yours. I guess it’s baked into my nature to distrust systems which put too much power in the hands of a single person. I would rather have the Keystone Kops running the show than a Huey Long.

    It’s too bad we couldn’t get a timer put on this, like a probationary period where he gets the power for one term, then it reverts to the old system, after the next election. That might let us see how much cleaning up could actually be accomplished.

    Or else say that each time we vote for a mayor we also vote for how much authority we want him to have. A first-term mayor might not get strong mayor powers, but when he runs for re-election if he’s done a good job the people give him the bonus.

    But whatever. Scrabbling together loose thoughts under the influence of a migraine is counter-productive, at best.

  20. alesh    Mon Jan 15, 09:20 PM #  

    nonee moose~

    Wow, thanks. That’s a bit depressing, though. George Will has a standard rant about the US Government; how, in the Constitution, the wording “in Order to form a more perfect Union”, among others, points to a process, and shouldn’t that process be complete at some point, at which we’ve arrived at said perfection.

    Well. Of course that’s a bit of rhetoric. But I’m uncomfortable with the idea that we should be changing the most basic structure of the government (even the local one) to suit the evils of the day. I’d prefer to think that we can find the one right way, and maybe refine it as we go along. A change this important doesn’t strike me as the sort of thing that rightly should be flipped back and forth every few years. But maybe that’s how it is; I’ll have to admit that your thought process about this is completely new to me, and I’ll have to reflect on it a bit (read: for a lifetime).


    all of those are great ideas (expiration date on the S.M. proposal, strenght of mayor decided with candidate), and it’s a reflection on our system that such ideas can’t possibly get enough play to become serious possibilities. I’m thinking “worst system, except every other one” . . .

    But it also reminds me of one of Gwen’s favorite lines from the debate, the bit about how the commission had all the opportunity in the world (for decades!) to put forward any proposal they wanted, to try to fix things.

    That, too, was merely a rhetorical device. But it highlights the fact that, whatever else, the commission’s way of running things is SNAFU. As Trump would say, ‘you’ve wasted time bickering, and you’ve done very little right; you’re fired.’ Or try it this way: ‘you ARE the weakest link; bye-bye!’

    I guess what I’m saying is that I’m trying to be optimistic, and voting for the status-quo is a vote for “this is the best we can do.”

    There’s also the point that even if this were the WRONG thing to do, the Commission deserves it for cynically fighting it every step of the way.

    Looks like it’s loose thoughts right back at ‘ya. Since it was ignored, I’ll close by re-stating my previous question:

    What OTHER proposal can be put forth to clean up the corruption, and why hasn’t it been done before?

  21. mkh    Mon Jan 15, 10:41 PM #  

    Did I ignore that? It wasn’t my intention.

    I don’t know what other proposal might clean up the corruption. However, I’ve heard no compelling argument as to how a strong mayor will, either. “We can vote him out” just doesn’t cut it with me; look how much damage was done to the US in GWB’s first four years, and yet shrewd marketing and outright deception got him back in to tear us down some more. If a strong mayor got single year terms I’d be more willing to support it.

    But since these comments just keep going, how about this thought. How will we clean up corruption in the county when the city, county, and state were all founded on corruption, graft, and unbridled greed? Perhaps the problem isn’t the system, or even these commissioners, but the citizens?

    As the immortal Pogo said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

  22. nonee moose    Tue Jan 16, 11:30 AM #  

    I have to disagree mildly with MKH’s use of GWB on this point. Though I realize the Bush administration can be held responsible for myriad ills of this country, real or perceived, in order to rightly use his 4 (or 8) years as an example, we must reduce it to relevant criteria. So let’s get rid of the war, the energy policy, education policy, and anything else for which even a strong mayor would have absolutely no authority or responsibility.

    So which are the apples? Fiscal policy? Right. GWB is no great shakes there, as it looks certain that he will leave the single greatest turn from budget surplus to budget deficit in history. He may as well be a Democrat (j/k). But I will point out that the economy is expanding right around at 2%, which is healthy, with inflation at only minimal creep, despite the bloated deficit. The dollar could be stronger, but no one seems to be too worried. Interest rates are not soaring by any stretch, either. So the economic indicators are generally healthy, though I’m sure someone can prove me wrong.

    A strong mayor, by comparison, should keep the bond rating high (don’t run deficits), the property taxes low (so, don’t run deficits), and not steal from the till. I’m not worried about him attacking Broward County, though they deserve it. I’m not even worried he’ll take over the school district, even though they may deserve it. If he forces the move of the UDB, (though I’m not clear on his authority to do that), I can judge him on that, good or bad. If my potholes are not fixed, or my water pressure sucks, I can judge him on that. And if the cops, the firefighters, or the EMT’s get there too late, I can judge him on that too. And he (or she) will have no place to hide from it.

    I didn’t mean to bum you out. I’m not a pessimist, rather a realist. Everything old is new again, and so it is with politics. The scenario I described to you only takes place if we take our collective eye off the ball. But really, when has that ever happened?

  23. mkh    Tue Jan 16, 11:58 AM #  

    Nonee, it wasn’t intended as a comparison for the precise forms of damage caused, just as an example of how the “you can always vote him out” philosophy doesn’t always work as planned. Sure, it was overkill, but GWB seems to always come to mind when I think of the phrase “corrupt and incompetent leader.” So it goes.

    Although attacking Broward County and annexing Miramar and Pembroke Pines doesn’t sound bad. Good tax base, already largely Spanish-speaking… hmmm. I bet Timoney would get a chubby in a heartbeat at the thought of executing an actual, honest-to-god military operation against an unarmed foe.

    Oh, wait, he already got the FTAA protests.