In the Dead of the Night

While you were sound asleep, the Dade County Commission spent hundreds of millions of your dollars. Aren't you glad they didn't bother to wake you?

On Tuesday, July 25, the Dade County Commission convened its regular weekly meeting. But this particular gathering of the county's elected officials was special. It was the commissioners' last meeting before they closed up shop for a seven-week summer recess. As such, it was also the last opportunity for commissioners and the county manager to seek timely approval for pet projects and other important matters. And it provided a sort of cover for passage of controversial or complex items, detailed discussion of which naturally would be foreshortened by the collective urge to wrap up business and take off.

Over the years, these final meetings in July have become protracted affairs, sometimes running twelve or fourteen hours. But this one was historic. It began at 8:44 a.m. and didn't adjourn until almost 4:30 the next morning, nearly twenty hours later.

When it was over, the commissioners, their staffs, and other county employees limped out of the commission chambers wondering whether their time had been well spent or wasted, and in some cases whether they knew exactly what had been voted upon. Chairman Art Teele was more upbeat about the marathon session, though admittedly his criteria were modest. It had been a success, he declared, because "no one left mad and there weren't any fights." (Most commissioners, it seemed, were too tired to be mad, and serious fights were only narrowly avoided.)

Commissioners handed out more than 60 proclamations, citations, and certificates of appreciation in the first hour alone. They passed more than 200 resolutions and ordinances -- most without any debate or discussion -- ranging from a $500 allocation to help sponsor a semi-pro football team's award banquet to reissuing $145 million in bonds to cover expansion projects at Miami International Airport. They approved a dozen contracts worth at least $100 million, raised transit fares for the handicapped, and lowered property tax rates slightly for the coming year.

The commissioners approved some measures so quickly that the county attorney's staff had to beg them to slow down. "We can't keep up with you," pleaded Assistant County Attorney Murray Greenberg. At other times the debate was so boring, so tedious that it appeared the commission chambers had become the land that time forgot.

New Times was there from opening gavel to closing yawn, and compiled this selective and unofficial record of the proceedings.

8:44 a.m.
The parade of proclamations began. Certificates for a dozen Metro-Dade police officers for meritorious conduct, and for a group of valedictorians from a few inner-city high schools, and still more for county employees with more than 30 years' service. Each had his or her photograph taken with the smiling commissioners.

Following the proclamations came the declarations, such as decreeing August 6 through 12 to be National Correctional Employee Week. A little after 9:00 a.m., commissioners decided that this day, July 25, should be Puerto Rico Day. Five minutes later they declared it Bob Beamon Day (the former Olympic star didn't show up on time for his certificate or photo.) By 9:22 commissioners had decided that July 25 should also be Gaylon Parton Day in honor of a local teacher. Three minutes after that, July 25 became Robert L. Zubieta Day in recognition of the local president of the Future Farmers of America.

Twice they handed out keys to the county, then presented outgoing assistant county manager Cynthia Curry with the Hurricane Hero Award. Last year she lost a close commission vote for the position of county manager. As a photographer snapped Curry's picture on the commission dais, one lobbyist quipped, "Head held high, but two votes shy."

11:02 a.m.
Commissioner Bruce Kaplan had placed on the agenda an item that would have repealed Dade's nine-cents-per-gallon tax on gasoline. After the gas tax was passed last year, it became a political minefield for county politicians. For weeks Spanish-language radio sizzled with vitriolic criticism, aided and abetted by several Cuban-American commissioners (along with Kaplan) who vowed to repeal the measure. They failed in that effort, but just barely. In the year since then, all commissioners had abided by an unspoken truce, a truce Kaplan decided to break.

He offered his motion and waited for someone to second it, after which debate would begin. Without a second, however, the matter would die. The dais was silent. Kaplan then instinctively turned to gaze at his ally, Commissioner Javier Souto. "This is the motion to repeal the gas tax," Kaplan repeated incredulously. But Souto refused even to look at him, let alone offer support.

Kaplan appeared sincerely hurt, like a child whose best friend unexpectedly refused to play. Kaplan and Souto, in fact, had played this game before, for many hours on Spanish-language radio. Kaplan would decry the amount of money Dade citizens were required to pay in taxes. Then Souto would join in. Other commissioners were reckless with the taxpayers' money. These two, on the other hand, were fighting to protect the little people. Despite the demagogic nature of these diatribes, they seemed to be an effective means of boosting voter approval, at least among some of those who listened to such broadcasts. But now, for some reason, Souto wasn't playing at all.

After about ten seconds of silence -- an eternity -- Chairman Teele declared that the motion to repeal the gas tax was dead.

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