Power Politics

Passed last week with all the subtlety of a kidney stone, Dade County's $4.1 billion budget immediately sparked a debate as to its political winners and losers. Tops on everyone's list of winners was Dade County Interim Mayor Alex Penelas. The big loser, by general agreement, was the county commission, which continued its well-earned slide toward irrelevance.

Most of the budgetary discussion centered on the transfer of power from the commission to the mayor. Commissioner Bruce Kaplan labeled it "an audacious power grab." Commissioner Miguel Diaz de la Portilla likened it to a constitutional crisis in which the role of the legislative branch of county government has now been usurped by the executive branch. Other commissioners expressed concern that they will become even less effective than they already are.

Following last year's countywide mayor's race, this shift was both inevitable and wholly predictable. Like it or not, we now have what is often referred to as a strong-mayor form of government. But all the talk about who's gaining power and who's losing it overlooks one important point: Without political courage, power is useless. And throughout this budget process, neither the mayor nor the commission has shown much political mettle.

How courageous do you have to be to pander to voters by rolling back their taxes? And since when is it a sign of political valor to come out against crime and in favor of hiring more police? Penelas, the perpetual candidate, was prepared to pay for these political gimmicks -- and hugely increase his own staff budget -- by slashing public transportation for the neediest segments of the community. Gutsy, right?

"I'll tell you the way we can really get rid of waste and abuse in government," Commissioner Katy Sorenson told her fellow commissioners during the budget hearing, "stop patronage hiring, stop patronage contracts, and stop patronage allocations to organizations." Sorenson's suggestion, while certainly novel for Dade County, still does not represent true grit. At least let's hope not. Doing your job fairly and honestly, without favoritism or graft, should not be the definition of courage, especially when there are so many issues dividing this community.

There was a moment during last week's budget hearing that revealed, in almost comic fashion, one such division. Several hours into the meeting, a citizen -- an obviously middle-class white man -- expressed his amazement that so many blacks in the audience were apprehensive about a proposed increase in funding for the mayor's Clean Sweep-Safe Streets police program. He noted that whenever his young son would see a police officer, the boy would gleefully shout, "Daddy, daddy, daddy -- the man! The man!"

I haven't heard police referred to as "the man" since The Mod Squad was canceled, which means either the kid has been watching a lot of bad reruns or he is as painfully out of touch with life in the inner city as his father. Clean Sweep has turned certain Dade neighborhoods into virtual police states, a tense situation made worse in recent weeks by the fact that police across the county seem to have been using minorities for target practice. But I haven't heard Penelas or the commission talk much about that issue.

Caught somewhere between the mayor and the commission in the struggle for power was County Manager Armando Vidal, who saw all five assistant county managers axed from his office. This past May Vidal had called for a 7.7 percent tax hike in order to preserve services. "We can't allow this government to be put in the position where the city of Miami is today," Vidal argued. "That led us to only one option and one option alone, and that is a budget that recommends a tax increase." But Penelas didn't like that option and, as Vidal preferred employment over martyrdom, he eventually endorsed the mayor's slash-and-burn proposals. "Now comes the hardest part," Vidal said late last week, "which is implementing this budget with all its cuts."

The only recent bright moment for Vidal had nothing to do with the mayor or commission or budgetary matters. It arrived in the form of good news from the Dade State Attorney's Office, where investigators closed their probe into allegations that Vidal abused his position for personal gain.

This past January New Times reported that during the previous two years, Vidal had accepted dozens of free rounds of golf from the Muirfield Group, the company hired to operate the county-owned Golf Club of Miami. During that same period, the county manager recommended changes to the company's contract that financially benefited the group. The most significant amendment, which was made against the advice of his staff and the county attorney's office, allowed Muirfield to deposit golf course revenues directly into its own private bank account instead of a county-controlled account, as the contract originally stipulated. As a result, the county has had difficulty collecting the money it is owed. According to county officials, Muirfield is currently $100,000 in arrears.

After a seven-month review, the State Attorney's Office decided no charges were warranted against Vidal, who cooperated with investigators, answering their questions under oath and without the promise of immunity. "Mr. Vidal at no time denied that he received free rounds of golf at both the Golf Club of Miami as well as Key Biscayne," states the final report, issued by the State Attorney's Office on September 9. "He explained that he considered himself to be the 'CEO' of the county government and that the ability to use these facilities was an understood 'perk' for executives. He maintained that this arrangement was no different from that which applied to previous county managers."

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