An Uneasy Alliance

The real story behind Alex Penelas's secret dealings with Republicans

Less than 24 hours before the Miami-Dade County Canvassing Board met to halt the manual recount of ballots in the presidential race -- a decision that all but doomed Al Gore's chances of winning the White House -- Alex Penelas was dining with a Republican state legislator at the Governor's Club in Tallahassee. This fact was reported last week in a front-page New York Times story that, citing unnamed Democratic sources, suggested our sexy little mayor had deliberately double-crossed the Democratic Party by remaining on the sidelines during the recount controversy in order to curry favor with Republicans in Tallahassee. The Times story noted that Republican lawmakers "are significant to Mr. Penelas because Florida's legislature will draw new congressional districts in 2002 and Mr. Penelas, political observers say, has hopes of running for Congress."

The Times story was the latest in a series of articles and television reports since the election portraying Penelas as a political traitor. There was only one problem: The Times got it wrong. I don't know who these unnamed observers are, but they misread Penelas. He has absolutely no interest in being a congressman. (Late last week he issued a statement to that effect.) And unless he moves to Central Florida, where the new congressional district is likely to be created, he'd have no hope of winning a House seat in Miami-Dade County as long as Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen are still drawing breath.

Although the Times didn't identify the individual with whom Penelas met at the Governor's Club, that particular assignation truly was significant. Penelas's dining companion was Republican state Rep. Carlos Lacasa of Miami. They didn't get together to discuss new congressional seats, but rather Lacasa's plan for reorganizing Miami-Dade County government.

My dinner with Alex: After breaking bread Alex Penelas and Carlos Lacasa began dividing up county government
My dinner with Alex: After breaking bread Alex Penelas and Carlos Lacasa began dividing up county government

Six months ago Lacasa outlined some of his ideas for creating a strong-mayor form of government for the county. At that time his proposal was embryonic, and he hadn't yet decided how to implement it. Even so, his presumption to meddle with local government drew sharp criticism from some county commissioners; Penelas was generally supportive but had reservations about certain things. Since then Lacasa has refined his scheme and has settled on a method for accomplishing it. The Tallahassee tête-à-tête with Penelas was a summit meeting of sorts in which Lacasa laid out for the mayor all the details. "The topic of that meeting was to discuss my desire to reorganize Dade County government," Lacasa confirms.

Lacasa told Penelas he planned to introduce a series of bills in January, at the start of the legislative session, that will place on the 2002 statewide ballot the following issues:1) Creation of a strong mayor in Miami-Dade County. This measure would transfer all powers currently held by the county manager to the office of the mayor. The mayor, for instance, would have the ability to hire and fire all department heads. The mayor would also be given line-item veto power over the county budget.

2) Term limits for county commissioners restricting them to a maximum of twelve years in office.

3) An increased salary for county commissioners. Based on models used in other parts of the state, the annual pay would be about $80,000.

Lacasa had once considered expanding the number of county commissioners and requiring them to run in future elections with party affiliations (Democrats, Republicans, Greens), but has dropped those ideas from his current proposal.

Florida's constitution gives Miami-Dade County the right to govern itself using its "home-rule" charter, and there are only two ways that charter can be changed. The first is controlled by the county commission, through its charter review task force. The task force meets every ten years and recommends changes to the charter. The county commission can then place those proposed changes -- or any others it wants -- on the ballot for the people of Miami-Dade County to decide.

The second is through the state legislature, which can alter Miami-Dade's home-rule charter by amending the state constitution. To do that, any changes desired by the state legislature would have to be placed on a statewide ballot. This is a far more radical approach and would mean that voters from Key West to Pensacola would be deciding the form of government we'd have in Miami-Dade County.

Lacasa is pushing for the state legislature to get involved because it's clear the county's charter committee, which has been meeting since early this year and is expected to release its recommendations in the next three or four months, appears to be dead set against creating a strong mayor.

At their meeting in Tallahassee, Lacasa presented Penelas with an ultimatum to carry back to the county commission: Either commissioners agree by the end of next year's legislative session to place his reform package on Miami-Dade's fall ballot in 2001, or he will place it on a statewide ballot in 2002.

"They've got to act before the end of the legislative session in March," Lacasa declares. "The county commission must agree to place the question of a strong mayor and the other proposals on the ballot in 2001, or my plan moves forward." Lacasa says he has provided incentives for commissioners that go beyond his proposal to pay them a proper salary. Under his reforms the county commission's powers also would be expanded. They would appoint their own chairman, whereas now the mayor appoints a commissioner to that position. Commissioners also could re-establish the committee system Penelas abolished several years ago. And Lacasa wants to exempt commissioners from the Sunshine Law during budget discussions.

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