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.

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.

Should these enticements fail to persuade county commissioners, Lacasa is prepared to brandish one final weapon. If the county commission doesn't act, then in addition to placing the strong-mayor question on the statewide ballot in 2002, Lacasa says he will offer Florida voters another constitutional change that year, this one allowing the state legislature to place any future Miami-Dade charter questions directly on the local ballot.

The effect of such a change would be devastating to Miami-Dade's independence. For instance if the state legislature decided Miami International Airport should be run by an independent authority and wanted to place that permanently in the charter, legislators could bypass the county commission and go straight to the county's voters. "The county commission has been very unresponsive to the public," Lacasa says in defense of his strong-arm tactics. "I'm working closely with the mayor. He would prefer that we have a homegrown solution to these problems, and I agree, which is why I'm giving the county commission a chance to act."

Neither Penelas nor Lacasa had expected these plans to become public for several more weeks. Their meeting, however, fell victim to the blinding glare of presidential politics.

Normally commissioners might be able to ignore Lacasa's threats. After all, he is merely 1 state representative among 120, and the county, through its lobbyists and friends in Tallahassee, could push to have Lacasa's proposals killed before they ever made it to a statewide vote.

Carlos Lacasa, however, is no ordinary state representative. In fact he may be the most powerful man in the State of Florida behind the governor. That's because Lacasa is the newly appointed chairman of the House budget committee. In that role he'll be overseeing the flow of billions and billions of dollars in state funds.

Lacasa will leave no doubt that creating a strong-mayor form of government in Miami-Dade is one of his highest priorities. Once he's done that, few of his colleagues will stand in his way. Why should a state representative in Orlando or Jacksonville or Panama City risk the wrath of the chairman of the budget committee by opposing a measure that will only affect Miami-Dade County?

The next question is obvious: Why is Lacasa doing this? Why is he pushing for the creation of a strong-mayor system?

Lacasa contends that the current form of government is not working and that there is no accountability. Miami-Dade County, he says, is so large it should be organized along the lines of a state government, with a strong executive branch (the mayor) and an independent legislature (the commission).

All of that may be true, but it also is true that term limits will force Lacasa out of the state House in two years. Rather than run for the state Senate, or even a seat on the county commission, he wants to be Miami-Dade mayor. And not just mayor but strong mayor.

In that regard Lacasa has something in common with Penelas. The mayor is trapped. Term limits will not allow him to run again under the current system as "executive mayor." His mishandling of the Elian Gonzalez affair and his betrayal of the Democratic Party during this year's presidential election have ruined any chance he might have had to run for higher office. The only place he remains viable as a candidate is Miami-Dade County, where he can count on his Cuban-American base of supporters.

Penelas, therefore, knows his only hope for staying in public office is to change the county charter and create a strong mayor. Once such a change is made, Penelas could assert that he is no longer bound by term limits since he is running for a newly created position.

The relationship between Lacasa and Penelas thus becomes intriguingly complicated. At the moment they have what can best be described as an uneasy alliance. They are true allies in that they both want to create a strong-mayor form of government, though they differ in their approaches to that goal. Lacasa will threaten the county commission with a legislative cudgel while Penelas will try to coax commissioners into placing a strong-mayor proposal on the local ballot next year. If that fails, Penelas and Lacasa will work together to ensure that the legislature proceeds with a statewide referendum.

On another level, though, Lacasa and Penelas are adversaries, both quietly jockeying for a job that doesn't even exist. Lacasa may have the upper hand here. He is expected to write his proposal in such a way that Penelas would be blocked from running again, arguing that the intent of the term-limits provision for county mayor should carry over to a strong-mayor position.

In order to counter Lacasa, Penelas would have two options. First he could persuade the county commission not only to place the strong-mayor question on the ballot but to do so in a way that would allow him to run. If that fails, he then would be forced to amend Lacasa's proposal in the legislature, and to succeed at that he'll need the help of Republicans. The New York Times story was correct in this regard. Penelas did abandon Gore to ingratiate himself with Republicans. But it wasn't for a congressional seat. It was to help him become strong mayor, or at the very least allow him to compete for the position.

The resignation last week of County Manager Merrett Stierheim was the opening salvo in this long campaign. Although rumors persist that Stierheim was forced to resign, I believe he was smart enough to see what lay ahead. He knew that Penelas, having won re-election, no longer needed him. The mayor hired Stierheim as a way of gaining credibility in the Anglo community, but thanks to Elian he lost that credibility forever. His only concern now is keeping Cuban Americans happy, since they're the only reason he is in office today.

As the civic discourse shifts to creation of a strong-mayor form of government, it is almost certain to include charges that the county manager has been ineffective. Why else would a change be necessary?

Rather than stick around and risk having his good name besmirched, Stierheim left on his own terms. Penelas may feign a national search to replace the manager, but ultimately he'll choose someone in Miami-Dade County he can control, creating the next best thing to a strong-mayor government.

At least until he and Lacasa can dine together again and plan their next moves.

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