The Carlos Lacasa File

Meet the most powerful politician you know nothing about

Just outside the door to Lacasa's office is perhaps the most revealing portrait on the wood-paneled walls. Striking a dignified pose with his hand in his pocket and an insouciant look on his face, is a framed mock- oil-painting poster of Cosmo Kramer from the sitcom Seinfeld.

Lacasa likes the picture because it reveals he has a sense of humor, a character trait he displays with some awkwardness, when he does at all. (After his budget-staff director interrupts him about an amendment of several million dollars, he quips, "We spend money here like two hookers with a Victoria's Secret catalogue and a credit card!")

But the Kramer poster is even more revealing for the similarities between the chairman and the fictional character. Both men possess a plethora of random knowledge they delight in exhibiting. Kramer, like Lacasa, appears to benefit from his connections. In the case of the latter, Lacasa has turned his access into business contracts and will likely parlay his chairmanship into big-time campaign donations. A corporate lawyer by trade, Lacasa at one time or another has been involved in a marina company (Southern Cross Marinas), an Internet company (Primestream Corporation), and an airport baggage-cart company (E-Z Tote). He classifies himself as "an entrepreneur." This was Kramer's apparent occupation as well.

Lacasa archenemies Alex and Renier Diaz de la Portilla
Courtesy Renier Diaz de la Portilla
Lacasa archenemies Alex and Renier Diaz de la Portilla
Lacasa archenemies Alex and Renier Diaz de la Portilla
Courtesy Renier Diaz de la Portilla
Lacasa archenemies Alex and Renier Diaz de la Portilla

This past February 1 the county commission walked into an ambush at Fairchild Tropical Garden. Ostensibly a summit to bring the Miami-Dade legislative delegation and the county commission closer together, for some commissioners it seemed to have the opposite effect.

Lacasa used the forum to unveil his proposal to restructure county government. But rather than entertain criticisms of the proposal, he already had secretly secured the tacit support of Mayor Alex Penelas and his legislative colleagues for the plan, which would turn the local governing system into something closer to the state's structure by eliminating the county manager position and making the commission more like a legislature and the mayor a governor.

Commissioners soon found they were expected not to provide input but to fall in line. "We don't tell the state how to conduct their business," Commissioner Dennis Moss complained in vain.

As it became increasingly apparent that the county commissioners faced a united front, Commissioner Natacha Seijas snapped that unlike the legislators, commissioners didn't have a preprepared script. But while presented almost by fiat, Lacasa's plan has merit.

In the months to come, for those who trooped up to Tallahassee, Lacasa would explain it using his favorite game of strategy: chess. Most came away impressed. In South Florida, where long-term planning often seems anathema, Lacasa is one of the few politicians to articulate the problems facing the county, present a vision for change, and then aggressively pursue it. His long-term vision, which he honed by studying county government across the nation, is refreshing.

Sitting before his big desk, he would line up a bishop, a castle, and a knight to represent the mayor, the commission, and the manager of the current system. Then he would demonstrate. First he explained the problems with the present system, established in 1957. Even those like Sen. Kendrick Meek, who did not approve of Lacasa holding the empowerment zone hostage, acknowledge he has a valid point on public policy. Lacasa believes that with a county budget in the billions, the size of a small state, the commission should be larger, and commissioners compensated with more than a $6000 salary. Lacasa wants to see commissioners focus more on regional issues and less on municipal services such as police, parks, and the building department. The root of the county problem, he believes, is the role of the manager, a position he paints as an autocratic, unaccountable king bureaucrat.

"How powerful?" Lacasa asks rhetorically. "Last year, for example, the commission was responsible for less than $30 million worth of amendments to a $4.5-billion-dollar budget. So essentially the manager's budget is [passed] with a big rubber stamp. One past manager even admitted to me, I won't name him, that he would simply throw each commissioner a million dollars' worth of bones, so the commissioners would spend them in their district -- and that's the extent of the questioning of this proposed budget.

"What I'm saying is, let's eliminate the manager and put the mayor there and the commission above the mayor." Lacasa then removed the knight and put the castle above the bishop.

"The mayor would nominate the department heads, and the commission would confirm them much like the Senate confirms cabinet posts in Washington. The commission could remove an agency head with an extraordinary vote, say two-thirds.

"The mayor would make a budget request, and the commission, acting like a legislature, would consider it along with analysis by their professional staff. The budget would be passed subject to line-item veto by the mayor. Once passed the mayor would implement it at the department level. Between budget cycles the commission, now full-time and properly paid, would oversee the expenditures and operations of the executive branch. In exchange for the commission's new powers, they would have to accept a limit of two terms of four years each."

Since Miami-Dade's home-rule charter forbids the legislature from interfering with the county's government, in order to enact his changes Lacasa first had to pass a bill that would ask all the voters of Florida to amend the state constitution and allow the legislature to put charter amendments on the ballot in Miami-Dade County. To his great satisfaction, he succeeded this session, and a statewide vote will occur in 2002. Now Lacasa is working on the language of the ballot questions he hopes to put to county residents if state voters approve the changes.

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