MAYOR X

There are good reasons to vote August 31, but the county mayor's race isn't one of them. Here are five reasons why.

We really do want you to vote on Tuesday, August 31. In fact we think it's your duty as a citizen of this great country and a resident of our fine community. In fulfilling that duty, you'll be doing your part to keep democracy strong by holding elected officials accountable. And we're talking about a lot of officials.

Between the partisan and nonpartisan contests, more than 300 individuals will be vying for your favor in races that cover the electoral spectrum, from the U.S. Senate to the Palmetto Bay Village Council.

Republicans will select a November opponent to State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. Democrats from the 18th Congressional District will send someone into battle against Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. School board members, community council members, state legislators, judges -- there will be plenty of important decisions to make. But none will be more important than filling the six county commission seats on the ballot, for it is the commission that wields the real power in these parts.

Jonathan Postal
Alex Penelas squandered the power of the “executive mayor” position, then voters decided to give most of it to the thirteen members of the county commission
Courtesy of Miami-Dade County
Alex Penelas squandered the power of the “executive mayor” position, then voters decided to give most of it to the thirteen members of the county commission

Picking a new Miami-Dade County mayor? Well, we have exactly five things to say about that.

1. The Mayor's Power Has Been Stripped Away and Handed to the County Commission Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas has virtually disappeared from the daily grind of civic life. For months he's been campaigning for the U.S. Senate (fruitlessly, it now appears). He is so frequently absent from the county government center that to see him pacing the halls would cause a stir. He has also been practically absent from the news.

Sure, he's available to attend a photo op for the MTV Video Music Awards, or to participate in a "Salute to Florida's Heroes" celebration. But when it comes to local controversies like dubious electronic voting machines, or the pending billion-dollar bond issue, or creation of an independent airport authority, Penelas has been content to issue a press release and cough up a sound bite now and then.

But guess what? No one has noticed. The machinery of county government has chugged along without him. Commission business, such as it is, has carried on uninterrupted. The county manager's office has somehow survived without counsel and guidance from hizzoner. In other words, in Miami-Dade County the office of the mayor is, to put it charitably, irrelevant.

What a difference a few years make.

Back in October 1992 county voters approved the creation of an "executive mayor." (More accurately, a small fraction of registered voters created the position; election turnout was a miserable thirteen percent.) The presumption was that the position would encourage more accountable, efficient, and strong leadership. Penelas, who proposed the change as a county commissioner, inaugurated the post following a countywide election in 1996. In the heady days leading up to that first executive mayor's race, the Miami Herald, which editorialized against the ballot measure, hyperbolically claimed that the winner might very well be the "most powerful local politician Florida has ever seen -- and perhaps one of the most powerful local politicians in the United States."

Our full-time executive mayor was given a respectable salary and quite a bit of power -- not as much as a so-called strong mayor, in which the jobs of mayor and manager are combined, but still an order of magnitude greater than the impotent mayors of the past. The executive mayor could hire and fire the county manager, though he couldn't be directly involved in operational decisions. He could appoint the chairman of the county commission. He could reward friends on the commission by appointing them to chair important committees, and he could likewise punish adversaries. All this and more he could manipulate in order to win seven votes out of thirteen when it came time to award juicy multimillion-dollar contracts or to pass legislation he favored. He could also veto legislation he didn't like. (The commission, however, could override a veto with a two-thirds vote.)

But such is Penelas's legacy that the office he helped create has been stripped of nearly all those powers a mere eight years later. In 2001 a charter-review task force re-examined the mayor's authority and recommended reining him in. "It should be clear after five years that the position of executive mayor, as crafted, does not work well," wrote task force member Miguel Diaz de la Portilla in a statement published in the Herald. "To allow the mayor to determine the organizational structure of the commission is akin to allowing the governor to designate the presiding officers and committee structure of the Legislature. It runs against the concept of checks and balances that is fundamental to our American system of government."

Diaz de la Portilla, a former commissioner who had run for mayor in 2000 and lost to Penelas (he's running for the post again this year), went on to assert that the executive-mayor system had led to "chaos and embarrassment."

Even discounting Diaz de la Portilla's obvious bias, Penelas was a lousy ambassador for the expanded powers of the mayor. He attempted a couple of power grabs that backfired. He immediately pushed for a 60 percent salary increase to $179,220. He championed a proposal to replace the executive mayor with a strong mayor, a move that might have allowed him to run for the more powerful office despite being term-limited under the current designation. He also spent a good part of his tenure battling accusations that he was owned by powerful lobbyists at Miami International Airport and special interests hoping to commercially develop Homestead Air Force Base. Those accusations were problems "of his own doing," according to attorney Dan Paul, who drafted Dade County's original 1957 charter and consulted with the charter-review committee. "He's shown a lack of integrity, and it has made him less effective -- no question."

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