Commission Quest

Miami-Dade's most coveted political prize is the chairman's Throne of Power. Those who dare to seek it must navigate the Swamp of Secrecy, endure the Guild of the Greased Palm, and avoid exposure by the Orb of Light

The race for mayor of Miami-Dade County is over. And none too soon. We're done with million-dollar ad campaigns trying to convince us that our savior would emerge on election day. We won't have to watch any more caustic debates or listen to partisan speeches about who will lead us to the light. And no more will we have to read acres of newsprint parsing each candidate's foibles.

In the end, it was all so much hot air, a kind of temporary communal dyspepsia.

As this paper pointed out in "Mayor X" (August 19), the county mayor has been reduced to a figurehead, his office gutted of its power. While we were distracted by that personality-obsessed race, contenders for what is truly the dominant political position in Miami-Dade County -- chair of the Board of County Commissioners -- have been quietly and carefully plotting their strategies to ascend the throne when current chairwoman Barbara Carey-Shuler steps down November 30.

The potency of the commission chair is a recent development. It follows a failed experiment in 1992 to increase the mayor's power. That's the year voters approved creation of an "executive mayor" with expanded authority to hire and fire the county manager, appoint the chair of the county commission, and appoint chairs of commission committees -- important tools the mayor could use to build majorities (seven commissioners) for favored legislation and lucrative contracts.

With these powers he could reward allies who backed his agenda by putting them in charge of important committees. He could also neutralize opponents by denying them positions of influence. In addition he (there has never been a female mayor) could veto commission legislation. But the first mayor to assume those powers, Alex Penelas in 1996, overreached, behaved like a tyrant, and promptly triggered a backlash.

At one point he abolished the committee system, in which proposals were reviewed before being sent to the full commission. He called it inefficient. That meant all proposed legislation was debated at meetings of the full commission. One of the effects was to diminish each commissioner's sphere of influence; another was to cause commission meetings to drag on forever.

"He actually governed by punishing his enemies," says Carey-Shuler, whose District 3 includes parts of Liberty City, Overtown, Wynwood, and Miami Shores. "He created committees. He abolished committees. He appointed Gwen Margolis [to be chairwoman], and to keep her position she did whatever he wanted. We really were a rubber-stamp board."

A charter-review task force studied the problem and concluded there were insufficient checks and balances between the county's executive branch (the mayor) and its legislative branch (commissioners). It recommended revoking many of the mayor's newly created powers. Voters approved these proposed changes in 2002.

Poof!

Gone was the mayor's ability to appoint the commission chair, as well as chairs of the committees. Also suddenly vanished was the mayor's ability to manipulate the commission and mold it in his image. In addition he didn't have a vote (never did). He couldn't even appear before the full commission without permission. He could still hire and fire the manager, and his veto powers remained intact, but in both cases the commission could override him with a two-thirds vote.

Carey-Shuler has since reinstated the committees, which have become formidable cogs in the engine of local government. All public hearings on proposed legislation are now held at the committee level, where the chair can kill measures before they have a chance to come before the full commission. This has created six different venues for the public to provide input, which can be confusing and inconvenient for the average citizen. (The committees: budget and finance, economic development and human services, environment and governmental operations, public safety, recreation and cultural affairs, and transportation.)

New Times wrote all this in August. As if to prove the point, in late September Carey-Shuler proposed an ordinance to yank the office of intergovernmental affairs from the mayor's hands and make it an independent body (with policy set by the commission). Her colleagues approved it. A furious Penelas vetoed the measure. But commissioners gleefully demonstrated just how feeble the mayor's office had become: They decisively overrode his veto.

Carey-Shuler freely admits she was motivated by her belief that the majority of the political power, as well as the majority of the work, lies with the commission chair. The chair not only appoints committee chairs and individual members, but also plays a significant role in determining committee agendas (in consultation with the county's manager and attorney). This is where many of the policies are formulated regarding the annual expenditure of some five billion dollars in taxpayer money. The chair also sets the agenda and presides at all meetings of the full commission -- actions that directly affect the outcome of proposed legislation.

That's a full plate of duties and responsibilities, and Carey-Shuler wants the next chair to have ample resources to do the job. "The mayor had a budget of four million dollars," she says. "You know what mine is? It's $875,000. This job is cruel. I work 24-7. I earn $6000 annually. After I pay my benefits, that's about $3.32 every two weeks. If I didn't have a pension and a good husband who is supporting me, I wouldn't be able to do this. And that man [the mayor] makes $205,000 and all he has to do is be the face of this government? Well, it just didn't seem right." Dramatically increasing the chair's budget will be a priority when Carey-Shuler ends her two-year term and a successor is chosen November 30. (Term limits preclude her from serving another term, though she remains a commissioner.)

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