Commission Quest
Sam Weber

Commission Quest

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.


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.)

Now that we've established where the whiskey is being served, let's get a better look at who wants to pour the drinks. First, though, some strange rules must be explained. To become chair, you need a majority of the thirteen commissioners to vote for you, simple as that. The selection process that takes place next week will require at least two rounds of ballots. In the first, candidates will be nominated, followed by another round to winnow the first batch. The voting continues until one commissioner emerges victorious.

But because of Florida State Statute 286.011, otherwise known as the Sunshine in Government Law, commissioners are prohibited from meeting privately to discuss public business. Therefore one commissioner cannot legally approach another to ask for his or her support. They're not even allowed to dispatch staffers or third-party emissaries. All they can do is publicly let colleagues know they'd like to be chair and then hope for the best -- technically. But since when have politicians, especially Miami politicians, ever let the rules get in the way? (The most brazen violation of the Sunshine Law, at least in recent years, took place in 1995, when commissioners Bruce Kaplan, Art Teele, and Maurice Ferré were caught meeting in secret to wheel and deal over the selection of a new county manager. All three were fined by the State Attorney's Office.)

Despite that wrist slap, it's widely acknowledged inside county hall that backroom dealmaking remains a time-honored tradition. Commissioners with ambitions to the chairmanship can always find ways to nail down votes by promising a tantalizing committee assignment or support for a pet project. Of course, there are also ways to play the game straight. Katy Sorenson, vice chair and commissioner of District 8, which stretches into the south of end of the county, sent a letter to all her commission colleagues. "Now that it's time to select a new chair, I wish to offer myself for your consideration," Sorenson wrote in the November 9 missive. "I hope you will positively evaluate the job I have done as interim chair. I have tried to conduct meetings fairly and even-handedly, with respect and sensitivity for my colleagues, our staff, the public and the process."

Commissioners can also chat up people in the community to get the word out. And the community can do the same. "I've received calls from people saying I should take a look at this or that person," Carey-Shuler sighs, referring to just such a call from a prominent civic activist and Miami's first black city commissioner. "Athalie Range called and told me she was supporting Sorenson. Someone else stopped me on the stairs today and said, öYou know, I'm supporting Joe Martinez for chair.'"

A commissioner interested in the post can simply answer a reporter's question. "Yes, I am interested in the chairmanship," says Martinez, commissioner for District 11, a western region that includes Kendall. "I think Barbara Carey-Shuler has put the commission on a good track and I'd like to take it to another level, especially during the budget process."

Those serious about getting a leg up on the competition are also allowed to solicit the vote of any newly elected commissioner, but only before they are sworn in. That's what Martinez and Sorenson did with newbies Carlos Gimenez and Barbara Jordan, who took office last week. No word yet who's getting their support.

Then there is the whisper-campaign approach. That's when names repeatedly come up but the commissioner claims not to be pursuing the chair. "I believe that if my colleagues think I should be the person, fine. I'd be honored," says District 12 commissioner and former mayor of Sweetwater José "Pepe" Diaz. "But am I pursuing it? No. I'm interested, but is my staff pursuing this? Is anybody else pursuing this on my behalf? No."

Dennis Moss, whose District 9 stretches south to the Monroe County line, is another whose name keeps surfacing, even though Moss's chief of staff claims his boss has done nothing to seek the post (the commissioner didn't return a call). Moss is considered the most viable black candidate, although racial politics and conventional thinking favor a Hispanic (read: Cuban) because an African American held the chair the past two years. But Moss could end up a compromise candidate if Martinez and Diaz divide the commission's eight Hispanic votes.

Also rumored to be interested are Bruno Barreiro (District 5, which ranges from South Beach to Little Havana) and Dorrin Rolle (District 2, portions of Liberty City, North Miami, and North Miami Beach). Rolle, however, is expected to concentrate instead on his re-election two years from now.

Rolle was among Carey-Shuler's favorites. "I did tell somebody that if Rolle ran, I would support him," she says. "He's been very good to me. But I also think Commissioner Sorenson would make a fine chair. She was an excellent vice chair. I took two months off when my husband was ill and she did a good job keeping things going smoothly."

Then, just to be difficult, she adds: "There are a lot of other possibilities. I really haven't made up my mind yet."

Our new mayor, Carlos Alvarez, brings an interesting dynamic to the contest. Clearly it would be in his best interest to have the chair as an ally. He's already approached at least one candidate. "Carlos asked me if I was interested and I said yes, I was interested," reports Diaz, who supported Alvarez during his campaign.

But it might not be in the best interest of the commission to have a chair who is tight with the mayor -- shades of Penelas past. The risk is the chair being controlled by the mayor. ("Anybody who knows me, knows I stand on my own two legs," huffs Diaz.) Sorenson tactfully brought up this issue in her letter. "Our new mayor is eager to hit the ground running, and it is my hope that we will be able to work with him in a productive way," she wrote. "As chair I would defend commission priorities and powers.... There will certainly be differences of philosophy and opinion, but I know that I could address them forthrightly and professionally."

Meanwhile it's well known that there is bad blood between Commissioner Martinez (a former Miami-Dade Police lieutenant) and Alvarez (that department's former director). This could actually benefit Martinez if other commissioners deem it necessary to elect a chair who will butt heads with Alvarez, who has vowed to remove commissioners from the county's procurement process. "We're not the best of friends, it's true," Martinez confirms. "But then again, our current chair was not the best of friends with Mayor Penelas, and they got a lot accomplished. I would never let my personal relationship get in the way of our public duties."

Those not in the running -- Rebeca Sosa, Natacha Seijas, Javier Souto, Sally Heyman -- are undoubtedly being courted (discreetly) to commit for each round of voting. Ultimately, though, it's virtually impossible to divine who will support whom in a contest where no one is supposed to contact anyone else. But anything is possible, including clandestine deals in which votes are traded for favors. After all, a lot is at stake. This is the most powerful political position in Miami-Dade County.


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