The Art of War

For nearly a year, county commissioners have been grumbling over efforts by state Rep. Carlos Lacasa to rewrite the county charter and create a strong-mayor form of government. Lacasa had hoped commissioners would give earnest consideration to his suggestions for reform. Instead they snubbed him, derisively informing him that he should mind his own business and worry about problems in Tallahassee. "When he fixes all the problems in the state," commissioners would joke, "then he can tell us what to do."

Lacasa was not amused. During last year's legislative session, he successfully sponsored a bill that will place a Florida constitutional amendment on this November's statewide ballot. If voters throughout Florida approve the measure, which most observers believe is likely, the legislature will be granted the ability to intervene directly in Miami-Dade's affairs by proposing amendments to the county charter. While those proposed charter changes would still be voted on by the citizens of Miami-Dade County, the legislature's involvement would be something new. Currently the only governmental body that can place charter amendments before voters is the county commission.

Last year, when the legislature acted, Lacasa said he would be willing to remove the constitutional question from November's statewide ballot if the county commission agreed to put his strong-mayor proposal before Miami-Dade County voters. Since then commissioners have bitterly complained that Lacasa's tactics amounted to nothing less than extortion. Initially commissioners were defiant. Never, they argued, would they succumb to threats.

In recent weeks, however, some commissioners have begun to soften their hard line. Fearful the county would lose its autonomy if the constitutional amendment were approved by Florida voters, several commissioners have suggested they would be willing to grant Lacasa's request and place the strong-mayor question, along with other proposed charter changes, on a future ballot.

That position gained momentum last month when attorney Dan Paul appeared at a committee meeting of the commission and told officials they should accede to Lacasa's demands. It would be better, Paul argued, to put a strong-mayor proposal on a local ballot than to have Lacasa's constitutional amendment go before Florida voters, who, according to Paul, would easily approve the measure. Then Miami-Dade County would lose its ability to govern itself.

"The big danger is the loss of “home rule,'" says Paul, one of the principal architects of the county charter nearly half a century ago. "I saw the harm done to this county in the Fifties, when the legislature was able to interfere. They ran Dade County and it was a horrible, horrible situation. Do we really want senators and state representatives from Ocala and other parts of the state deciding what's best for Dade County?"

For years to come, Paul warns, legislators in Tallahassee will place one charter amendment after another on the county ballot. "It'll be chaos," he says.

Some county commissioners have dubbed Paul's strategy "Pay the Ransom." Says Commissioner Katy Sorenson: "We really need to think through if we want to risk losing home rule over this issue. I'm still trying to make up my mind about whether it would be better to pay the ransom or not." Sorenson and her fellow commissioners believe they have until sometime in March to make up their minds and possibly agree to place a strong-mayor question on an upcoming ballot. Lacasa, they say, would still have time to pass a bill that would remove his constitutional amendment from the November ballot.

But in an interview earlier this month, Lacasa told me he's finished negotiating with commissioners. The constitutional amendment, he vowed, is going to a vote -- even if commissioners agree to put a strong-mayor proposal on a local ballot. "We're beyond any deal," Lacasa declared. "There is no time. It's over. There is nothing they can do that will make me change my mind. Let me make this clear. Write this down: I will not under any circumstances consider withdrawing that constitutional question. And if someone else tries to introduce a bill removing that amendment, I will oppose it with all the resources available to me."

He was referring to the immense power he wields as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. Few legislators would be willing to challenge Lacasa on this issue out of fear he would retaliate by cutting their pet projects from the state budget. "And since it would require a three-fifths vote in both the House and the Senate to remove the amendment from the ballot," Lacasa continued, "I think there is a better chance of finding an icecap in Hell."

Lacasa denied that the constitutional amendment would substantially weaken home rule in Miami-Dade County. "The constitutional question that will go before the voters is simply: “Shall the legislature have the ability to place charter-amendment questions before the voters of Miami-Dade County?'" he noted. Ultimately the power to change the charter will still rest with the people of Miami-Dade. He simply wants to open up the process so it isn't strictly controlled by the county commission. "I mean business," he pledged. "This county has ignored the call for reform for too long."