On August 2, a group called Accountable Miami-Dade sent the county two U-Haul trucks packed full of signed petitions demanding a public vote on new campaign-finance laws that would make it more difficult for wealthy contractors and lobbyists to donate wads of money to politicians.
Two weeks later, those 127,000 petitions are still sitting uncounted in Doral. Mayoral candidate Raquel Regalado has been quick to point the finger at County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who has raised more than $1.6 million for his reelection campaign.
"How many thousands of people signed a petition?" Regalado told the Miami Herald. "And yet we couldn't get seven commissioners to sit down and discuss it? Why? Because Carlos Gimenez does not want campaign-finance reform on the ballot in November."
Petition organizers say it's clear the county is willfully dragging its feet, making excuses, and inventing extra legal steps to avoid stopping the influxes of corporate cash to local campaigns.
"We had to get each petition notarized the day it was signed," says Gihan Perera, chair of one organization on the Accountable Miami-Dade coalition. "Each one of those is 30 pages. I am pissed off. This was no easy thing to get done."
In a nutshell, Accountable Miami-Dade's plan would limit campaign donations to county and city officials to $250 per person. (The limit is now at $1,000.) It would also ban donations from company representatives and lobbyists who hold contracts with the city and county worth more than $250,000. It's hardly an unprecedented move — donations in Broward County are already capped at $250 per person.
The Miami-Dade County Home Rule Charter lets county residents force a referendum if more than 4 percent of registered voters sign petitions. That charter also says the government must immediately count and authorize petitions it receives within 30 days.
Yet 14 days after the petitions were turned in, the county has failed to even begin looking at them. Accountable Miami-Dade activists say the county government, led by Gimenez, is intentionally inventing steps to burn those 30 days and avoid placing the reform vote on the November 2016 ballot.
"It will just take two words from the mayor," Perera says. "Whether it's just 'Do it,' 'Count them,' 'Go ahead,' I don't care. Just pick two words and go with it."
This past Saturday, County Attorney Abigail Price-Williams issued a statement — which New Times obtained — claiming Gimenez does not have the authority to order the count.
Yet according to Section 8.01(3) of the Miami-Dade Charter, the county Board of Elections must count out every qualifying petition it receives. County laws simply state:
The signed petition shall be filed with the Board which shall within 30 days order a canvass of the signatures thereon to determine the sufficiency of the signatures. If the number of signatures is insufficient or the petition is deficient as to form or compliance with this Section, the Board shall notify the person filing the petition that the petition is insufficient and has failed.
Once past that step, the county is then mandated to either adopt the ordinance within 30 days or put the bill up for a countywide referendum.
The Board may within 30 days after the date a sufficient petition is presented adopt the ordinance as submitted in an initiatory petition or repeal the ordinance referred to by a referendary petition. If the Board does not adopt or repeal the ordinance as provided above, then the proposal shall be placed on the ballot without further action of the Board.
County bylaws don't list any extra steps in the meantime. Yet the county decided to hold a special meeting to "authorize" the petition count last Tuesday. And then that vote was canceled after Commissioner Barbara Jordan said she had a "medical emergency" and could not attend. Without Jordan, the Commission was unable to reach a quorum and was unable to vote.
Unless Gimenez acts, it now seems likely the measure might be delayed until the next countywide election — in 2018.
But Perera doesn't believe delaying the measure is even legal.
"The charter says the Board must order the vote within 30 days," he says. "It doesn’t say they have a choice to not order it, and it doesn’t say they have a choice to put it off. This is the only option the Board has."
In contrast to Miami-Dade's foot-dragging, another activist group submitted a petition to the City of Miami Beach in July to limit the heights of that city's buildings. Despite the fact that Miami Beach operates under virtually the same set of rules that the county does, Miami Beach's city manager simply sent the signatures for that proposal right to the Miami-Dade County Board of Elections to be counted.
Accountable Miami-Dade has since begun a #StartCounting hashtag campaign on Twitter.
During a Periscope question-and-answer session Thursday, Gimenez said, "If we have 127,000 signatures, [the measure] merits its day in court." He then, however, said he was unsure what would be done to ensure the votes get counted, but he did stress that, as mayor, he is unable to force the County Commission to hold a special meeting to vote on the measure. He also said he'd have to speak to the county attorney before moving forward.
In a statement issued Saturday, County Attorney Price-Williams said the mayor himself cannot order the count on his own.
"Under the express terms of Section 8.01(3) of the Charter, the Mayor does not have the authority to direct the commencement of the canvass of this petition," she wrote.
Activists, however, maintain that the mayor does have this power: According to the Board of Commissioners' Rules of Procedure, the mayor is given broad powers to make decisions during the Commission's summer recess period. This includes handling "funds that will be put in jeopardy" if the board does not act during the summer.
Accountable Miami-Dade says that means Gimenez can order the count, because someone could sue the county if the count is not ordered within a month's time. In an email obtained by New Times, the County denies the mayor can act at all.
So why might the mayor be standing in the way of a campaign-finance-reform bill?
It's worth noting that Gimenez's reelection campaign has benefited greatly from the County's current $1,000 donation cap. He's running in a hotly contested reelection race against former School Board member Raquel Regalado, and Gimenez's coffers are stuffed to the gills with cash from local developers.
Gimenez has raised $1.6 million so far this year. Regalado, meanwhile, has brought in only $323,936.
Former Doral Vice Mayor Bettina Rodriguez-Aguilar, who co-chairs Accountable Miami-Dade, also demanded action last week.
“Over 127,000 people in Miami-Dade County signed a petition demanding a more transparent and accountable political system, and it’d be unconscionable for county commissioners to ignore the will of tens of thousands of voters by failing to move this process forward," she said in a statement. "The Commission should act now to make sure the people of Miami-Dade can vote on this initiative, this year, on Election Day.”
News website the New Tropic will host a Twitter town hall on the reform measure today at 11 a.m.:
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Hey all we're moderating a panel on campaign finance tomorrow morning at 11 a.m. tune in + tweet us your questions. pic.twitter.com/CVKEX2cWcO— The New Tropic (@newtropicmiami) August 15, 2016
Perera, meanwhile, tells New Times the county has known "since April 28 that we were circulating these petitions. They knew it was coming. For me, it’s like, why do you want to always put us through this? Do the simple thing that’s in writing instead of creating a further mess for all of us."
Update: County Commissioner Xavier Suarez joined the debate today on Twitter. He claims the county can still order the count at its September 1 meeting, which is exactly 30 days from when the petitions were delivered:
@BillyCorben Simple answer: Question should be on the ballot.From my discussion w/ the co/atty, it still can if we hear it 1st Sep meeting.— Xavier L. Suarez (@XavierLSuarez1) August 15, 2016