Miami Commissioners to Cast Final Vote on Whether to Give Themselves Pensions

City commissioners stand to earn a minimum of $50,000 — about half of their total compensation — annually for life.
City commissioners stand to earn a minimum of $50,000 — about half of their total compensation — annually for life. Photo by Owen Byrne / Flickr
click to enlarge City commissioners stand to earn a minimum of $50,000 — about half of their total compensation — annually for life. - PHOTO BY OWEN BYRNE / FLICKR
City commissioners stand to earn a minimum of $50,000 — about half of their total compensation — annually for life.
Update, November 22: Commissioners did not vote on the ordinance that would reinstate their pensions. After some back-and-forth between commissioners Joe Carollo and Keon Hardemon, Hardemon made a motion to continue the item until the next meeting.

Carollo, who voted yes to the pensions on first reading, said some of the figures he got for his pension were "very low," and he wanted to know where the calculations were coming from. Hardemon countered that Carollo was qualified to receive a generous pension.

"Certainly more than most," Hardemon said during the meeting.

Hardemon said he didn't understand what additional information Carollo needed.

"Either Commissioner Carollo is trying to hurt me, or the staff is trying to hurt him," Hardemon said.

If the pension item had been called for a vote, Carollo's no could have killed the item. No one else on the dais had anything to say about the pensions.


To much heckling
, City of Miami commissioners voted to sharply reduce pay and pensions for employees when the Great Recession nearly toppled the city's economy a decade ago. They also closed the pension program for incoming elected officials, but commissioners unsuccessfully tried to quietly restore it three years ago.

Like acid reflux, the Elected Officers' Retirement Trust could make a comeback.

"These folks want to work for six or seven years part-time while collecting a salary of over $100,000 based on base pay and benefits, and then they want to collect a pension for the rest of their lives when they're not working for the city anymore," says documentarian Billy Corben, a frequent critic of local politics. "Objectively, this is a robbery."

For months, commissioners have deferred a vote on reinstating their own pensions. They took an initial vote during a June 27 meeting without any discussion, and the issue will be back before the commission today. If the ordinance to reopen the pension program is approved, it will head to Mayor Francis Suarez's desk.

Commissioner Keon Hardemon, who represents areas spanning from Overtown to Little Haiti, sponsored the ordinance. He is expected to resign before the end of his term to run for a county commission seat in 2020.
The ordinance gives pensions to elected officials under three provisions based on the date they were elected and the length of time they served. Any commissioner first elected before October 2009, when the pension program was eliminated, and who is now in office is entitled to a pension, as is any commissioner first elected after October 2018, as long as they serve at least seven years.

The part that conveniently benefits Hardemon goes like this: If you're an official who was elected after the pension program closed and are in office, you'll qualify for a pension after serving six years rather than seven.

Hardemon marked six years in office this month. If the ordinance passes, not only will officials receive pensions to which they would contribute nothing, but also Hardemon will get to buy into his pension early, leave before finishing his term serving the constituents of his district, and ride off into the sunset to campaign for a county commission seat.

City commissioners stand to earn a minimum of $50,000 — about half of their total compensation between salary and benefits — annually for the rest of their lives when they're off the dais and turn 55 or 60, depending upon the length of time they spent in office. And the pensions would be funded by taxpayers in a city with some of the worst poverty and income rates in the nation. Other city employees, such as police officers and firefighters, contribute to their own pensions. The Miami Herald reported in July that newly elected commissioners can choose a pension over another retirement savings plan, to which they would contribute.

Interestingly, the language of the part of the ordinance that would benefit Hardemon changed slightly from meeting to meeting. Whoever stands to benefit from this pension plan apparently wants it to be an "irrevocable election." In the event of another financial crisis or our eventual climate-related doomsday, it would seemingly be OK for some commissioners' pensions to get snatched but not others. Commissioners eligible for a pension under this provision would need to choose to be a member of the Elected Officers' Retirement Trust "within 10 days of the effective date of the ordinance or be precluded from becoming a member" of the trust. There are no such rules for the provisions governing previously elected and newly elected officials.

The pension ordinance passed 3-1 on first reading in late June. Commissioner Manolo Reyes cast the lone dissenting vote, and Ken Russell was absent. Commissioners Hardemon, Joe Carollo, and Willy Gort voted yes. The mayor doesn't get a vote, but he has final say on any ordinances approved by the commission. Though Suarez would be able to enter the pension program, he opposed pensions for commissioners when he was one. Suarez declined to comment on the ordinance through his spokesman Rene Pedrosa.

Corben tells New Times he hopes Suarez "continues to be on the right side of this issue."

"If this passes, I'd like to see him use the mayor's veto on something worthwhile like this," he says.

Hardemon did not respond to an email seeking comment on the ordinance. But in an October 10 commission meeting, he said he believed pensions for elected officials, especially in Miami, are necessary because of the criticism and scrutiny they receive from the public.

"The City of Miami commission is probably one of the most toxic environments that I've ever participated in," Hardemon said at the time.

Hardemon, a criminal defense attorney, said he has witnessed the sentencing of people who have "stabbed women 90 times, slit their throat, and left a knife in their head" who haven't received the same level of "embarrassment and pain that we on this dais have had to relive." He said commissioners should be compensated "for the trouble" of having to endure harsh public criticism. 

Corben scoffs at that notion.

"Nobody is even trying to make a case for why this is a legitimate enterprise. It's unbelievable," Corben says. "No one asked them to do this. They volunteered to be elected."
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Alexi C. Cardona is a staff writer at Miami New Times. A Hialeah native, she's happy to be back home writing about Miami's craziness after four years working for Naples Daily News.
Contact: Alexi C. Cardona