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."

The war between Lacasa and the county commission is a fascinating study in power, arrogance, and political miscalculation. And as is the case with most wars, this one could have been avoided.

The biggest miscalculation was the commissioners' failure to take Lacasa seriously. A Miami Republican who is running for the state Senate, Lacasa devoted more than a year to careful study of his proposal to create a strong-mayor form of government in Miami-Dade County.

Under his plan the powers of the county commission and the mayor would be more clearly defined. Commissioners would appoint their own chairman and create their own committee system. Under the current system, the county mayor controls those functions, and many believe he uses that authority to limit the commission's power and effectiveness.

In addition to making the commission more independent, Lacasa's plan would compel commissioners to devote more time to crafting the county's $4.5-billion budget. It would also remove the commission's responsibility over procurement. "It doesn't make sense to have the commission spend a few hours talking about the budget and six months debating which vendor should get the baggage-wrap concession at the airport," Lacasa said.

In addition Lacasa's proposal would increase commissioners' salaries from $6000 per year to nearly $70,000.

As for the position of mayor, Lacasa's plan would augment its power by effectively abolishing the position of county manager and transferring those duties to the mayor. Today the mayor can only appoint the county manager and the county attorney. Lacasa wants the mayor to hire all department directors, each of whom would carry the title "deputy mayor." It is a system used in New York City and other major municipalities.

When Lacasa tried to present his recommendations to the county's charter-review task force more than a year ago, they were summarily rejected. At least that's his view of what happened. The charter-review task force, whose members were appointed by county commissioners, had its own plan, which in many ways was similar to Lacasa's.

The task force wanted to grant the commission the right to appoint its own chair, select its own committees, raise commission salaries, and remove the commission's procurement responsibilities by transferring them to an independent agency overseen by the county's inspector general.

The main difference between Lacasa's recommendations and those of the task force concerned the county manager and the mayor. The charter task force wanted to keep day-to-day operations of the county in the hands of a "professional manager" as opposed to the mayor. "If the mayor is allowed to appoint department directors, then you're going to create a system of patronage," cautions Katy Sorenson, a member of the task force. She offers this scenario as an example: Suppose the mayor doesn't like a particular commissioner. Since the mayor controls all department directors, anytime that commissioner might try to get something done in her district, the mayor could order county officials to disregard her.

"Imagine if my district has a problem with potholes," Sorenson ventures, "but the mayor tells the public-works director, whom he appointed and who he can replace, not to fix the potholes in my district. At election time the voters are going to be angry with me. And if the mayor comes along and tells the people in my district to vote for my opponent and together they'll fix the potholes, then he is going to be able to stack the commission with people he can control."

Another issue that makes commissioners uneasy about Lacasa's proposal is the fear that it might allow Alex Penelas to run again for mayor. Under law Penelas is prohibited from running for a third term as "executive mayor." But Penelas has indicated that if the charter is changed to create a new position known as "strong mayor," term limits wouldn't apply and he would be free to run and hold office for another eight years.

"Why the sudden need for a new system?" Sorenson asks. "We've only had the executive-mayor system for six years. Rather than overhaul the entire government, I think we just need to make a few minor adjustments."

Lacasa and Sorenson make strong points about the potential advantages and disadvantages of each plan. Even attorney Dan Paul admits some of Lacasa's ideas have merit. The most equitable solution would have been to place both proposals on the ballot and let voters decide. The reason that didn't happen boils down to one word: turf.

Both the charter-review task force and county commissioners somewhat arrogantly decided this was an issue for them alone to decide, and that Lacasa was an unwelcome intruder into the process. Part of that attitude stems from the historic tensions between county commissioners and state legislators. Another part can be attributed to Lacasa's behavior. "I think there would have been more openness to consider his proposal if it didn't come with a threat," Sorenson remarks. "When someone tries to shove something down my throat, it doesn't taste very good."

Whatever the reason, the charter-review task force and the county commission simply ignored Lacasa. They reminded him they were in charge of the process and there was nothing he could do about it.

Well, they were wrong. None of them believed Lacasa would brazenly use his considerable clout in the state legislature to rewrite the state constitution to get his strong-mayor proposal on the county ballot. County commissioners came to this fight with a switchblade while Lacasa showed up with a Howitzer. Not only did they underestimate Lacasa's resolve, they refused to back down even after he made it clear he was ready to use the big gun.

"The offer [to remove the constitutional amendment from the state ballot in return for placing a strong-mayor proposal on the county ballot] was open to them for a very long time," Lacasa said earlier this month. "I tried to get meetings with some of the commissioners to talk to them personally about this, and some of them wouldn't even meet with me. Some still refuse to meet with me. They have shown me tremendous disrespect, which is why I have no intention of working with them on this issue any longer. If this is the way they treat a state representative -- a person who holds elective office -- then I can't even imagine how they treat the general public."

Attorney Dan Paul agrees that commissioners made a colossal mistake. "The commission handled Lacasa very badly," he says. "They gave him the back of their hand. They were very foolish."

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede