The Art of War

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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.

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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede