In this year’s election, Miami voters have to answer a crucial question about the city’s government: Who will be in charge?
Who supervises the police chief? Who’s the top boss over the city workers who fix potholes, clean parks and issue permits so you can remodel your home or open a business? Who is the chief bureaucrat who decides how to spend your taxpayer dollars?
Right now, the answer is City Manager Emilio Gonzalez, appointed by Mayor Francis Suarez and approved by the five members of the City Commission, who act as the elected board of directors for the city. The commission passes laws, takes complaints on behalf of constituents and approves contracts. The manager is responsible for enforcing the laws, addressing the complaints and signing the contracts. When residents complain to either the mayor or commissioners, complaints are supposed to be forwarded to the city manager so he can send them down the bureaucratic chain of command.
Suarez wants voters to give him this top managerial job, along with expanded power over the city government as a “strong mayor,” an elected administrator who directs the city’s day-to-day operations. Under a new compensation formula, he would be entitled to a $50,000 raise — though he says he would not accept any more than than the $130,600 that he’s paid today. By comparison, Gonzalez’s full compensation package is more than $300,000.
The change, which Suarez said will make Miami’s mayor more directly accountable to the people and prevent government dysfunction, requires an amendment to the city charter (the city’s constitution). Only a majority of voters can approve such a change. If the charter amendment passes Nov. 6, Suarez would immediately become the strong mayor and mayors elected after him would hold the same power — unless a future charter change was approved by voters.
His critics say the proposal is an overreach that would consolidate too much power under one elected official. The change would also open the administration to political pressures from special interests, such as companies and individuals who contribute to the mayor’s campaign and then seek city contracts or development approvals.
On the other hand, Suarez says the new government structure would bring much-needed stability to a City Hall known for high turnover in upper-level management, in part due to a quirk in the city’s rules that allow the city manager to be fired by either the mayor or the commission. The voters pick the boss, and if they’re unhappy with that person, they can vote the mayor out or organize a recall.
Right now, Suarez’s title comes with little power. As Miami’s “executive” mayor, he holds a largely ceremonial post. He has no vote on the five-person City Commission. He can veto legislation passed by the commission — which can be overridden — and he can hire and fire the city manager — though the manager can be fired by the commission, too.
Suarez is asking voters to make him the most powerful individual in City Hall. He would still have no vote, but he would be the chief executive overseeing the city’s $1 billion budget, making important recommendations on city contracts and real estate transactions, and supervising the city’s 4,000-person workforce, from parks employees to the police and fire chiefs.
What might seem like a technical bureaucratic rearrangement would actually be a significant shift of power, one that would assign Suarez new responsibilities that extend even beyond those of Gonzalez. Like Gonzalez, Suarez would get broad authority over how the government spends public money. He’d get to name the city’s top cop, and he’d have more power to negotiate government contracts, real estate deals and labor agreements.
But unlike the manager, and unlike most strong-mayor governments in Miami-Dade County, he would also have the power to hire and fire the city attorney and city clerk. He would also be able to name his temporary replacement prior to resigning, being removed from office, dying or being recalled.
Under the proposed strong-mayor plan, removing one of the mayor’s appointed department directors, along with the city clerk and city attorney, would require a four-fifths vote of the commission. Currently, the commission and the mayor have no say in the appointment of department directors, who are chosen by the city manager.
The mayor would also retain the power to act as a nonvoting chairman of the commission and run meetings, though he’s followed the custom of voluntarily passing that responsibility to a chairperson he appoints. He said he would continue that custom.
Suarez wants to change the way the mayor’s compensation is calculated, which would result in a raise. Under the strong-mayor system, Suarez would earn at least 75 percent of the Miami-Dade mayor’s compensation. Gimenez’s recent acceptance of a 67 percent raise brings his take-home pay to $250,000. That means Suarez’s strong-mayor salary would be $187,500 — $56,900 more than his current pay.
“I will not accept the difference,” he said. “My intent in supporting this initiative was not to get paid more money but simply to have more responsibility to serve our residents,” Suarez told the Miami Herald.
Earlier this year, Suarez and his supporters mounted a petition drive to get his proposal for a “strong mayor” form of government on the November ballot — a process that in August became fraught with political opposition, dogged by legal questions and marked with the specter of a power-and-money grab by the 41-year-old mayor. The scrutiny played out in the media, particularly on Spanish-language TV and radio, which reaches a powerful population of voters. That’s probably the reason the pro-strong-mayor campaign recently switched from using the phrase “Strong Miami” in political ads to “accountable mayor.”
One of Suarez’s top political foes, Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo, sued to stop the referendum on the grounds that the ballot language is misleading and that the pro-strong-mayor campaign did not follow proper procedure when gathering petitions. A Miami-Dade circuit judged dismissed the lawsuit earlier this month. Carollo’s attorney said they are considering an appeal.
The strong mayor would be allowed to hold a job outside City Hall. Suarez has said if he were to become strong mayor, he would continue to work as a real estate attorney for Greenspoon Marder, where he is “of counsel” — a designation used for attorneys who work for a firm but are not partners or associates. Suarez said he works on transactions but has flexibility with his hours.
“I generate real estate-related business for the firm,” Suarez said.
The plan’s critics, including Gimenez, have questioned why Suarez would split his time at all.
Suarez bristled at the suggestion he couldn’t handle the responsibility, arguing that he already dedicates long hours and days to his mayoral duties, even if they only afford him the power to make suggestions to the administration. He has said that he might choose a deputy, like a chief operating officer, to help him run the city — suggesting that Gonzalez could possibly stay on in that role. This has raised the question among detractors: Why make a change at all?
Suarez insists he will still have the final say and ultimate accountability to voters. The mayor also emphasized that he believes the strong-mayor system would protect the city’s workforce from constant turnover at the management level.
“You have a situation where you have a city manager that has to work for two political bodies. He’s got to work for the mayor, and he’s got to work for the commission. And he’s got to keep them happy at all times,” Suarez said. “And what we’ve seen historically is that it creates a ton of dysfunction, because we’ve had 15 managers in 21 years.”
There’s also the question of private companies and people seeking to wield influence through political giving. As a strong mayor, Suarez could find himself weighing bids on public contracts from entities who have contributed to his campaigns.
Suarez said all elected officials face similar situations and have to disconnect themselves from political contributions when making decisions.
“If I make bad decisions, if the residents think I am getting political with my decisions, the residents have the ability to vote for someone else in the next election or to recall me if I do something that’s inappropriate,” he said.
When asked if he would consider campaign finance reform to create rules that would prevent campaign donors from seeking city business, he said he’d be open to it so long as it doesn’t create a situation where only privately wealthy people can mount successful political campaigns.
“I’m open to any kind of campaign finance reform,” he said, “so long as it’s not inadvertently creating a competitive advantage for someone else.”
Early voting in Miami-Dade begins Monday. Voters will answer the following question on the ballot:
Shall the Miami Charter be amended to change to a strong mayor-commission form of government; replace city manager with the mayor; mayor serves as nonvoting, non-member commission chair; grant mayor power to appoint and remove city attorney, city clerk, police and fire chief, department directors and employees; change filling mayoral vacancy and pay formula; adopt state recall procedure; provide other mayoral and commission powers and changes; and make effective immediately?
Read the full text of the charter amendment here.