County voters have spoken, so what did they really say?
Miami-Dade County voters faced a long ballot and long lines, but were longer on patience and resolve. They allowed nothing to deter them from making their voices heard. Bravo!
The outcome shows that voters were very generous, but not blindly so.
Voters approved a bond measure that increases property taxes for $1.2 billion in school improvements by more than a two-to-one margin (69 percent). Historically, voter support for education has run deep. Remember that in 2008 voters overwhelmingly supported funding for Miami Dade College (ultimately failing statewide).
However, the number of voters against and the nearly one-in-five that notably skipped the question raises concerns. Memories and frustrations persist over the spending of the 1989 school bonds. These concerns are being addressed — voters won’t be let down.
Voters also approved more funding for animal services programs under the Pets’ Trust and gave the mayor and commissioners the go ahead to work on the future expansion of the Crandon Park Tennis Center. In both matters, the vote was merely the first step, and voters will be watching their implementation.
Voters generously returned all incumbents to the County Commission. These results once again demonstrate that voter sentiment toward the commission is a lot like that toward the U.S. Congress, where the body as a whole may get low marks, but voters like their representative.
Voters were definitely generous to the “reform movement,” shaking things up at County Hall by approving all seven charter reforms.
As expected, voters overwhelmingly imposed eight-year term limits on commissioners. Voters also cleaned up some technical matters, imposed a super-majority vote to expand UDB, changed the Citizen’s Bill of Rights, proscribed a process for filling a vacancy in mayor and commission roles and addressed mayoral conflicts in procurements. The latter may have unintended consequences, let’s hope not.
Yet, on incorporation, voters only marginally approved the reforms. Support came mostly from voters already living within municipal boundaries, those essentially unaffected by the change. Voting against were mostly the poorer neighborhoods with the greatest at stake. Significantly, a large number (27 percent) of voters skipped the question altogether — either uninterested or unpersuaded.
Voters appeared concerned with the piecemeal approach that leaves unresolved the fate of poorer communities and areas left behind. Already five incorporations are moving forward — Fisher Island, Biscayne Gardens, Fountainbleau, North Central Dade and Northeast Dade. Estimates show that these incorporations will reduce over $35 million from the unincorporated service area (UMSA) budget by removing over $4 billion from the UMSA tax rolls.
Mayor Carlos Gimenez and commissioners should take heed from these results — a warning that future incorporations must be dealt with carefully and comprehensively. This piecemeal approach is not sustainable.
This is not an end, however. There is much “reforming” to be done.
Mayor Gimenez and commissioners should listen carefully to voters’ enthusiasm and engagement, letting voters finish the job by placing on the November 2014 ballot the following reforms:
• A reasonable salary for full-time commissioners with a ban on outside employment and restricting lobbying after leaving office.
• A comprehensive plan to rein in urban sprawl, balancing environmental concerns and property rights by responsibly updating the existing Urban Development Boundary.
• Take procurement out of the hands of politicians by having administrative law judges decide bid protests, as it is done at the state and school districts.
• Give the Commission on Ethics and Public Trust greater independence with a dedicated funding source and jurisdiction over all elected officials under a strict uniform code of ethics; and
• Allow the Office of Inspector General (OIG) to be a stronger independent watchdog with real powers that bring greater accountability to the spending of tax dollars at all levels of government, including the School Board, thereby addressing community concerns with the just-approved school improvements bonds program.
Overall, the message voters sent to our leaders is clear — we are generous in support of good causes and good people. Let’s hope our leaders are listening and continue to earn that generosity.
Jorge Luis Lopez is a governmental affairs attorney and member of the 2008 Miami-Dade County Charter Review Task Force.