President Bill Clinton had just taken office, Nirvana blasted on the radio and gas cost $1.11 a gallon in April 1993, when Miami-Dade County’s two longest-serving commissioners were first elected.
Dennis Moss and Javier Souto, the commission’s elder statesmen, have been on the 13-member board for 19 years. Five other commissioners have served for at least a decade.
They keep getting reelected, their supporters say, because they’re good at what they do. But to critics, the long tenures are a sign that defeating incumbents is nearly impossible.
That could change on Nov. 6, when the public gets a chance to impose two four-year terms on commissioners.
The issue has been on the ballot before — most recently in January, when it was rejected by percent of voters. There was a catch, however: The term limits were tied to hefty salary increases for commissioners.
That’s not the case this time.
“I was listening to radio and reading opinions, and people always asked me, ‘Why do you have to bring that issue with the raises?’” said Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, who, along with Commissioner Lynda Bell, pushed to put term limits on the upcoming ballot.
If the charter amendment is approved, long-serving commissioners don’t have much to fear. The term limits would not apply retroactively; instead, they would be added to time commissioners have spent in office.
Current commissioners could stay until 2020. Souto and Moss could represent their districts for as many as 27 years.
Bell and Sosa made the proposal as Miami auto magnate Norman Braman and activist Vanessa Brito were making noise about collecting petition signatures to put term limits on the ballot themselves. They ultimately backed off, though they have lamented the Sosa-Bell proposal does not apply retroactively — a move that would have essentially booted seven commissioners off the dais.
Separately, a commission-created charter-review task force was expected to recommend a term limits amendment as well — a move preempted by the measure on the ballot.
The term-limit proposal is just one of 10 county ballot questions. The public will also be asked to:
Proponents of the measure say deputy mayors should not handle the procurements because they ultimately answer to their boss — the mayor. Opponents say delegating the mayor’s powers, including bid waivers, to the commission chair creates the potential for a voting member of the board to curry favor.
The ballot also includes two non-binding questions:
Term limits, though, are at the forefront of the county questions on the lengthy ballot, which is also packed with 11 proposed amendments to the Florida Constitution.
Until Jean Monestime defeated a controversy-plagued Dorrin Rolle in 2010, no sitting county commissioner had lost a reelection bid in 16 years — in part because people, organizations and companies that regularly do business with the county contribute so much to commissioners’ campaigns that challengers often can’t compete.
The commission has seen more turnover than usual in the wake of last year’s recall of Mayor Carlos Alvarez and Commissioner Natacha Seijas. Two new commissioners were elected last year, and a third will join the board after the Nov. 6 runoff for an open seat. Two incumbents also face runoffs.
Opponents point to that turnover as a sign that term limits are unnecessary. A commissioner can be voted out of office every four years, they argue, and term limits could force out knowledgeable commissioners.
“I don’t want a commissioner to get elected and think they don’t have to face an election in four years,” said Terry Murphy, a charter review task force member and former aide to Seijas. “They could make decisions that would benefit them after leaving office.”
Another critic, Commissioner Moss, said some major efforts take more than eight years to accomplish. He mentioned the recently completed $51 million South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center as an example.
“That process began in 1993 after Hurricane Andrew,” Moss said. Had his term ended in 2001, he added, “I think it would have been dead in the water.”
Opponents often point to the Florida Legislature, where term limits have empowered lobbyists — who have more institutional knowledge than new lawmakers — and ratcheted up partisan, backroom races for powerful leadership positions.
But there was an upside: The term-limit clock forced elected leaders to immediately focus on the needs of their constituents, and the turnover brought fresh perspectives.
Former state Rep. Julio Robaina, who ran unsuccessfully last year for the county commission, noted the negative consequences of term limits but also called them “healthy.”
“It brings in new blood, new ideas, and no complacency,” he said. “But you do have a short term to learn the ropes, and you do have to depend a lot on bureaucrats.”
Proponents also argue that term limits can cut back on potential corruption, because elected officials are less entrenched and don’t have a sense of invincibility.
Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi, who successfully pushed for term limits in his village, said without them elected leaders would spend more time worrying about being reelected than about their constituents.
“If you’re only there for eight years, and it’s not a career thing, you’re more inclined to care for the people,” he said. “Your motivation is really to maximize the public good because you only have eight years to do it.”