Miami-Dade County

Term limits set to clean house on Miami-Dade commission. Wanted: “expedited” decisions

Esteban “Steve” Bovo addresses the County Commission chambers after being sworn in for a two-year term as chairman of the 13-member board.
Esteban “Steve” Bovo addresses the County Commission chambers after being sworn in for a two-year term as chairman of the 13-member board. DOUGLAS HANKS

The term limits that Miami-Dade voters imposed on county commissioners more than four years ago took center stage Monday as the board’s new chairman called for “expedited” decisions before commissioners’ time in office expires.

“We embark on a new era. An era that is tied directly to term limits. And that is going to affect how we conduct the business of the people of Miami-Dade County,” Esteban “Steve” Bovo said after being sworn in Monday as chairman of the 13 member board. “It becomes very clear to me that we have to work in an expedited fashion.”

Of course, Bovo’s use of “expedited” referred to a six-year stretch that’s longer than some presidential administrations. But with the new chairman part of the first wave of mandated exits coming in 2020, Bovo said Miami-Dade faces a governing situation that will force incumbents to either tackle big issues or leave the questions to the new commissioners who will be taking their own oaths four years from now.

“We need to move the items forward and make decisions, one way or the other,” Bovo said.

In his first speech as commission chairman, Bovo laid out an agenda that includes expanding the county’s transit system, a major renovation of its court system and tackling the longstanding issue of its aging corrections system. All three represent potential windfalls for private firms eager to partner with Miami-Dade in providing financing for the public-works undertakings.

Passed in 2012, the term-limit rules restrict any commissioner to a pair of consecutive four-year terms. Because past terms were exempted from the county-charter amendment, the six sitting commissioners reelected in 2016 were the first to begin a mandated final four years on the board.

Another batch of six incumbents face the same sunset rule if they’re reelected in 2018, meaning voters are slated to elect 12 new commissioners between 2020 and 2022. Only Joe Martinez, elected to replace incumbent Juan Zapata in August, still has the potential for a full two terms ahead of him, until 2024.

Electing 12 non-incumbents over the next six years would mean unprecedented turnover on a board where its most-senior members took their seats in the 1990s. Bovo — a former state lawmaker elected to the commission in 2011 and reelected without opposition to a final term in August — said the looming churn in leadership requires a new pace for conducting business.

After being sworn in as the board’s latest chairman by longtime friend Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, Bovo outlined a plan to beef up the commission’s influence in a government largely under the day-to-day authority of ally Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

Instead of relying solely on the Gimenez administration to provide background information on proposed ordinances, Bovo said he would revamp the commission auditor’s office to staff each of the board’s seven committees. The new system would give each committee chair — a group populated by the seven commissioners who voted for Bovo as chairman over Commissioner Xavier Suarez — staff to provide the kind of research typically provided by administrators reporting to the mayor.

“It will not only be [the] information that we get from the department or the administration,” said Bovo, who was Gimenez’s pick over Suarez in the 2016 jostling for commission chair. “When you start scrambling for information, who do you trust? Who do you believe?”

In assuming the board’s two-year chairmanship, Bovo steps into the second-most-influential position in county government, behind the mayor. The last chairman, Jean Monestime, became a top Miami surrogate for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential campaign and was recruited (unsuccessfully) by state Democrats to challenge Gimenez in the mayoral race last year.

Bovo, a Republican from Hialeah, is said to be eying his own mayoral run in 2020, when a separate term-limit charter would ban Gimenez from seeking a third term. To win the chair election last month, the District 13 commissioner assembled a coalition of left-leaning and right-leaning commissioners on the officially nonpartisan board, including his pick for vice-chair, Audrey Edmonson.

In her own swearing-in speech Tuesday, the Democrat highlighted the need for work on rising housing costs and youth violence. “I’ve heard the outcry for safer streets and neighborhoods, especially for our children,” she said. “I’ve heard the outcry for affordable, and workforce, housing.”

Bovo said Edmonson would head a subcommittee focused on gun-related youth violence. He also announced an agenda for a new policy committee he will run, with membership consisting of the seven committee chairs.

Designed to form consensus on major issues, Bovo said the Chairman’s Policy Council will focus on transportation funding; construction of courthouse facilities, including a replacement for the downtown courthouse; improving the county’s jail system, responding to sea-level rise and addressing gun-related violence.

Katy Sorenson, a former commissioner who until recently ran a nonprofit promoting transparency in governance, said the policy council might be effective but also risks leaving out large chunks of the county represented by Suarez’s backers.

“The commission represents the entire county, and the entire county should probably be represented when big issues are discussed,” Sorenson said. “Why just the people who voted for [Bovo]?”