Miami-Dade County

Should lobbyists get to help rewrite the rules for Miami-Dade government?

Esteban Bovo, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission.
Esteban Bovo, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Commission. EL NUEVO HERALD

Miami-Dade hasn’t even started trying to rewrite its county charter, but there’s already a lobbying fight — specifically on whether lobbyists should be allowed to help rewrite the county charter.

Five years ago, Miami-Dade banned lobbyists from serving on the charter-review panel that proposed tougher rules on development and procurement and made it easier for residents to form new cities.

Now Miami-Dade is assembling a new task force without the old rules, and lobbyists already are slated to take up some of the seats filled so far. A proposal before the County Commission on Tuesday would undo those appointments and once again ban lobbyists from serving on the charter-review panel.

The panel “should come as close as possible to folks who are not invested in the day-to-day operations of the county,” said Commission Chairman Esteban “Steve” Bovo, who sponsored the lobbyist-ban legislation up for a vote on Tuesday.

Bovo’s proposal has revived an ongoing debate involving Miami-Dade’s powerful lobbyist corps, which is at the center of the fundraising circuit that fuels reelection efforts for the commission’s 13 members and county mayor. After successfully fending off an effort last year to ban lobbyists’ campaign donations, professional lobbyists are asking why they would be singled out for exclusion from a civic panel.

“I don’t have a single client who would benefit from anything that the charter-review task force would do,” said lobbyist Eric Zichella, whose clients include companies seeking county contracts. “I was looking forward to serving the community, and using my knowledge and expertise to do good things.”

Zichella was named to the 15-member panel by Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, the chairman of Miami-Dade’s legislative delegation in Tallahassee. Along with the delegation chair, each commissioner gets an appointee, as does Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

This would be the third charter-review panel for Miami-Dade in 10 years. The county didn’t ban lobbyists for the 2007 panel, and lobbyists have been allowed to serve on charter-review committees convened by cities. The new committee would propose charter amendments requiring voter approval in 2018. Miami-Dade commissioners hold the most power in the process, since they must approve any items before they get put on the ballot.

The latest charter-review process could be a second chance for proponents of 2016’s failed effort to get campaign-finance restrictions before voters. Miami-Dade blocked a union-backed petition drive in court, and a charter revision could make it easier to get that kind of question in the hands of voters.

Juan Cuba, chairman of Miami-Dade’s Democratic Party and an organizer of the failed effort, said the charter panel should consider how to make it easier for citizens to petition for law changes. He recently contacted Commissioner Xavier Suarez about an appointment to the charter-review task force if Bovo’s proposal gets approved. Suarez has already appointed lobbyist Luis Andre Gazitúa to the panel.

“I asked to be considered,” Cuba said, “just in case it opens up.”

Other lobbyists named to the panel include: George Burgess, the former county manager who now represents county vendors; Neisen Kasdin, a lobbyist spearheading David Beckham’s stadium negotiations with Miami-Dade, and Gazitúa, who represents county vendors and is registered to represent a medical-marijuana dispensary interested in operating in Miami-Dade.

Also named to the panel: Robert Cuevas, former county attorney; Marlon Hill, a lawyer; Maria Lievano-Cruz, a former chief of staff to Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz and now a top executive with the company building the Brightline rail line; and Willam Kerdyk Jr., a former Coral Gables commissioner.

One twist to the controversy involves Bovo himself, who runs a consulting firm that has two clients: Miami Children’s Hospital and a company tied to the Hialeah Race Track. Bovo earned about $120,000 last year from his firm, ELB Business and Community Consulting. He is not a registered lobbyist, and the former state lawmaker said Monday he only offers advice on political matters and business development. “I don’t lobby for any entity,” he said.

In a letter to Bovo Monday, Gazitúa argued that the chairman should expand his proposed ban to other professionals with interests in county business, including union representatives, land-use lawyers, heads of political parties and people running for office.

“Barring these self-interested parties will further enhance public confidence,” wrote Gazitúa, who served on a similar charter-review panel last year for Miami, which did not ban lobbyist participation. “I hope the Board considers proposing these parties as well.”

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