Miami-Dade County

Statewide vote could put a new sheriff in town even if Miami-Dade doesn’t want it

Miami Dade Police Officer Kenny Bonnet patrols in Kendall on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017.
Miami Dade Police Officer Kenny Bonnet patrols in Kendall on Wednesday, Dec. 13, 2017. adiaz@miamiherald.com

Miami-Dade County is the only county in Florida without an elected sheriff. But a proposed constitutional amendment could let Floridians decide this November if Miami-Dade should elect its top cop for the first time in more than 40 years.

Proposal 13, which moved forward in a state constitutional commission this week, would require counties to hold elections for five offices, including tax collectors, property appraisers, supervisors of elections and clerks of circuit court. But the biggest-ticket job on the list — sheriff — singles out the state’s most populous county, which appoints a police director instead at the discretion of the mayor.

Opponents say the change, which other voters in the state could approve by the necessary 60 percent even if Miami-Dade voters don’t agree, would violate the county’s home rule charter. But supporters counter that the change would bring Miami-Dade in line with other counties and add more transparency and public accountability to the role.

“The constitutional officers don’t implement policy from a [county] board,” said Commissioner Carolyn Timmann, clerk of the court in Martin County and the proposal’s sponsor on the Constitution Revision Commission. “They follow state laws, state rules and the state constitution.”

Miami-Dade hasn’t had an elected sheriff in 40 years, since allegations of rampant corruption led to the indictment of then-Sheriff T.A. Buchanan and a voter referendum to eliminate his elected role. Buchanan was acquitted, but the job was not — voters chose at the ballot box to do away with the elected position entirely.

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Juan Perez, director of Miami-Dade Police, holds up a device that is commonly used to steal credit card information at gas stations. Miami-Dade County is the only county in Florida without an elected sheriff; it appoints a police director at the discretion of the mayor. Jose A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

In the decades since, the county has only further cemented its commitment to appointing its top cop. In 1996, its voters updated the county charter with an executive mayor system that, among other things, allowed the mayor to appoint a manager who hired department heads like the police director. In 2007, Miami-Dade adopted a strong mayor system, giving the mayor the oversight to directly appoint a police director.

For now, Miami-Dade is the only county in the state that appoints its top police officer — though Volusia County, which does elect its sheriff, divides responsibilities between the department of public safety and the department of corrections.

Six other counties — Brevard, Broward, Clay, Duval, Orange, Osceola — have changed how other positions like county clerk are filled, and would also be affected by the change. All eight counties are governed by charters that currently allow them to make changes to how they can fill certain county roles.

The Legislature has tried at least twice in recent years to require elections for those jobs. Former Miami Republican Sen. Frank Artiles, who resigned his office in disgrace in 2017, pushed the idea in both 2015 and 2017, though he succeeded neither time. But the Constitution Revision Commission, the powerful 37-member body that meets once every 20 years, could put the issue directly before voters on this November’s ballot.

Supporters say that making the jobs elected would improve accountability to voters and increase the autonomy of the role.

“That’s what’s unique about the office of sheriff — you have a direct say in how the office of sheriff is being run,” said Michael Adkinson, Walton County sheriff and president of the Florida Sheriffs Association. The Florida Sheriffs Association has supported the measure for several years.

Bob Butterworth, who served as Broward County sheriff in the 1980s after stints as a judge in county and circuit courts, said elections also allow sheriffs to operate independently and without having to answer to other county officials.

“As much as I respect police chiefs, their jobs are different than a sheriff,” said Butterworth, who went on to serve as Florida’s attorney general. “It’s a little bit different — it’s a little more responsibility and you have much more authority in the job of sheriff.”

But opponents counter that that autonomy can also mean more bickering among county leaders, and that elections could dilute the credentials required for the top law enforcement job.

“In an elected position, you can have someone who doesn’t have law enforcement background or little enforcement background,” said Miami-Dade County Commissioner Dennis Moss. “Our system safeguards the fact there will be a professional law enforcement officer.”

Also at stake, opponents say, is Miami-Dade’s ability and authority under its charter to make decisions for itself. Before the proposal moved forward Monday, multiple Miami-Dade members questioned the fairness of allowing other voters in the state to choose an elected system for the county.

“Our hands would be tied. We would just have to have an elected sheriff,” said Commissioner Roberto Martinez, a Coral Gables lawyer. “Why would we want to do that? Why would the voters of Miami-Dade County give up their discretion for how to govern themselves?”

“They would not be giving up anything,” Timmann countered. “Now they would have the right to directly choose who would handle those law enforcement powers.”

When the proposal eventually passed, the Miami-Dade delegation split on the measure, with Commissioner Nicole Washington voting in favor. Commissioners Jose Felix Diaz, Martinez and Jeanette Nuñez voted against the proposal. Anna Marie Hernandez Gamez was off the floor and didn’t vote one way or the other.

If the proposal passes, county voters would not be required to vote for people to fill those positions until 2020. But there is already no shortage of interest: Miami-Dade County Commissioner Joe Martinez, a retired police officer, said he would be interested in the position if Miami-Dade ever recreated the sheriff’s job.

But cynical opponents say that interest is exactly why legislators and others have pushed the proposal in the past.

“They’re looking for some other political office to land in — that’s what this is all about,” Moss said. “You create more elected positions and you have a chance of leaving the statehouse and perhaps running for office in Miami-Dade County.”

The proposal is now in the commission’s Style and Drafting Committee and still has to pass the full commission one more time before it is placed on the ballot. In the meantime, it could see changes to the language. But the concept requires one more vote before the full commission, with at least 22 in favor. It passed Monday 26-7.

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