Just months after he was elected mayor of Miami, Francis Suarez is launching an effort to convince voters to make him the most powerful individual in the city's government.
Suarez has long sought to transform Miami’s government into a “strong mayor” system where the elected mayor is the city’s top administrator. Voters would select the person who controls Miami’s $1 billion budget, selects the police and fire chiefs and oversees City Hall’s day-to-day operations — from the maintenance of public parks to making recommendations on bids for big-ticket contracts.
Under the current set-up, the mayor doesn't have a vote on matters that come before the commission.
If voters weren't satisfied, they could fire the mayor through a recall.
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"As a resident, you want to make sure you know who’s responsible for the decision-making, and you want the mayor to be accountable," Suarez said Tuesday. He said making one elected person the top administrator fosters transparency, efficiency and accountability in government because residents will know exactly who to call when they need something.
Making the change would require voters to approve a change to the city charter, which is basically the city's constitution. In order to hold a referendum, either the commission has to put the question on a ballot or a citizen petition has to garner enough signatures. Suarez, who as a commissioner twice unsuccessfully asked the commission to put a strong mayor measure on the ballot, is taking the petition route this time and financing it with money leftover from his mayoral campaign.
From the outset, not everyone's a fan. Chief among opponents in City Hall is, unsurprisingly, Commissioner Joe Carollo. Wednesday, he issued his fiercest indictment yet of the young mayor, calling the initiative an attempt to corral power in a manner similar to that of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.
Carollo compared the strong mayor effort to Maduro's constituent assembly, a pro-government body Maduro called into existence last year that effectively trumps the power of the opposition-laden Venezuelan legislature.
"You look at what Maduro did with the Constituyente," Carollo told the Miami Herald. "This is the Miami version."
Suarez, son of Carollo's longtime foe and County Commissioner Xavier Suarez, sees it differently.
"This has been sort of a quixotic quest for me since 2011 because the people want a mayor they can hold accountable," said the younger Suarez. "And they want to know where the divisions of power are drawn.”
City Hall’s current chief administrator is a mayor-appointed city manager, a post held by former Miami International Airport director Emilio Gonzalez. Suarez appointed Gonzalez shortly after his election in November — a decision that marked another disagreement between Suarez and Carollo.
Suarez contends the current setup for the bureaucracy is ripe for dysfunction and prone to instability — evidenced by Miami's penchant for burning through administrators who are subject to firing by either the mayor or the City Commission.
Suarez made two previous attempts as a commissioner in 2011 and 2016 to convince fellow commissioners to put the strong mayor question on the ballot, failing to get any traction in both cases. This time, with a bigger platform and $1 million in a political committee leftover from his race, Suarez is taking his pitch to the street to get signatures.
"Doing it by petition is the hardest way it can be done, and it’s the most democratic way,” he said.
Upon election, Suarez pledged to pursue the change during his first year in office. The initiative formally began this week when a pro-strong-mayor group organized by Suarez, Miamians for an Independent and Accountable Mayor's Initiative, submitted the proposed charter change and the petition form to the city clerk, who has to approve the petition language before signatures can be gathered.
The mouthful of a name is shortened to MIAMI, and the committee's website is www.strongmiami.com.
The mayor and his supporters hope to get enough signatures to put a charter amendment on November's ballot. If voters eventually approve the change, Suarez would immediately become the new strong mayor.
The automatic transfer of power is another detail that does not sit well with Carollo.
"He’s got no background in managing a city," Carollo said. "He wouldn’t know what to do.”
Jesse Manzano-Plaza, a political consultant working for the MIAMI committee, said the committee and Suarez decided against proposing an election to select a new strong mayor because they feared someone would file a lawsuit challenging the validity of the whole charter change.
“We decided to implement the strong mayor change in the city charter immediately instead of going to an election in the middle of the mayor’s current term because doing so could have exposed the strong mayor change to a legal challenge.”