Miami-Dade commissioners on Tuesday decided it was futile to ask voters for a raise or a reprieve from term limits, so they blocked ballot items that would have delivered both.
The narrow votes to reject the proposed charter amendments followed a debate that swung from stern lectures on the downsides of rookie commissioners to wistfulness that perhaps voters were less cranky about incumbents than they were in 2012, when term limits were enacted by a lopsided margin. The losing side urged at least giving voters the chance to deliver a different verdict in 2018; the winning side called it wasted effort.
"When term limits were put before the voters, it was 2012. The economy was in the tank. People were out of work. ... Somebody had to pay," said Commissioner Dennis Moss, sponsor of the defeated ballot items. "Today is a different time."
"Some people in our districts are disappointed when they realize term limits will kick in in 2020," he said.
Javier Souto, who, like Moss, first joined the county board in 1993, said there was no sense asking voters to change their minds on term limits.
"That's what the voters want," he said, "that's what the voters get."
Commissioners did approve four proposed amendments to the county charter that will head to voters in November. Those would: require county attorneys to approve the legality of citizen petition drives before organizers seek signatures; allow county employees to hold elected office other than county posts; have the clerk of the courts office switch to nonpartisan elections; and tweak election laws to simplify the logistics when a candidate runs unopposed or withdraws from a race.
Those four passed by wide margins or unanimously, leaving term limits and compensation as the main controversies of the day. An appointed panel formed to review the county charter recommended all of the proposed changes, which require commission approval to get on the ballot.
Voters in 2012 also rejected increasing the $6,000 annual salary paid the 13 commissioners, a figure first established in the 1950s. Commissioners actually make significantly more than that, with cash compensation usually hovering around $50,000. That includes a $10,000 yearly bonus paid top executives in the county, another $9,600 to cover auto expenses, and a $24,000 yearly expense account. Miami-Dade also contributes $11,500 to each commissioner's pension account each year, said Marie Bell, communications director for the board.
The Moss proposal would have created a three-person panel appointed by a judge, Florida's governor and the county clerk that would set salaries for the commission and the mayor. There would be no cap on what the panel could set as pay. When Moss couldn't win support for the open-ended panel idea, he backed asking voters to approve using a state formula that would have paid commissioners $99,000 under 2018 calculations.
His supporters on the commission said it was ridiculous that Florida's largest local government has some of the state's lowest salaries for elected officials. They also argued the $6,000 compensation bars working-class candidates from seeking county office.
"Anybody should be able to serve, regardless of their level of income," said Commissioner Barbara Jordan, a retired county administrator. "The public needs to understand that if John Henry wants to serve and he works on a garbage truck, he can serve."
The salary proposals and the term-limit repeal both failed on 5-6 votes. On the term-limit repeal, the Yes votes were Jordan, Moss, Audrey Edmonson, Sally Heyman and Joe Martinez. For the salary-commission proposal, Jean Monestime joined Edmonson, Heyman, Jordan and Moss on the Yes side. Xavier Suarez and Jose "Pepe" Diaz were not there for the votes.
The 2012 charter amendment that passed with 77 percent of the vote limits commissioners to a pair of four-year terms. The new rules allowed incumbents in office when the referendum passed to serve two more terms, making 2020 their final year on the board. Commissioners reelected in 2014 must leave in 2022. The 13-member board holds elections every two years, alternating between the even- and odd-numbered districts.
Several commissioners warned that limiting board members to eight years in office would make it all but impossible for them to achieve significant improvements for their districts. "Eight years is not enough," Jordan said. "You will see the difference. ... Believe me, you will not be happy."
A few spots away on the dais, Eileen Higgins sat in the District 5 seat for her first commission meeting after winning last week's special election against Zoraida Barreiro, the wife of Bruno Barreiro. He held the seat for 20 years before resigning in March to run for Congress. Higgins joined the No side on the compensation and term-limit items.
"These are issues where the voters have spoken out pretty clearly," said Higgins, a first-time officeholder. "And vocally."
Higgins won with the backing of the Democratic Party and several unions, while the developers, lobbyists and county vendors who gave the most to incumbents in 2016 also backed Barreiro.
Edmonson, who was first elected in 2004, warned that term limits will wipe out independence on the commission.
"Let's be straight: This commission without experienced people will be run by the lobbyists and by staff," she said. "Voters are beginning to realize what they have done."
The approved ballot items heading to voters would:
▪ Strike down a rule in the county charter barring Miami-Dade employees from holding any elected office. The amendment would limit the ban to holding a county office, meaning the employees could serve at the federal, state and city levels. Employees would still have to take a leave of absence during an election.
▪ Require county lawyers to weigh in on the legality of a proposed ordinance before it becomes the subject of a petition drive. The charter lets voters approve ordinances by referendum if enough voters sign petitions to put the item on a ballot. If passed, the ordinances must remain on the books for a year before the commission can alter or repeal them.
Liberal groups gathered enough signatures in 2016 to get campaign-donation restrictions on the fall ballot, but learned from county lawyers at the last minute that there were legal flaws in the proposed language. The charter amendment would mandate that the legal review happen at the same time the County Commission authorizes the start of a petition process.
▪ End partisan primaries for the county's clerk of the court. Harvey Ruvin, a Democrat, has held this office since the 1990s. All other county offices face nonpartisan primaries, where every candidate runs regardless of party affiliation. The clerk's office is the exception, and the amendment — which Ruvin supports — would switch the position to a nonpartisan office for the next clerk's election in 2020.
▪ Officially allow the Elections Department not to count votes for unopposed, dead or withdrawn candidates. The county already follows this procedure, citing state law. The county's charter is mostly silent on the matter, and the amendment would add language explicitly authorizing the practice. It would also endorse canceling elections for candidates who run unopposed, which the county also does already.