Miami-Dade County

Facing ballot deadline, Miami politicians scramble to propose changes to government

City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez at his first State of the City address at City Hall in 2018. Suarez wants to ask voters to expand his powers as mayor by making him the city’s top administrator.
City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez at his first State of the City address at City Hall in 2018. Suarez wants to ask voters to expand his powers as mayor by making him the city’s top administrator.

Even when Miami’s elected leaders are supposed to be on vacation, they can’t resist stirring the city’s political cauldron with some messy lawmaking.

Mayor Francis Suarez and Commissioner Manolo Reyes want voters in November to decide if they want to make major changes to the city government’s power structure and how public land is used for private development. But they face multiple obstacles, one of which could force the city to hold a special election after the November ballot — at a cost of $1.1 million to the city.

There is an Aug. 7 deadline to submit ballot questions to the county elections department. With little time left, they have both requested special City Commission meetings be held on Monday to consider sending multiple city charter amendments to Miami’s voters.

Because the commission typically takes time off in August, no regular meetings are scheduled during that month.

Suarez has submitted enough certified signatures on a ballot petition to force a referendum asking voters to change the city to a strong-mayor form of government, which would make him the most powerful individual in the city government.

Under the change, he would go from being largely a ribbon-cutting figurehead to the chief executive officer of the municipal government’s day-to-day operations. He wants to be the top decision maker on the city’s $1 billion budget, the “strong mayor” overseeing the police chief, management of public parks and all of the city’s workforce, and the bureaucrat making important recommendations for government contracts — responsibilities now held by the city manager, who is appointed, not elected. It’s the same type of government Miami-Dade County has, though Suarez’s plan would grant him even more power than Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

If voters approve, Suarez would immediately be granted more power, and his salary would get bumped from $97,000 to $112,500, according to his proposed plan.

Three commissioners have told the Herald they will be at the 2 p.m. meeting Monday, the minimum needed to take a vote. Suarez needs two of three votes in favor of placing the question on the ballot. As mayor, Suarez does not have a vote. If he doesn’t get a majority of votes from those present, the city would be forced by its own laws to spend $1.1 million on a special election, likely in early 2019.

“One way or another, this is going on a ballot,” Suarez said Tuesday evening. “It’s just a matter of when.”

In a letter sent Monday evening to the political committee organizing Suarez’s effort, City Clerk Todd Hannon confirmed that the county elections department has certified enough signatures from Miami voters to place a change to the city charter on the ballot. Miami-Dade County’s elections department certified 19,880 signatures; he needed 19,334. Signatures from 10 percent of the total number of registered voters from the previous election are required to propose a change to the city charter through a ballot petition.

Some commissioners dislike Suarez’s plan. One of his critics, Commissioner Manolo Reyes, made a counterproposal for a strong mayor form of government in early July that he thought might spark a compromise, but it didn’t go anywhere. Now, Reyes wants to hold his own special meeting immediately after Suarez’s meeting to consider a revised strong-mayor counterproposal for the ballot, along with possible charter changes regarding selling or leasing public land.

Reyes wants to block the commission from circumventing the competitive bidding process to sell or lease public land for private development, a change that stems from his objection to the process the city followed to pursue a deal with David Beckham and his partners to replace Melreese Country Club with a commercial complex and Major League Soccer stadium.

But Reyes may not get his proposals heard. He needs two other commissioners to join him in his request for a special meeting just to hear his items, which he has requested for 2:10 p.m. Monday, right after Suarez’s meeting. As of Wednesday night, no one else had supported Reyes’ request.

As mayor, Suarez can unilaterally call a special meeting.

Also opposed to Suarez’s strong-mayor concept: Carollo. In a jab at Suarez earlier this year, he proposed having voters consider a whole slew of options for transforming the government, ranging from the standard balance of power between the mayor and commission to a supposed “Caesar” option where one person would control every government decision.

Carollo said he is not going to Monday’s meeting due to commitments he cannot change, and Commissioner Keon Hardemon’s office confirmed he will not attend.

Carollo said he thinks if Suarez’s strong-mayor referendum is inevitable, Suarez should pay for it with campaign cash he has left over from his mayoral race.

“That $1 million plus they have saved — they could spend that to pay for the special election,” he said.

The political committee pushing Suarez’s effort, Miamians for an Independent and Accountable Mayor’s Initiative Inc., raised $779,383 through June. At that point, the committee had spent $633,767.57 on a concerted effort to get signatures. Expenses included political consultants, advertising, a website and text message blasts.