Miami-Dade County

Francis Suarez’s quest to become a strong mayor hits a snag over calculating salary

City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez wants voters to make him a ‘strong mayor,’ or the chief executive officer of the city administration. Commissioners have voted to hold a referendum on the government’s structure in November.
City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez wants voters to make him a ‘strong mayor,’ or the chief executive officer of the city administration. Commissioners have voted to hold a referendum on the government’s structure in November. rkoltun@miamiherald.com

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez’s effort to become the most powerful individual in the city government is tied up over his proposed pay.

The issue isn’t the amount that he would make if he were to become a “strong mayor,” the chief executive overseeing the city administration. It’s how to best explain that compensation — which could amount to a raise in the future — within the 75-word limit set for referendum questions that appear on ballots.

The main reason why the matter wasn’t settled on Monday, one day before a seemingly hard-and-fast deadline to submit questions for the November ballot, was because the county supervisor of elections gave the city a one-week deadline extension.

So goes the political drama at Miami City Hall.

Suarez wants voters to approve a significant change to his responsibilities and his salary — changes that he and his supporters have pushed through a ballot petition to hold a referendum on the structure of Miami’s municipal government.

Suarez had called a special meeting for the commission to consider placing the question on the November ballot after his campaign got enough certified signatures from voters to force a referendum. At that meeting Monday afternoon, city commissioners approved the creation of a ballot question but not could not agree on the wording.

With four members present, Suarez needed three votes to place a question on the ballot. Commissioner Manolo Reyes was the deciding vote, and his major sticking point was how to explain to voters how the calculation for Suarez’s salary would change, a tricky provision to unpack through the succinct ballot language.

The disagreement led to delays that stretched the hearing into the early evening and prompted City Manager Emilio Gonzalez to call Supervisor of Elections Christina White and ask for a deadline extension, which she granted. The commission then paused Monday’s meeting and agreed to continue it at 10 a.m. Aug. 14, the new deadline.

Currently, the mayor is paid a base salary of $97,000, which is part of an overall compensation package of $130,600 that is set by the commission. Under his strong-mayor proposal, Suarez would receive no less than 75 percent of the compensation paid to Miami-Dade County’s mayor.

Suarez and Reyes don’t agree on how to word this in the ballot question because of the complication stemming from Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s decision to forgo half of his compensation. Every year, the county administration budgets about $326,000 in total compensation for the county mayor, but he requests a waiver each year to receive about half of that and lets the other half go back to the county.

So while Suarez’s full compensation already surpasses the 75 percent minimum, should Gimenez or his successor choose to take the full, budgeted county mayor’s compensation, the strong mayor’s minimum salary would increase to $244,500. Reyes harped on this point throughout Monday’s hearing.

“I think the citizens of Miami should be informed,” Reyes said, insisting that the ballot question should be clear.

Suarez told the Miami Herald his proposal sets a floor for the compensation of a strong mayor, as opposed to the “unfettered discretion” currently given to the commission to set the mayor’s pay to whatever it wants. Making the strong mayor’s minimum compensation a percentage of the county mayor’s pay also subjects the strong mayor to the will of the county commission, which approves the county mayor’s pay.

“Let’s say a very wealthy person became the mayor of Miami-Dade County and decided that they wanted to do the job for a dollar a year,” he said. “That would just mean that the floor would be reduced by that amount, so theoretically, the mayor could be paid 75 cents.”

But the difference between the examples used by Reyes and Suarez reflected the gulf between their stances on competing drafts of ballot language, spurring the request for a deadline extension from the county elections department.

Now, Miami commissioners have until the end of the day Aug. 14 to submit language. Suarez and his campaign contend that no matter what happens that day, the city needs to hold a referendum because at least 10 percent of the city’s registered voters signed petitions that were certified by county elections officials.

Suarez said if the commission doesn’t put the strong-mayor proposal to a vote in November, the city would be forced to hold a special election that would cost about $1.1 million.

He’s advocating for a broad expansion of his power to give him control of the city’s $1 billion budget and the authority to appoint and remove the city attorney, the city clerk, and the heads of departments that make up the city’s large bureaucracy. The first-term mayor’s long-sought change would grant him broad authority on running the day-to-day operations of the city.

Under Suarez’s proposal, he would have more power than Gimenez has over the county government.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez visits Texas border crossing and speaks about the unaccompanied immigrant children being separated from their parents on June 21, 2018.

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