Miami-Dade County

‘Strong mayor’ ballot question sparks new tiff between Miami and Miami-Dade mayors

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez speaks with the Miami Herald’s editorial board in Doral on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez speaks with the Miami Herald’s editorial board in Doral on Friday, Jan. 26, 2018.

Miami-Dade elections chief Christina White set an Aug. 7 deadline for cities to turn in the wording for local ballot items, and she told at least one mayor that there wasn’t enough wiggle room to extend it even by 48 hours.

Then White received a call from her boss, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. A day later, White publicly agreed to give Miami an extra week to consider the ballot language expanding the city mayor’s authority — a delay sought by a top foe of the proposal, City Commissioner Joe Carollo.

The phone call from Gimenez to the person he appointed to run the county’s elections agency is the latest twist in a saga that has widened a rift between the two most prominent politicians in the county. City Mayor Francis Suarez wants to transform his position from a largely ceremonial post to one that administers the city government, and Gimenez is calling it an improper power grab.

Gimenez said Monday he made the call to White on behalf of one of his sons, C. J. Gimenez, a lobbyist allied with Carollo. The revelation rankled Suarez, who was denied a shorter deadline extension beforehand because White’s office needed time to prepare a slew of lengthy ballots for different jurisdictions with different ballot questions and candidates, all in three languages.

“I’m very shocked to hear this, that the mayor of Miami was told that this was not doable” and yet for Gimenez’s son, a registered lobbyist in Miami, and political ally Carollo, an extension is possible, Suarez said.

Suarez wanted a few days so he could present his ballot item to a full five-member City Commission, hoping it would send the question to voters in November. With the deadline seemingly firm during the Aug. 6 commission meeting, Carollo suggested calling the county’s election supervisor to see if she could give the city more time.

Turns out, according to Gimenez, Carollo already knew the answer.

“I told them it wasn’t a hard date,” he said on Monday. “That if requested, the supervisor of elections would probably be amenable to moving it back a week.”

Miami commissioners are scheduled to vote on the wording of the “strong mayor” ballot question at 10 a.m. Tuesday, a continuation of the Aug. 6 meeting that was paused when commissioners reached an impasse. It was during that meeting that City Manager Emilio Gonzalez called White and she granted the extra week.

On Monday, Gimenez told the Miami Herald that on Sunday, Aug. 5, he called White to ask if Aug. 7 “was set in stone” as a deadline. He said the younger Gimenez and Carollo prompted the inquiry with a phone call to the county mayor.

In an interview earlier Monday, White confirmed the Sunday phone call, saying she didn’t have any issues with the inquiry.

“He did reach out and asked me if there was going to be any impact to me if there was an extension that was requested,” she said. “My reply was since it was just one city with one question, that I could live with giving them a one-week extension.”

Before Gimenez spoke to the Herald, Carollo told a reporter he did not know White would grant an extension if she was asked. When later asked about Gimenez’s statements, Carollo partly disputed the county mayor’s recollection.

“I don’t remember that at all,” said Carollo, who often recounts decades-old tales about Miami politics during commission debates. “He might be confused when he got back to C.J. in the timing. That I don’t remember whatsoever.”

C.J. Gimenez, who has recently lobbied Miami commissioners on high-profile issues such as a potential Formula One Grand Prix in downtown and David Beckham’s proposal to build a large commercial complex and soccer stadium on Melreese Country Club, declined to comment.

During his 2017 commission campaign, Miami Commissioner Joe Carollo greets supporters at Robert King High Towers surrounded by C. J. Gimenez, left, Tania Gimenez and Marjorie Carollo on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. C.M. GUERRERO.

Carollo, a staunch Suarez foe, said he was with C.J. Gimenez when they asked the county mayor about a deadline extension, but he does not remember receiving a response. Carlos Gimenez said he called his son with White’s response and that Carollo was with his son during that call.

Carlos Gimenez didn’t see any issue with calling someone he appointed to the top elections position in the county in 2016 to see if she’d be willing to allow a city more time to prepare a ballot question. Part of the reason is because, in his estimation, he’s actually the one in charge of elections.

“I’m the supervisor of elections. I delegate that power to Christina White,” Gimenez said. “To me, it’s important to get things right. Adding another week to get things on the ballot, I don’t see a problem with that. I would do it for anyone else who asked. That is the democratic process.”

The county mayor and Carollo loudly oppose Suarez’s proposed reform, which would make him the city’s chief executive who would control the city’s $1 billion budget, name a successor should the mayor be removed from office and have authority over thousands of city employees, including the city attorney.

Critics call Suarez’s proposal an inappropriate consolidation of power that goes too far. Chief among them: Carlos Gimenez, a strong mayor himself who decried the proposal last week saying it broadens the Miami mayor’s powers well beyond the authority he has as the county’s top administrator.

The county mayor talked about his call to White during an appearance on Spanish-language radio Monday morning. In an interview on Actualidad Radio 1040 AM, he told host Roberto Rodriguez Tejera that he had spoken with supervisor of elections before last week’s meeting. The bulk of Monday morning’s program was dedicated to the strong mayor issue, which has faced a swirl of criticism and legal questions surrounding the initiative.

In the center of the controversy, Suarez faces concerns over whether the group shepherding his ballot petition followed Miami-Dade’s ballot petition laws. The whole effort could face a legal challenge after it was revealed the petition drive used signature gatherers who were not registered voters in Miami-Dade, a requirement under county law. A county elections department review of the list of petition gatherers, obtained Friday by the Herald through a public records request, found that about 40 percent of the petition circulators were not registered voters.

Those problems continued to mount further Monday, when Univision journalist Erika Carrillo reported that signature gatherers working on the strong mayor campaign were trained to avoid using the word “power” when describing the proposed changes to the government, instead being instructed to focus on the mayor’s increased “responsibilities.” The television report also stated multiple signatures gatherers never read the proposed changes, didn’t understand the county laws they supposed to follow and a few are foreign nationals who are not permitted to work in the U.S.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, at his first State of the City address at City Hall in 2018. C.M. GUERRERO

On Monday, Suarez’s political consultant on the strong mayor campaign defended the petition effort and maintained that all laws were followed. Jesse Manzano-Plaza, who has led two mayoral campaigns for Gimenez, is heading Suarez’s strong mayor push.

But Suarez, bruised after days of criticism from political opposition and scrutiny from the media, went on offense.

Miami’s mayor said it was “ironic” that Gimenez was calling his appointed elections chief to ask about a deadline extension days before publicly stating Suarez’s proposal is a “dangerous” expansion of power.

“I think it’s unfortunately because there’s a political motivation. I think that ‘s pretty clear,” he said. “Especially from someone who‘s criticizing this as an overreach of power.”

Gimenez’s involvement in the effort to extend a deadline issued by a department he supervises comes as Miami-Dade is suing to block a state constitutional amendment shifting the position of elections supervisor from an appointed job to an elected one. Miami-Dade is one of the few counties in Florida that gives the mayor the power held by other counties’ elected sheriffs, election supervisors and tax collectors. Those posts, currently filled by Gimenez appointees, would become elected offices as well if the amendment passes.