Miami-Dade County

Miami will vote on whether to give its mayor more power. But the votes may not count.

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

Miami voters will cast ballots in the November election on whether they want to make Mayor Francis Suarez the most powerful person in the city government — but their votes might not count.

Suarez wants to become the city’s chief executive who would control the city’s $1 billion budget, hire and fire the city attorney, make crucial recommendations on city contracts and oversee a bureaucracy of public workers, from parks employees to police officers to planning and zoning officials. To make this change, voters would have to amend Miami’s city charter — the city’s constitution — through a referendum.

Commissioner Joe Carollo, one of two commissioners who voted against holding a referendum that would allow voters to create a “strong mayor” form of government, filed a lawsuit this week to block the vote on the grounds that the ballot question is misleading and the process of gathering signatures for the petition to put it on the ballot was illegal.

At an emergency hearing Thursday morning in Miami-Dade civil court, Judge Miguel de la O and attorneys from both sides agreed to expedite preparation for a trial that is expected to be held the first week of October. A status hearing is scheduled for next week for procedural purposes.

Because the trial will be held just one month before election day and after many of the ballots are printed, the strong mayor question will be printed on the ballot. Should the question be invalidated in court, voters will be notified that the referendum is canceled and the votes for that question will not be counted.

A lawsuit seemed almost inevitable when commissioners voted to place the question on the ballot in August, a tumultuous process on its own that stretched across two tense commission meetings during which Carollo and Commissioner Manolo Reyes strongly objected to the proposal.

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Miami City Commissioner Joe Carollo, during a city commission meeting on Thursday, May 10, 2018. Roberto Koltun Miami Herald file photo

Carollo reiterated much of those objections in his lawsuit, contending that the question that will be printed on the ballot is “ambiguous and intentionally misleading” because it does not give a dollar amount for how much Suarez would be compensated if he were a strong mayor. The compensation question is a major sticking point for both sides. Suarez and representatives from the political committee he organized, Miamians for an Independent and Accountable Mayor’s Initiative, maintain that Suarez will not receive a raise if the referendum were to pass.

Suarez 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 the strong-mayor system he’s proposing, Suarez would receive no less than 75 percent of the compensation paid to Miami-Dade County’s mayor.

The complication is Miami-Dade Carlos Gimenez does not take home the full compensation that is budgeted for him. Each year, Gimenez requests a waiver and receives about half of the $326,000 he is entitled to. The other half remains with the county.

Lawyers for the pro-strong-mayor group have insisted that the intent was to set a salary floor using Gimenez’s take-home figure as the basis for the formula, which would mean Miami’s strong mayor would not earn more — immediately. Should Gimenez or his successor choose to receive the full amount budgeted for the office, the Miami mayor’s minimum salary would increase beyond $200,000.

Now, the semantics will be dissected before a circuit judge.

“The language is misleading. It’s a lie,” said Jesus Suarez, Carollo’s attorney. “They gathered the petitions by lying to voters, and by cheating the process.”

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Another issue raised in the lawsuit: The validity of the process the pro-strong mayor group used to gather signatures to put the question on the ballot. As commissioners considered the referendum in August, Carollo pointed out that about 40 percent of the people who were gathering signatures were not registered Miami-Dade voters, a violation of county law.

Benedict Kuehne, an attorney for the Miamians group, has said the group was only using county law as a guide because the city doesn’t have its own law. He dismissed the issue when speaking to reporters after Thursday’s hearing.

“Every signature on 20,000 petitions are legitimate signatures of legitimate voters of the city of Miami,” Kuehne said. “The rest is window dressing. The rest is an effort to try to create a procedural issue.”

In a statement responding to the lawsuit, Suarez said he thinks Carollo is trying to usurp power from the voters by blocking the vote.

“Sadly, this lawsuit is another demonstration of Commissioner Carollo’s insatiable desire to control the city of Miami government by once again attempting to thwart the will of the people to decide democratically how they want to be governed and be able to hold elected officials, like himself, accountable for their actions,” Suarez said.