Miami-Dade voters have the chance to rewrite parts of the county charter this November, changes that would make it easier for citizens to pass ordinances into law, end partisan elections for the clerk of the courts, and let county employees run for elected office in other governments.
The five proposed charter amendments haven’t gotten anything close to the attention given statewide amendments on gambling, property taxes and felon voting. Not to mention high-profile campaigns in Miami for a new David Beckham stadium complex and in Miami Beach for a new convention center hotel.
Only one amendment has sparked an organized opposition effort. Each passed the County Commission with little debate or controversy. Each needs a majority vote on Election Day to become a part of the county charter, which sets the rules for how Miami-Dade government operates.
A sixth question will appear on ballots available to less than 1 percent of Miami-Dade’s 1.1 million registered voters, asking those residents living in an area outside Aventura if they want to form what would be the county’s 35th city.
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County Referendum 1: Should Miami-Dade switch the elected office of clerk of the Circuit Court from a partisan post to a nonpartisan post? Unlike the holder of every other county office — mayor, commissioner, property appraiser — the clerk is elected through a partisan primary, with candidates designated as Republican, Democrat, etc., on the ballot. Current clerk Harvey Ruvin has held the post for 26 years as a Democrat, and he supports the proposed switch to a nonpartisan office, where all candidates would compete in a single primary. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers would compete in a runoff election.
County Referendum 2: Should Miami-Dade lift its rule requiring county employees to take leaves of absence while running for office and quit if they win? The proposed change would narrow the existing rule to only cover Miami-Dade employees running for county office.
Under the new amendment, county employees could run for federal, state or city offices without having to take leaves from their Miami-Dade jobs and stay employed by the county if they win. The existing rule involving employees running for county commissioner, mayor or other offices within Miami-Dade government would still apply.
“We have a lot of members who might want to run,” Wilfredo Fleites, a county firefighter and member of the local fire union, told commissioners when they considered the change at a June meeting.
County Referendum 3: When citizens want to pass an ordinance by referendum, should the county’s lawyers issue a legal opinion on the proposed law before organizers take it to a petition drive?
This charter change stemmed from a pretty heated controversy in 2016, when liberal groups sought a referendum to enact a new campaign-finance ordinance for Miami-Dade. The groups gathered enough signatures before the August deadline, only to have county lawyers reveal legal flaws that allowed Miami-Dade to keep it off the ballot.
Miami-Dade lawyers issue their legal opinion on proposed petition drives ahead of the County Commission vote approving measures for the ballot. At that point, commissioners are voting only on whether the proposal is legal. The current rule puts that vote at the end of the process, once the language is locked in and signatures have been gathered.
Under the proposed amendment, the legality question would be settled ahead of the petition process — a timeline that should give backers the chance to tweak wording issues before the commission vote.
Juan Cuba, chairman of the Miami-Dade Democratic Party and an organizer of the 2016 drive, said the change would make sure “voters are not disenfranchised again by political gamesmanship.”
County Referendum 4: Should Miami-Dade drop a candidate from a race if he or she dies? Miami-Dade already does, and the proposed change would continue that practice. In fact, this charter change would simply ratify rules Miami-Dade already follows.
If a candidate dies during a campaign — as former El Portal mayor Daisy Black did in 2016 while running against incumbent Commissioner Audrey Edmonson — he or she is dropped from the race. Even when incumbent commissioner Juan Zapata withdrew from his 2016 race after ballots were printed, the Elections Department notified voters that Zapata was no longer a candidate and that votes for him wouldn’t be counted.
A county task force that recommended the change said it would eliminate “uncertainty” about some scenarios not addressed in the charter, such as when a candidate dies in the middle of a runoff election between the top two finishers in a nonpartisan primary.
County Referendum 5: Should Miami-Dade ban groups from paying petition canvassers on a per-signature basis?
Groups who need signatures for referendum drives often pay people to gather them. This amendment would bar basing the payment on the number of signatures gathered. This is the one proposed amendment that has drawn organized opposition. Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez is running ads against the measure, calling it an effort to make it harder for citizens to recall county politicians in petition drives. “Say no to those who presume to stay in office and continue misusing taxpayers’ money,” Suarez said in the Spanish-language ad funded by his political committee, Imagine Miami.
Susan Windmiller, a former president of Miami-Dade’s chapter of the League of Women Voters who was active in this year’s charter-change hearings, said paying by signature creates a financial incentive to go beyond simply inviting people to support a cause.
“We think there could be a potential for fraud,” Windmiller said. “We think they should just be paid for a day’s work.”
Miami-Dade’s Democratic Party opposes the proposed charter amendment, saying it “will de-incentivize signature gathering.”
County Referendum 6: This question goes only to about 11,000 voters within a small area outside Aventura with a population of about 20,000 people. The question is whether that area should spin off from the county’s unincorporated area and form its own city government. Passing this question won’t form the city automatically. Residents would need to take a second vote on a proposed charter to officially break away into the county’s 35th city — a municipality whose new name would be picked as part of the charter-drafting process.
The area includes the neighborhoods of Highland Lakes, Skylake and Ojus, and would have a budget of about $9 million a year, according to a preliminary financial plan drafted by the county.
Supporters of the incorporation effort say they want the benefits of a small city’s services, and the ability to keep more of their tax dollars local. Opponents warn of higher tax rates, and a needless new layer of bureaucracy to deliver the services currently provided by the county.
This article was updated to correct the spelling of firefighter Wilfredo Fleites’ name. It was also updated after a Miami-Dade commissioner began running an ad opposing County Referendum 5.