Miami-Dade County

Miami ‘strong mayor’ ballot question faces another lawsuit from a familiar name

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez meets with the Miami Herald’s Editorial Board.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez meets with the Miami Herald’s Editorial Board. Miami Herald file

A wealthy scion of a pioneering Miami family has sued the city to stop a referendum to make Mayor Francis Suarez the most powerful individual in City Hall — the second legal challenge of a question voters will answer in this year’s election.

This time, the focus of the opposition is the issue of government transparency. Bruce Matheson, heir to the family who deeded Key Biscayne’s Crandon Park to the county in the 1940s, filed suit Friday evening alleging that the “strong mayor” referendum is legally invalid because language on the ballot is misleading and because the new government system would allow Suarez to violate Florida’s Sunshine Law, which aims to preserve transparency by requiring elected officials to meet and discuss government actions in public.

On the Nov. 6 ballot, Suarez is asking city voters to grant him a broad expansion of power. Under the proposal, the strong mayor would be the chief executive supervising the city’s day-to-day operations, the top administrator with control over the city’s $1 billion budget and the ability to make recommendations for city contracts. He would also get a raise, and powers that extend beyond even those of the county’s strong mayor, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez. Suarez would appoint the city attorney and city clerk, and he could serve as a nonvoting chairman of the City Commission, or appoint a chairman.

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Suarez, in his current limited role as an “executive mayor,” can already act as chair or name someone else. He has chosen to follow the custom of naming the commission chair, the person who runs public meetings and controls the flow of legislation in the city. Commissioner Keon Hardemon currently holds this powerful post.

Because Suarez has no vote, he is not bound by the Sunshine Law when he meets or communicates with commissioners. The mayor can privately discuss public matters with city commissioners without notifying the public or holding the meeting in the open. Suarez’s proposal states that the strong mayor would remain exempt from the Sunshine Law — an assertion Matheson is challenging by arguing that the exemption is unconstitutional, and the ballot language is misleading because it does not explicitly explain this exemption.

Bruce Matheson speaks to the Miami-Dade County commissioners against an expansion plan for the Crandon Park Tennis Center in 2013. Peter Andrew Bosch Miami Herald staff

Matheson takes issue with the plan to keep the mayor’s dealings with other elected officials behind closed doors while consolidating vast administrative power and maintaining the mayor’s ability to control the commission chairmanship, according to the 10-page complaint — which calls the strong mayor proposal the “Secret Mayor Amendment.”

“The exemption set forth in the proposed Amendment will significantly diminish the Mayor’s accountability to the public and the City’s adherence to open government and access rights guaranteed under the First Amendment, the Florida Constitution, and Florida law,” reads the lawsuit.

Gimenez, who runs Miami-Dade’s bureaucracy as an elected strong mayor, is also not bound by the Sunshine Law. But Gimenez does not appoint the chairman of the County Commission, a function that could be used as political tool linked to legislative action. The commission chair holds the gavel at city commission meetings, steering the direction of legislation and debate, along with the way the public comments before votes.

Gimenez is another vocal critic of the plan who has amplified his opposition. Last week, his political committee mailed ads urging voters to reject the change.

Matheson is trying to block the referendum by asking for an emergency injunction in Miami-Dade Circuit Court. He’s known for suing local governments over public land deals, including a 2014 voter-approved plan to allow Florida International University to build on county fairgrounds. Matheson successfully opposed the expansion of the Crandon Park Tennis Center, leading to the departure of the Miami Open from Key Biscayne, where the event had been held since 1987.

Most recently, Matheson lost an appeal in a lawsuit against Miami-Dade over a no-bid deal with David Beckham and his partners to buy county land in Overtown for a soccer stadium.

The strong mayor challenge is the second lawsuit aiming to stop the referendum. In a lawsuit that was recently tossed out by a Miami-Dade circuit judge, Commissioner Joe Carollo argued the ballot language was misleading and the process to place the question on the ballot was illegal. Carollo’s attorney told the Miami Herald last week they are considering an appeal.

Read the full complaint below: