Miami-Dade County

Miami Commissioner Suarez to revive strong-mayor push

Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez is reviving his push to create a strong-mayor government in Miami.
Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez is reviving his push to create a strong-mayor government in Miami. El Nuevo Herald

Miami Commissioner Francis Suarez is reviving his push to change the city’s government to a strong-mayor system.

Starting Wednesday, Suarez will begin to resurrect the proposal through his role as chairman of a committee reviewing Miami’s charter — a municipal document akin to the Florida Constitution. The committee will make recommendations for changes to the city commission, which would put forth any proposed charter amendments to the voters as early as the presidential primary election of 2016.

As chairman, Suarez does not have a vote on the committee. But he will oversee the group, comprised of 13 additional members appointed by Miami’s commissioners, mayor and city manager. He acknowledged this week that he still wishes to give Miami’s mayor authority over the day-to-day operations of the city, arguing that the current delineation of powers creates a dysfunctional government prone to turnover.

“The strong mayor to me is the ultimate charter reform,” said Suarez. “It’s the most comprehensive and fundamental charter reform that’s needed. But there are many aspects of the charter that need to be fixed, from the smallest to most fundamental things.”

Currently, Miami’s mayor is mostly a figurehead, with duties laid out by the charter. Unlike Miami’s five commissioners, the mayor does not have a vote. And the city manager runs operations. The mayor, currently Tomás Regalado, does have the power to hire and fire the city manager, but needs permission from the commission to do so.

As a strong mayor, such as Miami-Dade‘s Carlos Gimenez, Miami’s mayor would run the operations of city government, becoming immediately more powerful. Were such a measure to pass in 2016, it would be Regalado’s successor — perhaps one of the city’s commissioners, including Suarez himself — who would most benefit when Regalado’s final term ends in 2017.

Suarez first proposed the change two years ago, but he dropped the issue without a vote after resistance from some commissioners.

“I don’t think the city of Miami is well accustomed to or well considered to have a strong mayor,” said Commissioner Marc Sarnoff.

Suarez said the support of a committee would likely give more credibility to the proposal, though he said he has no idea if the members, whose credentials he praised, will embrace the idea.

“If it survives the committee I think it has more credibility than just being my idea, [mine] perhaps being perceived as a political idea rather than a substantive reform,” Suarez said.

Among the committee members Suarez would need to convince: attorney Jay Solowsky, whose firm Sarnoff works with; James McQueen, chief of staff to Commissioner Keon Hardemon; Richard Kuper, former chief of staff to Commission Chairman Wifredo “Willy” Gort; Michael Llorente, Suarez’s own former chief of staff; and Stephen Kneapler, a one-time business partner of former mayor Manny Diaz and a Regalado appointee.

Members will tackle more than just the strong-mayor proposal. In all likelihood, their efforts will be slow and arduous, consisting of reviewing the old language of the charter to see where it can be improved.

Attorney Tucker Gibbs, appointed to the committee by Commissioner Frank Carollo, said the effort is dry but incredibly important. Gibbs said this is the third time he has sat on a charter-review committee for the city.

“The charter is essentially the constitution of your city. It’s the most important document regarding how your city is run,” said Gibbs. “For that reason people should be interested.”