Miami-Dade County

A push to strip Miami-Dade mayor of power fizzles in committee

Miami-Dade Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, who sponsored a proposed ballot item to return to the county’s administrative duties to a county manager instead of the mayor.
Miami-Dade Commissioner Rebeca Sosa, who sponsored a proposed ballot item to return to the county’s administrative duties to a county manager instead of the mayor. MIAMI HERALD FILE 2013

As Miami considers giving future mayors more power, a closely watched plan to strip authority from Miami-Dade’s mayor has fizzled.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Rebeca Sosa on Tuesday dropped her push for a fall vote on shifting administrative powers from the mayor to an unelected county manager answering to the 13-member commission. The proposal would have reversed a 2007 referendum that established the current “strong mayor” system, where the mayor not only can veto commission items but also has the administrative authority once given to a manager.

So far, only two men have served under the “strong mayor” system: Carlos Alvarez, who championed it while in office and then was recalled by voters in 2011, and Carlos Gimenez, who succeeded him and continues to hold the post. Gimenez is running for reelection this year, and term-limit restrictions would prevent him from seeking a third term in 2020 should he win.

Both of Miami-Dade’s neighbors, Broward and Monroe, are run by unelected administrators answering to elected commissioners. Most Florida cities have similar systems. In Miami, Mayor Tomás Regalado holds veto power over commission items and nominates the city manager, but does not have administrative powers.

Francis Suarez, a city commissioner running for Miami mayor, wants to change that system and alter the city charter to give Miami’s mayor the same kind of authority that Gimenez has. (Regalado’s daughter, Raquel Regalado, is running against Gimenez; Suarez’s father, Xavier, holds Gimenez’s former County Commission seat and used to serve as mayor of Miami.)

Sosa’s plan, which called for a countywide vote on Election Day, would have ended Miami-Dade’s strong mayor system in 2020 and brought back the job of county manager. But when the proposal came up at Tuesday’s meeting of the commission’s Strategic Planning committee, Sosa offered only tentative support for the proposal.

“I don’t have all the answers. But I wanted to bring it to you because I think it’s important for us to analyze,” Sosa said. “Both parts have merit in what they say. The people who tell you at least if I don’t like the mayor, I can vote against the mayor — they have a point. And the people who tell you: But there’s no balance in power, and we need to balance it more — they have a point, too.”

The session ended with Sosa deferring her item indefinitely, amid talk of a task force to look at broader changes in how the county functions. But first committee members engaged in what at times sounded like something between a pep talk and group therapy over their own potential.

“I think so many concerns we might have about the shift of power can be addressed by this powerful body, that doesn’t seize the power we have,” said Commissioner Sally Heyman. “We’re the legislature. . . . The power that we have is so enormous.”

As county mayor, Gimenez has the authority to veto almost any commission vote but rarely exercises it. The commission can then override a veto with a two-thirds majority.

“I don’t have a problem with the strong-mayor system,” said Juan Zapata, the committee’s chairman. “My issue has been. . . that this has been a weak commission. And it’s apparent during the budget process.”

Zapata, a former state lawmaker, has been pushing for commissioners to take a more active role in writing budget legislation, rather than just reviewing the spending plan submitted by the mayor’s office. “The commission doesn’t rise up to take ownership of the purse strings, which gives us power,” he said. “It’s been a source of frustration.”

Former county manager Merrett Stierheim urged commissioners to adopt Sosa’s plan, and knocked down criticism that the manager system outsources running the county to a well-paid administrator. “This business about the manager being the all-powerful position and unelected is smoke. Smoke,” said Stierheim, who served two stints as manager, the last one ending in 2001. Even a mayor without administrative powers “has a bully pulpit. He is either a leader or he is not a leader or he is marginal leader or what have you. But he has that bully pulpit.”

Sosa was seen as a possible Gimenez challenger this year, and she remains on the list of mayoral hopefuls for the 2020 election. So is Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo, who spoke up against Sosa’s proposal to water down the mayor’s powers.

“The mayor needs to see the big picture in everything we do,” he said, “where our first responsibility, just by the nature of our structure, is to look at our district first. And that becomes a very slippery slope.”