Miami Beach

Commissioner pay, mayoral term limits among issues that will be on Miami Beach ballot

Miami Beach city leaders stewed over nine ballot measures Wednesday, ultimately deciding to place six questions before voters in November, killing three other measures.

Ballot items that drew the most discussion during Wednesday’s City Commission meeting dealt with new term limits for the mayor, higher compensation for the mayor and city commissioners, and greater flexibility in filling commission vacancies.

Miami-Dade County, which prints the ballots, requires cities to decide on ballot measures by Sept. 6. Wednesday’s meeting was the commission’s last regular meeting before August recess.

Commissioners were at odds over a ballot measure that would increase the mayor’s term limits from three two-year terms to two four-year terms. The amendment wouldn’t go into effect until 2021. Commissioners John Elizabeth Alemán and Joy Malakoff sponsored the ballot proposal, which passed on a 4-3 vote.

Alemán said new term limits would help depoliticize mayoral races, minimize the distraction of campaigning and curtail the cost of mayoral campaigns.

Mayor Dan Gelber said he voted on the proposal because the measure wouldn’t affect the upcoming election cycle. Gelber voted yes to the ballot measure.

“Two-year terms for a mayor — especially with a city with this much stuff going on — does create a bit of running around and campaigning, which is not particularly consistent with the most elevated form of government,” Gelber said.

Commissioners serve four-year terms.

Commissioner Mark Samuelian said amending term limits could curb voter turnout because having the mayor up for re-election every two years helps bring residents to the polls.

“Government is at its best when its citizens are watching and engaged,” said Samuelian, who voted against putting the measure on the ballot. “Having the mayor on the ballot is a driver to turnout. We’ve never had that experience, at least in my history, where we’ve never had the mayor on the ballot...What does the election look like without any mayoral race?”

City leaders decided to bring back a question that voters previously rejected: Increasing compensation for the mayor and commissioners starting in 2021. Voters rejected a similar ballot question in August 2018 by a slim five-point margin. However, the 2018 ballot question didn’t have a 2021 effective date.

In 1966, the city charter instituted compensation of $6,000 a year for commissioners and $10,000 a year for the mayor. It has not been increased since then, although other benefits have been added. The ballot question asks voters to increase the yearly wage for a commissioner to $45,381 a year and $75,636 a year for the mayor — both figures the value of the 1966 salary adjusted for the cost of living.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Alemán amended the original ballot measure to include further pay increases tied to the consumer price index, which takes into consideration the average change in prices over the years for consumer goods and services.

“It is very, very difficult to serve on this commission and work a full-time job at the same time,” said Michael Góngora, who seconded the motion to pass the measure. “You very easily could make being a commissioner your full-time job if you allowed it to.”

Another question that will go on the November ballot is how to fill a commission seat left vacant as the result of a commissioner’s resignation. Sponsored by Commissioner Micky Steinberg, the measure asks voters to approve or disapprove of giving commissioners a 30-day period, starting the date a commissioner files his or her resignation with the city clerk, to decide to fill a vacant seat or put the seat up for election, rather than dating it from the day the resignation is effective, or when actual vacancy occurs. The measure makes it easier to schedule the special election to coincide with a city or county election.

In addition to mayoral term limits, commissioner pay and rules for filling a commission vacancy, the commission voted to place three other measures on the November ballot:

Convention Center park: This measure asks voters whether to name the new park by the Miami Beach Convention Center “Pride Park.” The park is being built on what is currently a surface parking lot, west of Convention Center Drive, east of Meridian Avenue, between 18th and 19th streets.

Increase in maximum density: An amendment to the city charter that would allow higher density construction in certain buildings along Washington Avenue and Alton Road in which at least a quarter of the space is used for offices.

Historic buildings floor area ratio: This measure would give the city more flexibility to allow the expansion of historic buildings under limited circumstances.

Three others were rejected or withdrawn.

Adaptive reuse parking spaces: As the demand for off-street parking declines, this measure would have allowed garage parking spaces to be converted to other uses, but only under very specific conditions.

Architect lobbying: This proposal would have amended the city’s Code of Ethics to provide an exception from the prohibition on lobbying by city officials. It would have allowed architects and landscape architects who sit on the Historic Preservation Board or the Design Review Board to lobby city personnel or officials, except for staff and members of the board on which they serve.

Homelessness and domestic violence tax: Voters would have decided whether to start a process to add a 1 percent tax on restaurant food and beverage sales, with some exceptions, to pay for services for the homeless and victims of domestic violence. If voters approved, the commission would then have asked the Legislature to amend state law to allow collection of the tax.

Commissioner Ricky Arriola sponsored the resolution for a tax on restaurant food and beverage sales to Miami Beach to help pay for services for the homeless and victims of domestic violence. The commission declined to pass a similar resolution in May. Miami Beach is one of three county municipalities that are exempt from the county tax because they have existing taxes on restaurant bills to help pay for municipal services. Adding a 1 percent tax would have boosted taxes on restaurant bills to 10 percent — the highest food and beverage tax rate in the state.

“Even though we’ve taken some recent steps to help fund the issue, we need a sustainable, long-term funding mechanism,” Arriola said.

However, the measure received pushback from business owners and commissioners who viewed the tax as putting restaurant business owners at a disadvantage.

“We applaud what Commissioner Arriola pointed out and we encourage the city to find alternate funding, but we do oppose it being on the back of a single group, the restaurants,” Jerry Libbin, president and CEO of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce, said at Wednesday’s meeting.