Fabiola Santiago

Miami-Dade residents don’t stand a chance to be heard when lobbyists write the rules

Miami-Dade Commissioner Joe Martinez was one of the Yes votes Tuesday to allow lobbyists to be part of the Charter Review Task Force.
Miami-Dade Commissioner Joe Martinez was one of the Yes votes Tuesday to allow lobbyists to be part of the Charter Review Task Force. Miami Herald

Miami-Dade commissioners devoted some quality time Tuesday to staging one of the most riveting political plays we’ve seen since … well, not too long ago. This is a county where conflicts of interest and influence peddling rule the day, the week, the month, and most notably, the public agenda.

The subject at hand Tuesday was whether to allow lobbyists to be part of the influential Charter Review Task Force.

Lobbyists rewriting the county charter? Recommending changes? That’s an easy ‘No’ vote — but not for the majority of county commissioners, who voted 6-4 to include lobbyists in the panel.

If you’re a fan of the useful fox-in-the-hen-house analogy, the issue boils down to gray foxes in charge (commissioners) arguing among themselves about whether to give red foxes (lobbyists) who finance their road to political power a hand at writing the farm rules.

We — taxpayers, voters, residents — are the hens.

Foxes eat the hens when no one’s guarding the house.

We don’t stand a chance to be heard when lobbyists help write the rules of the political game.

But it’s the natural order of things, the foxes will tell you. Capitalism.

Their discussion was a study in cynicism.

To obfuscate the lobbyist issue, Commissioner Joe A. Martinez argued with a straight face that if the county bans special interests from having ready access and input into setting the county rules, groups like the venerable bird-watching Audubon Society would be ruled out, too. Such political theater pays off. Originally elected in 2000, the former police officer was elected again in 2016 after being away four years. He voted for the lobbyists.

Prior to Tuesday’s vote, Herald reporter Douglas Hanks reported on the charter review issue. He cited this interesting example of how public service and a lucrative living feed each other: Maria Lievano-Cruz, former chief of staff to Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz, is a top executive with the company building the Brightline high-speed rail. Diaz’s district is lobbyist heaven: It encompasses Doral, Hialeah Gardens and large swaths of unincorporated Miami-Dade under heavy-duty overdevelopment. To overcome obstacles over zoning issues, quality-of-life impact and environmental concerns, developers hire an army of land-use lawyers and lobbyists to represent them before cities and the county.

Diaz sounded like he wouldn’t mind staying in office forever. This fox, in county office since 2002 and a former mayor of Sweetwater, threw out there that “maybe” the Charter Review Task Force should revisit commission term limits approved by voters in 2012. He voted for the lobbyists.

Only commissioners Esteban Bovo, Audrey Edmonson, Daniella Levine Cava and Xavier Suarez voted to ban the lobbyists from the charter review panel.

Lobbyists already pay to play — legally so — by making large donations to the political campaigns of elected officials who vote on their clients’ projects and interests. In any issue that comes up before the county commission — the mega mall, David Beckham’s soccer stadium, a Walmart and housing development on protected pine rockland, you name it — the formula is stacked up in the lobbyists’ favor from the get-go. Residents affected are only allowed brief, highly limited commentary at public hearings. It’s not a level playing field at all.

Now the lobbyists also will get a chance to decide, for example, what issues get a shot at going before voters. Lobbyists seldom like that route; they prefer a friendly politician’s vote.

The foxes’ vote reverses a 2012 policy to bar lobbyists. They have no shame, no qualms about leaving good government out of the equation.

Championing special interests is their natural habitat.

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