Francis Suarez wants to be a ‘strong mayor.’ Unexpected legal issues could get in way

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, at his first State of the City address at City Hall in 2018.
Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, at his first State of the City address at City Hall in 2018. cmguerrero@miamiherald.com

Miami’s top politician has had a hard time politicking lately, and it could get even harder in the coming days.

Controversy dogged Mayor Francis Suarez’s strong support for holding a referendum on David Beckham’s proposal to build a big commercial complex and Major League Soccer stadium on a municipal golf course, a plan criticized after organizers rushed out plans for the complex days before public votes in July, offering few details and sparking more questions than answers.

After some drama, that vote will proceed during the November election. Now Suarez faces more scrutiny for a long-sought, centerpiece reform in his first year as mayor: a reorganization of the city government that would make him Miami’s most powerful elected official.

He needs voters to approve the change in a referendum, which city commissioners on Tuesday will consider placing on the November ballot.

However, the road to consolidating much of the city government’s power under one “strong mayor” is muddied by opposition from some commissioners, pointed criticism from the county mayor and questions of whether the political committee driving the strong mayor effort followed the proper legal procedure while gathering signatures for a ballot petition.

Those questions could fuel legal complications for Suarez’s proposal. Under county law, the people who gather signatures are supposed to be registered to vote in Miami-Dade. But county elections officials could not verify the local registration for about 40 percent of the signature gatherers, according to a review provided to the city and obtained by the Miami Herald on Friday.

The committee’s attorney says the voter registration requirement is unconstitutional and cited a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

No matter what, for Suarez, it’s a messy entanglement as he tries to push a key piece of his mayoral agenda forward. Counting the stadium proposal, it’s the second time as mayor that he wants to send a high-profile item he supports out to the voters — another test of his political clout.

But if you ask him, it’s not about him. Nor is it about a potential raise he could receive for a part-time job. Suarez is an attorney at the Greenspoon Marder law firm, where he works “of counsel” — in his case, a part-time position at a firm where he is neither a partner nor an associate — and says he plans to continue his legal practice even if he becomes a strong mayor.

“This reform is not about me, it’s about the system of government,” he told the Miami Herald this week. “Having said that, I have said time and time again that I am not asking for a raise. No one questions my work ethic or the amount of time I spend being mayor. I balance that with being a private attorney, a husband and a father. In November, while the voters may invest more responsibility in me in the form of having the ultimate decision-making authority, I don’t anticipate that it will change that balance.”

Yet, the face of the strong mayor campaign is the mayor himself, who has sought for several years as a city commissioner and mayor to transform City Hall’s power structure. Under his proposal, he would immediately be elevated to decider-in-chief, the top administrator in charge of the city’s day-to-day operations.

Currently, a city manager appointed by the mayor controls Miami’s $1 billion budget, oversees a municipal workforce of several thousand employees and makes important recommendations on awarding government contracts. Suarez considers this system ripe for dysfunction and prone to turnover. It’s true that Miami burns through city managers every few years, the result of a situation where the manager can be fired by either the mayor or the commission.

Still, critics have attacked his version of strong mayor over the formula that would be used to calculate Suarez’s minimum compensation, a figure that could increase significantly based on what Miami-Dade’s mayor earns. Opponents also said the plan tips the balance of power too far in the mayor’s favor because it allows him to hire and fire the city attorney, placing the person in charge of issuing weighty legal opinions under the sole supervision of the mayor instead of the five-member commission.

“It is dangerous,” said Commissioner Manolo Reyes.

Regardless of the philosophical arguments for or against a strong mayor, a procedural issue could come into play.

Tuesday’s 10 a.m. meeting is actually the continuation of an Aug. 6 hearing where the four commissioners present came to an impasse over the wording of the ballot question. But a possibly bigger issue loomed.

Commissioner Joe Carollo appeared to tee up a legal challenge when he noted that the political committee supporting Suarez’s effort did not make sure that the people collecting signatures were registered voters in Miami-Dade County — a requirement under county law.

The committee used a county law as a guide when it set out to gather signatures earlier this year because the city of Miami’s laws do not outline a process for collecting petition signatures. This legal gap could cause problems for the committee because when county elections officials reviewed the list of signature collectors, dozens could not be confirmed as Miami-Dade voters.

“What effect, if any, this has on the validity of the petitions is a determination for the city clerk and city attorney under the laws applicable to the city of Miami,” wrote Supervisor of Elections Christina White in an email to the city.

City Attorney Victoria Mendez declined to comment.

Jennifer Blohm, the committee’s elections lawyer, seemed taken aback when Carollo first raised his objection. She later said that the provision is unconstitutional, citing a 1999 U.S. Supreme Court decision that invalidated a similar requirement in Colorado.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has already addressed this issue and found the voter registration requirement for petition circulators unconstitutional. The [committee] followed all steps necessary when collecting these petitions in a transparent manner,” reads a statement released by the committee.

After the Aug. 6 meeting, Carollo wouldn’t say whether he would take the committee to court. He would only say someone should.

“Listen, it has to be challenged,” he said. “This is so outrageous, the way they’ve gone about this.”

The petition itself cites the specific section of the county code that applies to ballot initiatives, a fact highlighted by Univision journalist Erika Carillo in a television news report this week. The report outlined the lingering legal questions and pointed to another potential problem — a translation of the term “city attorney” into Spanish. The petition, which summarizes the proposed charter changes in English, Spanish and Creole, uses the phrase “fiscal municipal” in reference to the city attorney. The word “fiscal” is widely used to refer to a prosecutor, not a municipal attorney.

When asked about the translation issue, the committee issued a statement saying the charter amendments were “clear, transparent, and informative.”

“The context of a revision to the City Charter, the plain and ordinary understanding of the words used are clear, non-controversial, and fully consistent with the proposed form of government,” the statement reads.

Even without the process questions, Suarez’s proposal is catching flack on the basis of how power is distributed in his proposed government. He has at least one well-known detractor outside City Hall: Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez.

Gimenez, a strong mayor himself and former city manager in Miami, came out against the plan this week and promised to fight the proposal if it reaches the ballot. He called the proposal an “overreach” that eclipses the powers he has as the county’s elected administrator. Suarez’s proposal does expand power beyond that of the county mayor.

“I don’t fear Francis Suarez,” Gimenez said. “This is not about him. This is about changing the government.”

Gimemez said making the city attorney an employee of the mayor puts the attorney, who typically defends the whole city government and the its laws, in a precarious situation when it comes to giving legal opinions. He said Suarez should have taken the opportunity to eliminate the power he already has to act as the chairman of the commission. Suarez follows the custom of appointing a chair and vice chair and not sitting on the dais.

The county mayor also said he “couldn’t imagine” having outside employment.

“You’re either the manager, or you’re not,” Gimenez said.

Gimenez, a Miami resident, said his sharp takes on the issue stem from his interest in a government with proper checks and balances and his history as Miami’s former administrator. There could, however, be some long-range politics at play. When asked whether he was interested in running for public office in the city of Miami after his county term ends in 2020, he would only say he wants to continue public service in some capacity.

“I wouldn’t rule anything out,” he said.

Suarez and the committee supporting his effort, Miamians for an Independent and Accountable Mayor’s Initiative, prefer to describe their concept in terms that they hope will speak to the lives of average residents. Suarez has said an elected strong mayor would be immediately accountable, giving the voters the right to decide who becomes the city’s chief executive, the boss of the workers who run neighborhood parks, the police who patrol the streets and planners who enforce the rules of real estate development. If the voters disapprove, they would be able to recall the strong mayor.