Miami-Dade County officials are affording us a seventh-grade civics lesson. When the “electeds” don’t have the know-how, leadership skills or chutzpah to solve a thorny problem, they turn to the ancient Athenians’ playbook and propose referendum questions for the voters to decide. It’s a classic example of “direct democracy,” which James Madison, one of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, described as a system prone to “instability, injustice and confusion.”
This week, the County Commission sheepishly decided to pass along two questionable issues to voters despite both November referendum questions being wrought with vagueness and cast in a false sense of urgency.
The referendum questions are being propelled by respected institutions trying to fulfill legitimate needs: the civil court needs a new courthouse because the old one is falling apart and Florida International University wants to take over the Youth Fair grounds and expand its main campus.
The discussion for the renovation of the county courthouse droned on for three hours. The chambers were full of well-heeled attorneys and some of the community’s most noted legal figures such as Harvey Ruvin, clerk of county courts, State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle and Chief Judge Bertila Soto. They made a convincing case as to the need for a new courthouse facility. What was missing, however, was anything remotely resembling specific details as to how, when and how much this undertaking would really be. When pressed for more definitive answers, they responded with one guesstimate after another — shocking given that these are trained professionals whose success depends on precise facts and details.
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Commissioner Juan Carlos Zapata, one of the two dissenting votes of the 11-2 win for the proponents of the renovation, perfectly characterized the flaw of the rushed proposal to me as “in haste there is always waste.” The other dissenter, Commissioner Esteban Bovo, also expressed a healthy dose of skepticism by questioning the lack of accurate facts and figures in the referendum. “My constituents will have a tough time dealing with yet another tax and so little specifics,” he said.
It’s disappointing that Zapata and Bovo, who were on point in highlighting the gaps in the courthouse plan were suddenly proponents of FIU’s proposal, which had an equally evident and disturbing lack of specifics.
One voice of reason came from School Board member Raquel Regalado, who spoke to the commission and rejected the comparisons made to the $1.2 billion Miami-Dade County Public Schools bond, which voters passed in 2012. “The big difference between our proposal and the ones passed this week by the County Commission is that we took the time to educate the voters on the issue, and we had specific numbers and information. The process this week was strangely rushed,” Regalado said.
Where was Mayor Carlos Gimenez on these issues? Wherever majority opinion swayed. The mayor, lest we forget, is the byproduct of the recall of his predecessor, Carlos Alvarez. One of the unforeseen negative consequences of that recall is that we now have “decision shy” elected officials who don’t want to take a sharp stand on anything perceived as politically risky. The mindset is: Pass the issue onto the electorate, and let them deal with the hot potato.
At face value, no one should stand against these initiatives, but given that the devil lies in the details and the glaring fact that this community is tax fatigued — perhaps Mayor Gimenez and the Miami Dade County commissioners should have opted to take more time mulling over the specifics of the questions at hand and practiced a facsimile of representative democracy, which is the system they were elected to serve under and uphold.