Will The City Of Miami Get A 'Strong Mayor'?

Oct 3, 2018

The City of Miami will ask voters in November whether or not to make the city mayor the most powerful individual in the city government’s power structure. 

If passed, the strong mayor proposal would grant full executive power to the mayor to execute policy and become the lead decision maker of the city’s $1 billion budget -- responsibilities now held by the elected city manager.

According to the Miami Herald, if voters approve the proposal, the City of Miami mayor’s salary would get bumped from $97,000 to $112,500.

A number of city commissioners oppose the proposal, including Joe Carollo, a former city mayor, who has filed a lawsuit arguing that the language in the measure is unclear as it relates to a strong mayor’s level of compensation.

Sundial talked to Former Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, who favors the proposal, and former city manager of Miami and Miami-Dade County Merrett Stierheim, who is against the proposal. Penelas joined the show on Oct. 2 and Stierheim joined the show on Oct. 3. 

WLRN: Why do you think it is the right time for "strong mayor" now? Why do you think Mayor Suarez is the right mayor to do this?

Penelas: Well it's not just about Mayor Suarez, this will stay in place for future mayors as well. I really think that Miami's on the cusp of greatness. It's already a phenomenal city and it has a lot of challenges. It is a diverse community but it has the challenges of poverty, lack of transportation and critical infrastructure needs. We elect visionaries like Mayor Suarez and we elect people based on that vision. Yet, when he was sworn in, all the administrative responsibilities passed to someone he appointed, which was the city manager, and it is very frustrating not to have the actual tools to do what you need to do.

What happens to [current city manager Dr. Emilio Gonzalez] if this goes through?

Technically  the job or the role of the city manager goes away, however any good mayor is going to appoint a competent professional administrator to run the day-to-day affairs of a city or a county. But it will be under the leadership of a mayor who is the one that actually gets elected.

Is this just about changing the current system of government or does this have anything to do with any of the current personnel?

Always when these issues are debated it kind of goes in that direction. People say it was about the personalities, but you've got to look at the details. What I like about this proposal is that all of the important powers have a counter power or a check. Nothing here is absolute. People have focused on the enhanced powers for example of the mayor, but there's also enhanced powers for the Commission. For example, under this proposal the city commission will have the right to override the appointment of any department director, which is not a right that they have now. And I think the public also has acquired more power because the proposal clearly defines the recall provisions of the charter which now are vague and ambiguous.

Why are you not for the role of "strong mayor"?

Stierheim: Number one, it wasn't prepared in public. Usually you have a charter review committee that holds public hearings, does research and allows for public input. None of that was done. That's not the way you should change a charter. A charter is like the Constitution of the United States and it really sets forth all of the powers and duties. It's a sacred document and should be done publicly.

Secondly, it puts the city commission, who are elected from five districts, as a second-class organization. It really eliminates one of the fundamental requirements you want in an ethical democratic organization and that is checks and balances. For example, Miami-Dade County has checks and balances. The county commission has authorities. The strong mayor, who I think does basically a pretty good job -- Carlos Gimenez -- they check each other and that's what checks and balances means. There's a balance of power between the elected representatives and the strong mayor.

You were a city manager both in the city of Miami back in 1996 and Miami-Dade County after. Briefly give me an idea of what the responsibilities of the city manager?

Fundamentally getting rid of a city or county manager is not a good idea. There is no political substitute for the professional administration and management of public affairs. The manager is a professional and his job is to carry out the policies of the elected officials -- in this case the city commission, or in the case of the county the county commission and the mayor, they jointly create policy and once that policy is set then a professional manager is called in to administer and put into effect that policy.

What would be wrong with having the mayor be that administrator?

He is not an experienced city manager. Let's face it, he's a politician and politicians should be setting policy, not running the day to day administration of a huge multimillion dollar organization. I mean that's fundamental. But I'm not here to argue that point. My point is that this is not a Democratic proposal.