One of the statewide amendments voters will be facing in November includes four different questions. It would mandate a state department of veteran affairs, and a state anti-terrorism office. It would also change the calendar of state legislative sessions. And lastly, it would make fundamental changes to the way counties are run. It’s that last question that has county leaders in Miami-Dade, Broward and Volusia up in arms.
There’s a long history behind why Miami-Dade County doesn’t have an elected sheriff. But the abridged version is that in 1966, the elected sheriff was indicted after a grand jury found the office was essentially running a criminal organization.
The office was protecting illegal gambling operations, taking hush money from brothels, and was even extorting illegal abortion providers for protection. Following the scandal, local voters chose to eliminate the elected sheriff and make the county’s police chief an appointed position.
“Since then, we have what's considered to be one of the finest police departments in the nation,” says Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez.
All of that could soon be out the window, thanks to a section of Amendment 10 that is tucked in between two separate questions about making a permanent Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs and a state office for anti-terrorism, two offices that already exist. It’s an item that has county officials in Miami-Dade, Broward and Volusia Counties crying foul: if passed, State Amendment 10 would drastically reshape the three counties’ governments, impacting their right to local control.
Specifically, the one section of Amendment 10 that has the three counties sweating is a provision that would mandate every county in the state to have five elected offices: Property appraiser, tax collector, supervisor of elections, clerk of courts, and an elected sheriff.
In practice, only Miami-Dade, Broward and Volusia Counties would be affected. The rest of the state’s counties already elect those positions. The counties all sued the Florida Secretary of State’s office trying to get the proposal removed from the ballot, saying it was an affront to their right to home rule. The Florida Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision to let it stay on the ballot.
Miami-Dade doesn’t have an elected sheriff, tax collector or supervisor of elections; Broward doesn’t have an elected tax collector; Volusia County’s government appoints most county officers but elects a sheriff.
Both sides of the debate in favor and against Amendment 10 say they want accountability, but they disagree what that actually means in practice: Is accountability putting more politicians directly in front of voters with the understanding that voters can always remove them from office? Or is accountability giving county governments direct oversight of day-to-day operations?
“Nothing really happened to cause this. You know, where there's a big scandal and we got to change the form of government,” says Gimenez. “There was something else going on. I really haven't put my finger on it. Maybe some people wanted more political positions more elected positions here in this county. I know being a politician myself I don't think we need any more politicians, thank you very much.”
One of the groups pushing Amendment 10 is the Florida Sheriff’s Association. Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson is a former president of the group, and he frames the question as a matter of separation and balance of power, and of putting certain questions directly in front of citizens.
“You either have faith in the people’s ability to make decisions or you do not,” says Sheriff Adkinson. “That’s really what this boils down to in a lot of levels. Protecting your individual right to make decisions and to balance this power.”
To Sheriff Adkinson’s mind, there is an inherent conflict of interest when certain offices are beholden to mayors or commissions that make the appointments: What if a property appraiser is asked to cook the numbers to make budget projections look better? “There’s an inherent influence involved in that, ‘cause now my boss is saying I need these projections to reach a certain level,” he says.
“The person who is in charge of law enforcement or public safety should not be worried about building roads, building bridges, zoning or any of these other things that can have conflicts,” he adds. “We should be worried about protecting the best interest of the public, and the rights of all citizens. Whether that be Miami-Dade or whether that be Duval County.”
Years ago, Sheriff Adkinson served as an appointed police chief in Tallahassee, and he has seen the issue from both sides. “You would think that being a sheriff is more political,” he says. “I can tell you that it’s less political.”
“I think it's that's ridiculous because they're all politicians,” says Miami-Dade Mayor Gimenez. “Every single one of the elected sheriffs are actually politicians. And in most cases, they're probably either the most powerful or the second most powerful politician in that particular county.”
The Miami-Dade Police Department’s budget for 2019 is $700 million, and the Miami-Dade Department of Corrections has a budget of over $300 million. Most counties combine those responsibilities, which would likely give a would-be Miami-Dade Sheriff control of over $1 billion.
“You’ll have a completely separate department and elected official vying for the same tax dollars as, say your parks department and public works,” says Gimenez. “To the point where if they’re not happy with what the county is willing to provide to the department, they can go to the state and have the state arbitrate it and in effect, even force the county commission to raise taxes in order to provide more for that department.”
DRAMATIC CHANGES FOR VOLUSIA COUNTY
Amendment 10 would have a big impact on Volusia County. The sheriff, property appraiser and elections supervisor are currently elected department heads, while the clerk is an elected constitutional officer. Even though the sheriff oversees the public safety department, he still has to go through the commission to get approval for how he spends his budget
“It’s so ridiculous here that, even though I have reward money in my budget, I can’t post reward money in a homicide without going through county council. Sometimes that’s two weeks away,” says Sheriff Mike Chitwood. “That’s no good. That’s not acceptable.”
Chitwood was elected in 2016. He says he didn’t realize just how much the county council would tie his hands until he started. “There are twenty other charters in the state of Florida. Not one of them eviscerates the elected officials like Volusia County’s does,” says Sheriff Chitwood.
“Who approved [the sheriff’s] budget the last two years?” asks Ed Kelley, Volusia County Council chair. “The County Council. Unanimous. We gave him everything he wanted.”
Kelley says Volusia County residents voted for the charter, and it’s worked well for nearly fifty years. Voting for this amendment would be a blow to home rule, says Kelley. Disputes over the sheriff’s budget would have to be settled in Tallahassee. It would introduce partisan politics to constitutional officers. And setting up new offices of sheriff, tax collector and property appraiser would cost money, he argues.
“This sheriff feels that it gives him more control and that he doesn’t have to answer to people,” says Kelley. “But I want to remind him that the governor also has to answer to people on his budget. And so does the president of the United States. And it’s no different.”
If local voters wanted to change their way of doing government, they could vote to make that happen, he says. For instance, voters in Miami-Dade County decided they wanted an elected property appraiser starting in 2008, and that office is no longer an appointed position.
Sheriff Chitwood looks around the state and sees other places doing just fine under the system Amendment 10 would create in his county.
“The most powerful person in Volusia County, who holds all the marbles, is an unelected county manager,” he says. “I don’t see Flagler County, Brevard or Palm Beach sliding into the Atlantic Ocean because they have constitutional officers that all have certain responsibility to keep the balance of power in check.”
FEAR OF FIREWALLS IN BROWARD
Broward County would be forced to have an elected tax collector if Amendment 10 passes. That role is currently controlled by an appointed Chief Financial Officer.
“That individual is part of a management team very much involved in the day to day establishing the overall financial picture of the Broward County-run businesses,” says Bertha Henry, Broward County’s top administrator. “We have an airport, we have a seaport, we run businesses and it's really important when you are planning the financial future of your of your county that your CFO is sitting at a table with you to have that done.”
If the tax collector became an elected position, a separate office would have to be created, argues Henry. Firewalls could go up. “For us it's inefficient. It's definitely going to cost us more money, and philosophically it’s the home rule issue” she says.
“Usually these things come about because there's a problem. We don't have a problem,” adds Henry, in frustration. “We believe that we have a government that works. It’s been in place since 1975 and we’d like to retain that.”
Correction. The original version of this story said Volusia County's government appoints most county officers but elects a sheriff, when in fact most of the county officers - the sheriff, property appraiser and elections supervisor, among others- are elected department heads. We regret the error.