Commission change stirs tension; Racial tension in Miami-Dade politics could be exacerbated by a debate over the County Commission's structure. Source: The Miami Herald 04/03/2007
The next flare-up in Miami-Dade's increasingly tense ethnic politics might be attached to a long fuse lit months ago by Mayor Carlos Alvarez.
Answering questions after a late-January breakfast speech at the Miami City Club, he gingerly toed into a 20-year-old fight about how citizens should be represented on the County Commission.
''Without a doubt, there is a lot of interest in a combination of single-member districts and at-large,'' he said. ``It's a very touchy subject, but one there's a lot of interest in, without a doubt.''
From another politician at another time, it might have been a blip; polls show broad dissatisfaction with the County Commission, and Alvarez is not the first to suggest tinkering with its structure by adding members who are elected by the full county instead of a small district.
But the idea -- which Alvarez and others believe is bound to surface this spring when commissioners appoint a task force to study changing the county charter -- is seen as an attack by many black leaders, who fear their share of commission seats would fall. Some are especially apprehensive after two earlier incidents with racial undertones.
First, black voters overwhelmingly opposed Alvarez's successful bid to increase his power, fearing an end to the commission's ability to spread jobs and contracts among various ethnic groups.
Less than two months later, Alvarez infuriated many prominent black leaders when he fired transit director Roosevelt Bradley -- one of the county's highest-ranking black administrators.
In that environment, ''the issue of at-large elections will definitely scrape the scab off the political relations between the various ethnic groups,'' said Miami attorney H.T. Smith, a prominent black leader. ``This is a power grab by elitists who believe they're smarter than everybody else.''
Smith was one of several people who testified in a 1986 federal lawsuit that gave rise to the current system of 13 single-member districts.
The suit alleged that the County Commission -- at the time, commissioners were elected countywide -- was not representing Dade County's growing minority population. Anglos made up 78 percent of the commission in 1986 but just 56 percent of the voters.
The few black commissioners who were elected countywide were too beholden to the votes and fundraising of whites and Hispanics, Smith said, which limited their ability to take on issues such as police brutality, affordable housing and economic development.
''It would be like an Israeli being elected by all Muslims,'' Smith said. ``If he wanted to get elected again, he would have to soften his rhetoric and couldn't be an outspoken advocate.''
In one notable fight leading up to the lawsuit, black homeowners in Northwest Dade were unable to stop former Miami Dolphins owner Joe Robbie from building a football stadium in their neighborhood.
''There was a great deal of frustration,'' said George Knox, a former Miami city attorney and one of the plaintiffs. ``There was no person who actually represented the interests of the people who resided in that geographic area.''
But Knox has also joined the ranks of politically prominent leaders who believe at-large commission seats need to be considered during an upcoming review of the county's charter.
''I think history is not going to support the notion that single-member district elections solved any of the problems or allayed any of the fears,'' Knox said. ``Blacks may not be very much better off in terms of the economics and politics since '86.''
The commission is stuck in a classic political crunch: hated as a body, loved as individuals. Scandals have driven its approval rating down around 40 percent, according to a poll conducted in January by the Metropolitan Center at Florida International University. But no commissioner has lost a reelection bid in 13 years; when half of them faced voters in 2006, not a single one was even taken to a runoff.
That makes significant change unlikely without a structural overhaul, which would need voters' approval.
''Commissioners were very committed to their districts but not always willing to see countywide issues -- that's the problem when you don't have any at-large members,'' said Ric Katz, a long-time lobbyist and campaign strategist. ``Having some at-large members would bring that perspective back to the commission.''
Such a debate, however, will inevitably be drenched in racial and ethnic suspicion and fueled by the ongoing tension between Alvarez and the commission.
''In light of what has occurred, I think now we need these four districts and their representatives more than ever,'' said Commissioner Audrey Edmonson.
Smith said the issue could be divisive enough to bring back the ethnic political battles of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Those fights peaked during a 1990 visit by South African leader Nelson Mandela, whose arrival was protested by some Cuban-Americans upset with Mandela's support for Fidel Castro. Smith responded by launching a massive tourism boycott that lasted three years.
''It's not like the tension is gone,'' Smith said. ``It's just below the surface.''
Former Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez, who joined Knox as a plaintiff in 1986, said he remains skeptical of at-large seats but believes voters are frustrated enough to try almost anything.
Former County Manager Merrett Stierheim floated the notion during his public appearances opposing the strong-mayor campaign, stopping short of an endorsement but saying the conversation is ``inescapable.''
He chaired a committee during the lawsuit that recommended a combination of at-large and single-member seats, but the proposal failed with voters because it was attached to a salary increase for commissioners.
A similar hybrid is used in Jacksonville, where the city council includes 14 districts and five at-large members who are elected county-wide but must reside in one of five residency areas.
The federal judge who ruled on the 1986 lawsuit suggested a similar system would not violate voting-rights laws.
''There were all sorts of systems that could have been in place,'' said U.S. District Judge Donald Graham. ``There were probably methods by which they could have had some at-large seats in those days, but they decided not to give it a try.''
Countywide campaigns rely heavily on radio, television and polling, and require far more fundraising than district races; Edmonson said many legitimate candidates simply could not afford to run.
Four candidates in the 2004 mayor's race -- the last major countywide race in Miami-Dade -- spent more than $1 million. By contrast, not a single commission candidate spent more than Dorrin Rolle's $409,792.
The charter review task force, which the commission is supposed to convene every five years, is expected to tackle other explosive issues, as well. Commissioner José ''Pepe'' Diaz wants the group to discuss reinstating elections for constitutional officers: sheriff, tax collector, property appraiser and elections supervisor.
Even the task force's composition has become a political football. Under a bill sponsored by Commissioner Katy Sorenson, 10 local groups -- including in NAACP, League of Cities and Chamber of Commerce -- would each appoint one member. A competing bill filed by Diaz would allow one appointment from the mayor, each of the 13 commissioners and each of seven municipalities.
As 2007 is the 50th anniversary of Miami-Dade's charter, Commissioner Carlos Gimenez said task force will undergo a ''soup to nuts'' review.
''This should be the charter for the 21st century,'' he said.