Interview

Strong Mayor for the City of Miami

Understanding a Proposed Referendum

According to the National League of Cities, a Washington-based organization, American cities mostly have either “strong” or “weak” mayors. Some characteristics of the strong-mayor system: The mayor is the chief executive officer, centralizing executive power. The mayor directs the administrative structure, appointing and removing of department heads. The mayor has veto power over the Commission.

In a “weak” mayor system, the commission is powerful, with both legislative and executive authority. The mayor, with limited power or no veto power, is not really the chief executive. The council can prevent the mayor from effectively supervising city administration. This form of government has been adopted mainly by small to mid-size cities.

Mayor Francis Suarez at Miami City Hall, with Downtown NEWS Editor, Raul Guerrero. Photo by Amal Solh Kabbani.

Mayor Francis Suarez proposes changing to a “strong” mayor system. As such, he could oversee city departments and hire and fire city officials. Tim Swift and Pamela Bryant reported for Local/10: “Under the current system, the mayor of Miami hires a city manager who handles the day-to-day administration of the city. But can’t order the city manager to carry out policies, and the city commission can vote to fire the mayor.”

In effect, Mayor Suarez seeks to have Miami voters on the November 6 election transform the almost ceremonial office into that of a CEO overseeing the city’s $1 billion budget and thousands of employees. “Miami,” he insists, “has been hamstrung by a weak leadership structure.”

Getting to the Source

Not few Downtown NEWS’ readers have asked us to clarify the strong-mayor initiative, so we visited Mayor Suarez to ask him why the controversial measure made sense.

Downtown News: You know the criticism your proposal has raised, mainly that you aspire to amass unprecedented power.

Mayor Suarez: We have a system of government, where the official you’ve chosen to represent you is not really in charge. For me, that is a system that lacks accountability. In the 21 years that we had this system, we had 15 city managers. That means that a city manager has to be at all times a politician, keeping the mayor and the commissioners happy, and often time, unfortunately, what you get is one manager every year and a half. That is not good for the city or the residents.

“The predominant form of government in Florida and other cities in the United States is the “strong” mayor system. What I’m advocating for is not the exception but the norm. What we currently have is the exception. With the exception of Cincinnati, I can’t find a city anywhere in the country that has similar constitutional problems.

“Most cities in Dade County have a “weak” mayor system, where the mayor sits in the commission as chairman, like Miami Beach, Doral, and Coral Gables, but the big governments like Jacksonville, Tampa and Orlando have strong-mayors. These mayors support the initiative. In a letter from the mayor of Tampa, he speaks about the Riverwalk, how transformational it was for downtown Tampa, and how important it was to have a strong-mayor to have a project like that accomplished. The benefit to residents is that you are empowering the person that you choose, and you are holding that person responsible. And that person has the ability to get projects done quickly.”

Downtown NEWS emphasized the controversial nature of the measure.

“I don’t really understand what the controversy is. I understand that some people have a vested interest in not seeing it happen. And what bothers me is the manipulation of facts. But the information is out there in black and white, you can read it, digest it, and you can agree or disagree with the nuances of it. But to me is very straightforward, the administrator, instead of being an unelected person, is the person chosen by the people.

“The Commission, which is the legislative body, is there to legislate, handle budgets, appropriations, zones, laws of restriction, procurement… The mayor doesn’t sit on the commission as a voting member.”

Monument to Negligence. Corner of NE 2nd Avenue and Ne 1st Street. It has been there for months. Photo by Niels Johansen.

Downtown NEWS: Give us some specific examples of how downtown residents would benefit from you being a strong mayor?

“I’ll give you an example so simple as a pothole, or in downtown, a broken sidewalk. I don’t have the ability right now as mayor to pick up the phone and call Public Works and say, go fix that sidewalk before someone breaks a foot. I am legally prohibited from doing it. It is a violation of the law, and I can actually be removed from office for doing it. People don’t understand the type of government we have right now. Part of my effort is educating constituents about the system we have now and its limitations.

“The mayor nor the commission is allowed to direct the city manager or staff to do anything, which allows for frustration when residents come to visit with the mayor or the commissioners. So, for something as simple as fixing a street or a pothole, the mayor doesn’t have the direct authority, and actually cannot call the Public Works Director and tell him, go fix it today or else I am going to hold you accountable for not doing your job.

“People who pay taxes, and you guys in downtown pay tons of taxes, you are here to see the mayor, not the manager or some functionary of the government… You are here to meet with the person you chose. You chose me, and you want to hold me accountable.”

Downtown NEWS: So, empowering the mayor, is an important vote?

Mayor Suarez: Correct.

Downtown NEWS: But some skepticism comes from your agenda in regards to big ticket items, like Ultra or Formula 1, events that disrupt the lives of downtown residents, our lives…

Mayor Suarez: The power to approve or not approve a contract is not with the mayor, and that doesn’t change with the system of government. As you saw, the City Commission decided unanimously not to renew Ultra’s contract. Under the “strong” mayor system or the current system, whether Formula 1 comes or doesn’t come, that is ultimately the Commission’s decision. Check and balances are still in place.

“With Formula 1 I hit the pause button because I interacted with your organization [DNA]. I think we all agree that the concept of Formula 1 is a good thing for the City, but the devil is in the details.”

Mayor Suarez addressing downtown residents on Formula 1 at a DNA meeting. To the left Commissioner Ken Russell.

Downtown NEWS: Some people ask, why are you holding a private job as an attorney? Doesn’t it pose conflicts of interest?

Mayor Suarez: As elected officials, we have an obligation to report if there is a conflict of interest and we have to recuse ourselves. That obligation remains unchanged. I am not a multimillionaire. I don’t have the ability, like other mayors, to work for free… I am not someone who is living on a pension… I have to have a job to sustain my family. There are many mayors who have jobs. The mayor of Miami Beach is a practicing lawyer. My Father [Xavier Suarez] when he was mayor was a practicing lawyer. I am not asking for a raise. Some mayors when they become strong mayors take on the salary of the city manager, which is around $310,000. I make $130,000 as mayor. I am not saying, raise my salary by $200,000, a 200% increase. That will not be viewed very well by the residents.”

Mayor Suarez views the question somewhat tricky and disingenuous. If he says Ok, and does quit his job, but asks for a 200% salary increase, he observes, people will complain. Also, they will complain if he keeps his job. “But I am not missing meetings to be at work. I don’t think anybody complains that I don’t work hard. If I hear anything about my job performance is that I never stop working.”

Part-Time or Full-Time Job?

In theory, the office of mayor is a part-time job. Mayor Suarez begs to differ, pointing out it’s more than a full-time job. “The day before yesterday I had three Homeowners Associations meetings. I got home around 9:30 pm. I got to see my daughter for 30 seconds, and in the morning I have time to change her clothes and that’s it. Sometimes the Commission meetings end at midnight. So, anyone who says this is not a full-time job right now is really not paying attention.”

The Democratic Process as Arbiter

“You have every right as a community to decide if my judgment is good or bad. You have every right to support me or support someone else. That is the beauty of democracy: we are not elected forever. I think the strong-mayor system is good because there is consistency. You have a mayor who is elected for 4 years and has to run for reelection eventually, and you can support him or support someone else. And if the mayor does something that is really bad, you can recall him immediately. People do have this very dramatic recourse, and it has happened before.

Downtown NEWS: Since you brought your father into the conversation earlier, and given that he was a mayor under the current system, what does he think about the change you propose?

Mayor Suarez: Every single mayor who has worked under this system at one point has advocated for the “strong” mayor system, maybe with the exception of Steve Clark, who was mayor briefly before he passed away. Mayors Suarez, Carollo, Dias and Regalado, all of them are on record as agreeing with the strong-mayor system. Now, every version of it has different nuances, and maybe some don’t agree with this particular version, but all are on record as supporting a strong mayor.

A Personal Note and a Lesson

“I was born and raised here. I love the city. I feel that I have given my heart and soul to it. I’ve been mayor now for almost a year,” concluded Mayor Suarez. “I think we’ve accomplished a lot.”

Whether you agree or disagree, as the November election fast approaches, let us remember what Plato said: “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”

Amal Solh Kabbani, DNA President, contributed to this article.

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