Friday, December 10, 2010
MIAMI-DADE MAYOR IS LATEST TO FACE A RECALL VOTE
By LAURA WIDES-MUNOZ
MIAMI — A billionaire fed up with tax hikes and a growing county payroll is trying to make Miami-Dade County’s top elected official the first mayor of a major American city or county to be recalled from office in decades.
The recall effort against Mayor Carlos Alvarez, which comes as South Floridians have lost homes and jobs at a record pace, reflects campaigns in cities less populous than Miami-Dade, where citizens have increasingly used recall elections as a political weapon rather than a tool to attack major corruption.
Recall drives, especially ones that look partisan or petty, usually fail during the petition stage. Yet once they get on the ballot and have money behind them, they have a good chance of passing, particularly in a non-election year, said Joshua Spivak, a recall expert and senior fellow at [the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at] Wagner College in New York.
“The people who are going to come out (and vote) are likely the people who feel strongly about the issue — people who hate the mayor and want to recall him,” he said.
A small sample of 2010 recall attempts:
- Opponents of Omaha’s mayor collected enough signatures this week to put a recall on the ballot.
- In Oregon, Portland’s mayor has faced two unsuccessful petition drives in the last two years.
- The mayor of Flint, Mich., just escaped a recall when organizers failed to get it on the ballot. He would have been the third in a decade to be ousted as a result of a recall.
- In Missouri, Kansas City’s mayor recently survived a failed recall but now faces more than half a dozen re-election challengers who smelled blood.
- In Southern California, a recall popped up in Bell, where residents discovered the city manager was taking home more $1 million annually.
Recalls are rare in larger cities and counties because it’s expensive to gather enough signatures to get the measures on the ballot. But money hasn’t been an issue in Miami. Car dealer Norman Braman, a former Philadelphia Eagles owner who has long opposed tax hikes, easily gathered twice the 51,000 signatures needed to call for a referendum on Alvarez. The estimated $4 million special election will likely be held early next year.
Braman, a board member of nearly every major Miami charity or civic event, says the cost is a small investment to ensure elected officials are looking out for voters rather than protecting bureaucrats.
“People always complain about our politicians. I’m trying to help them do something about it. After this, they either have to act or shut up about it,” Braman said.
Steven Erie, director of the University of California, San Diego’s Urban Studies Program, says historically recalls have been triggered by gross political or personal corruption, or a complete failure of public services. He cited the 2005 recall of Spokane, Wash., Mayor Jim West, who offered city jobs to young men in exchange for sex. And he noted the last big city mayor recalled was Los Angeles Mayor Frank Shaw, who was booted from office in 1938 over corruption charges after a bomb was planted in the car of a private eye tailing him.
The Miami-Dade effort isn’t so much about gross corruption as it is about money.
Braman is angriest over a property tax increase that would affect about 60 percent of homeowners, who have enjoyed artificially low rates for years. The move comes as Alvarez has raised salaries for many county employees - including those on his staff - while laying off others. Earlier this year it was also revealed that the county health care system is more than $200 million in debt.
Braman has long opposed tax hikes, and he lost an effort in 2008 to block county funding for a new $600 million stadium for baseball’s Florida Marlins. Despite polls showing the majority of Miami-Dade residents opposed the plan, the county commission, at Alvarez’s urging, approved it.
But Braman says his quest is not sour grapes.
“I am not going to run for office. I don’t have another candidate. I don’t have an agenda except that I want this to be a better place for the community, for my daughter and my grandchildren,” he said.
Alvarez’s supporters say the recall is an attempt to circumvent the election process. The mayor already survived one recall effort that failed to make the ballot and he can’t seek re-election in 2012 because of term limits. Alvarez says Braman is still angry over losing the Marlins stadium battle.
“The fact is he was engaged in a very public battle with the county and the city and he lost and, quite frankly ... I don’t think he took it very well,” Alvarez said at a recent luncheon of business and community leaders.
The recall is a mixed bag for local governments, said political consultant Steve Smith, who served as California Democratic Gov. Gray Davis’ campaign manager when Davis was recalled in 2003. That recall became one of the nation’s most high profile to date. The measure forces politicians to be more responsive to constituents, Smith said, but it also creates a less stable environment that can be manipulated by a powerful few.
“You need to have some sort of recall process in the democracy,” Smith said, “but it’s my sense that it’s now being used beyond what it’s originally intended.”