Miami Lakes charter changes aim at mayoral power

Close to 19,000 voters in Miami Lakes will get a ballot in the mail Miami Lakesin the next couple of days that could change the way the city governs for years to come.

Ten charter amendments — not one, not two, but 10 — are on the ballot that are due back by May 17.

It almost went to 12, but two other proposed amendments — one to go back to district seats rather than at large and a controversial measure to rotate the position of mayor among council members — were voted down by the town’s charter committee, realizing, we assume, that the people of the town should be the ones to elect the mayor.

Still, a good number of the amendments on the ballot — mailed out Wednesday by the Miami-Dade Elections Department — seemingly aim to diminish the mayor’s power.

One would put the appointment of the town manager and town attorney in the council’s lap, rather than the mayor’s. Right now, the council simply accepts or rejects the recommendation from the mayor, but cannot put forth a name of their own. Another takes away the mayor’s right to name the town lobbyist with all matters before the county. It would be up to the town manager or council to do so. Still another would give the power to call a special meeting to any four council members. Currently, the mayor alone can call a special meeting. And boy has he.

Do these measures stem from anti-Pizzi sentiment? Sure seems that way, right?

Some think the questions are the result of an embarrassing few years, starting with the August 2013 arrest of Pizzi on federal bribery charges. He was snared in the same sting that nabbed Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño for expediting what they knew were bogus grants in return for thousands in kickbacks. Maroño was sentencedpizzismug - Copy to three years in prison. But Pizzi got acquitted, despite the testimony that he took a $3,000 bribe from a lobbyist inside an office closet.

After the trial, Pizzi had to sue to get back in office. The city fought his return, arguing that former Mayor Wayne Slaton had been legitimately elected by the voters after the arrest. But Ladra guesses that this held little water since Pizzi beat Slaton in 2014 with a whopping 68 percent of the vote. The whole affair may end up costing the city hundreds of thousands in legal fees.

Read related story: Wayne Slaton gives up; Michael Pizzi is Miami Lakes mayor

Oh, did Ladra mention that one charter change on the ballot would make the vice mayor the mayor in the event of the mayor leaving his seat and call for a special election if the vice mayor’s term is longer than that of the departing mayor?

Veteran town activist and former candidate David “Doc” Bennett, a longtime Pizzi critic, said the changes were in line with the founding vision for Miami Lakes.

“He’s one vote. He’s just another council member. He’s not a strong mayor,” Bennett said, adding that the mayor’s title was more of a ceremonial one. “He has tried desperately to turn it into a strong mayor form of government, but you still need four votes. Without four votes, nothing happens.

“All we’re doing is expanding the role of the council, not limiting the role or the power of the mayor,” he said. “Aside from ceremonial duties, he has no more power than the council members.”

Although there is actually a question on the ballot changing the form of government from mayor-council-manager to council-manager.

One question on the ballot that is not about the mayor’s power would change the way council members and the mayor are elected by requiring runoffs when the winner has less than 50 percent of the vote. Well, that one’s sort of a no-brainer.

“Someone could have a paper candidate and it could give the win to whoever gets 30-something percent,” Bennett said. “Now you neutralize that tactic.”

That hasn’t really been a problem in the Lakes. The last few election cycles have seen all head-to-head contests, with winners getting more than 50% of the vote anyway. In the last 10 years, only Councilman Ceasar Mestre won with less than 40%. That was in a four-way race in 2008.

But it certainly could affect the election this year, where there lakesmayoralrace - Copyis a plethora of candidates running for both the mayor’s seat and the council seats.

The mayoral contest has at least three and presumably four (if Pizzi throws his hat in as expected).  Already, Councilmen Mestre and Manny Cid have filed paperwork to run, as has former Mayor Wayne Slaton.

Read related story: Miami Lakes: Manny Cid becomes No. 3 to run for mayor

But two of the council seats are bursting at the seams with three challengers to Councilman Tony Lama (Robin Brown-Beaman, Jose Nodal Jr., and Xiomara Pazos) and no fewer than six so far running for the open seat vacated by Cid (Cynthia Beyer, Esther Colon, Nayib Hassan, Wendy Milanes, Rosalina Nunez and Alejandro Sanchez).

Interesting that nobody has yet to file in the first seat, where incumbent Councilman Nelson Rodriguez is enjoying a free ride so far. Might that change before qualifying this summer?

Councilman Cid said he has long been in favor of runoff elections and he predicted a good turnout — or return on the mail-in ballots. But he wasn’t sure many of the other amendments would make it.

“Historically, Miami Lakers are very intelligent voters who look at each question. Last time, a large number of charter amendment items were voted down.”

Of course, he is running for that targeted mayor’s seat.

Ballots must be returned to the Miami-Dade Elections Department by May 17 and the town has provided an online guide to the ballot questions.