By Dan Christensen, FloridaBulldog.org
A bill that would resurrect the office of Miami-Dade Sheriff, a post abolished by voters 49 years ago in the wake of scandal, is winding its way through the Florida House.
The measure and a companion bill in the Senate seek to amend Florida’s Constitution to strip charter counties of their authority to change the way certain county officers – often called constitutional officers – are selected.
Specifically, House Joint Resolution 165 and Senate Joint Resolution 648 require that county sheriffs, property appraisers, supervisors of elections, tax collectors and clerks of the circuit court be elected. The bills would also limit the ability of counties to abolish those five posts and transfer their duties.
The bill, seen by some as a way to ensure more locally elected jobs for term-limited legislators, would most significantly impact the governments of Miami-Dade and Volusia counties. Both of those counties abolished the constitutional offices of sheriff, tax collector, supervisor of election and property appraiser decades ago and transferred their powers elsewhere.
Broward would be required under the new scheme to reinstate the county tax collector as an elected constitutional officer, unless the county decides instead to seek to abolish the constitutional office through a special act passed by voters. Broward’s tax collector was abolished and his duties were transferred to the Finance and Administrative Services Department as part of broad charter changes in 1974.
Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, is sponsoring the measure in the House. Sen. Travis Hutson R-Palm Coast, is the sponsor of the Senate version which is set for a 1 p.m. hearing on Dec. 1 before the Committee on Community Affairs.
Hutson did not respond to a request for comment. Artiles, however, confirmed in an interview that if Miami-Dade voters vote to elect a new sheriff, Republican or Democrat, he or she would assume the power and duties now held by Miami-Dade’s police director.
Artiles said his bill is intended to end intergovernmental conflicts of interest, ensure the separation of powers, and restore “accountability and transparency” by making those five constitutional offices directly responsible to voters.
“What it boils down to is the bill is about giving the power to the people, direct representation through the county officers as originally placed in the Florida Constitution” in 1885, Artiles told members of the House’s Local Government Affairs Subcommittee on Nov 4.
‘NO INTEREST’ IN HELPING TERM-LIMITED LEGISLATORS
In an interview with FloridaBulldog.org last week, Artiles said it was “idiotic” to think his bill is about creating jobs for legislators forced to depart Tallahassee because of term limits.
“I have no interest whatsoever in running for a constitutional office in Miami-Dade County, nor am I doing this for anybody or anyone to run for another position,” Artiles said.
The subcommittee voted 11-0 to adopt the joint resolution. The House Judiciary Committee is set to take up the matter this week, Artiles said.
Miami-Dade County and the Florida Association of Counties are leading the fight against Artiles’ bill at the Capitol. Jess McCarty, an assistant Miami-Dade county attorney and county lobbyist, calls it a flawed, “one-size-fits-all” approach.
“Our biggest concern is that the state could impose this even if Miami-Dade voted against it,” McCarty said in an interview. “I think most residents would be very concerned about people a long distance from here imposing a form of government.”
Missing from both the debate and a 10-page House staff analysis of Artiles’ bill is an examination of the history behind the various systems of local government that have evolved since 1885, or a review of the events that drove the changes the counties adopted.
In Miami-Dade, for example, systemic corruption led to both the indictment of Sheriff T.A. “Tal” Buchanan and voter approval of a referendum abolishing the sheriff’s office in 1966.
James Savage is a retired investigations editor for the Miami Herald. As a young reporter, Savage covered those events with Hank Messick, the noted organized crime writer whose crusading stories set the stage for reform.
“I cannot believe that anybody in their right mind would propose reinstating the sheriff’s office in Dade County,” Savage said last week. “There was a whole history of corrupt sheriffs that came before Buchanan… In my 40 years as an investigative reporter, getting rid of the elected sheriff was probably one of the best things we accomplished.”
If three-fifths of each house of the Legislature approves, Artiles’ proposed constitutional changes would be presented to voters statewide next November. The Constitution requires 60 percent voter approval for passage.
The reinstated constitutional officers would be filled in the 2018 general election, unless counties sought instead to pass a special act to abolish them and transfer their powers through a special referendum to be voted on by county citizens.
In Miami-Dade today, the mayor appoints both the director of the Miami-Dade Police Department and the director of the county Elections Department, which decades ago subsumed the old Supervisor of Elections. The mayor and the clerk of courts jointly appoint the director of the county’s Finance Department, which absorbed the tax collector’s duties.
Miami-Dade voters still elect an independent court clerk, currently Harvey Ruvin, and a property appraiser, now Pedro J. Garcia, who decides the taxable value of residential and commercial property. Garcia, however, is not an independent constitutional officer. Rather, he is a department head for the county.
Artiles was asked if he knew of any systemic abuses that gave rise to his bill. He said he knew of none except “the issue of the (Miami-Dade) property appraiser being beholden to the county commission that sets the tax rate for the county.”
There are 67 counties in Florida, 20 of which have adopted home rule charters. Artiles said his bill directly impacts only eight of those counties – Brevard, Broward, Clay, Duval, Miami-Dade, Orange, Osceola and Volusia – that by charter change or special act have altered the way at least one of their five constitutional officers is chosen or restructured or abolished those posts.
In all eight, the changes included the transfer of constitutional powers away from the court clerk, according to the House analysis.
In Miami-Dade the clerk’s duties as financial recorder and custodian were transferred to the Department of Financial Services, and the clerk’s auditing duties were transferred to the Commission Auditor. In Broward, the clerk’s constitutional duties as clerk of the county commission were transferred to the county administrator.
If approved, the joint resolution would require charter counties that have changed the authority of their constitutional officers to revise their charters and ordinances to conform to the new law.
The House analysis estimates Florida’s print and advertising costs to place the proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot would be about $100,000.