Neighborhood Transformation
Neighborhood Transformation
CitiStates Report:
Too Many Chiefs in Region
Means Nothing Gets Done

Web-posted: 11:33 a.m. Nov. 24, 2000

Gov. Jeb Bush got our attention when he told us that South Florida "is a big region that speaks with many voices. There is a void of political leadership. People feel disfranchised because of it."

Look at Jacksonville, Orlando or Tampa, said Bush, referring to Mayors John Delaney, Glenda Hood and Dick Greco respectively. Each, he said, has gotten the state's attention by mobilizing broad constituencies to address critical issues.

Bush referred specifically to Jacksonville, where a $1.5 billion Better Jacksonville program, advocated by Delaney, will protect environmentally sensitive lands, improve jammed highways and strengthen the downtown with a new courthouse, library, arena and baseball park.

The problem of the South Florida counties, said the governor, is that each has two dozen or more separate municipalities, each with their own mayors and many with separate police chiefs and fire departments. The county governments remain responsible for governing minutia in unincorporated areas. Some major restructuring may be in order, said Bush, to encourage development of strong leaders willing to step forward "and say we need to address the big issues. So far, public leaders haven't stepped up to the plate."

We found some South Floridians who not only agree with the governor but think it's time to go a step further, to creative multi-county authorities. Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne, a former state legislator, says bluntly, "Counties have no business running ports or airports. In fact, there's a whole list of things that would be better off as regional responsibilities, waste disposal, maybe even hospitals and libraries. The trouble is we have no central leadership for the region. Miami-Dade has Mayor Alex Penelas, but there are real limits to what he can get done."

Broward turned down having a county mayor last year; it's clearly on its way toward creating small municipalities over every remaining inch of land. As a Miami-Dade County Commissioner, Penelas fashioned the county charter amendment that created the executive mayor in 1992, citing the lack of designated leadership in Miami-Dade following Hurricane Andrew.

Now in his second term, Mayor Penelas has used the office as a bully pulpit to back the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce's One Community-One Goal economic development initiative, among other programs, and called countywide summits on such issues children's welfare. But many say the job and its current occupant have not yet achieved the position's leadership potential.

That may be as much because of local political structures as anything.

Regional government

Former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre has long argued that what South Florida needs is a dual focus, quiet local authority over the details of daily town and neighborhood governance, but the fullest possible regional governance over critical issues unresolvable at the local level, airports, seaports, environmental protection, economic strategies. What ought to happen, says Ferre, is that South Florida would have a single regional government for the mega-issues, neighborhood governments for local issues and the courage to "get rid of what's in between."

It's clear leaders from across South Florida should be talking much more publicly, much more intently about governance issues. What we found was that the most serious discussions about the region's shared future wasn't in commission chambers, it was on the business front, in many of the Internet Coast firms we reported on last Sunday, and among executives of the counties' economic development firms now pledged to stop cross-border raiding.

That's not a story unique to South Florida. Again and again across the United States, when public officials seem paralyzed, frozen in time-honored county-versus-county, city-versus-city rivalries, it's business that thaws the ice.

When Atlanta hit the wall over traffic and air pollution, it was top Atlanta Chamber of Commerce leaders who cited the threat to livability, organizing a chamber task force, supporting a new governor's radical move to create a strong regional agency over the many counties of the Atlanta region.

In California's super-heated Santa Clara County, it's been the Silicon Valley Manufacturers Group that has organized active coalitions for rail rapid transit and for affordable housing closer to work sites.

New, serious, ongoing business leadership could start to have a profound impact on South Florida's public policies. In one sense, the ground's been well laid. Take the Annenberg Challenge project on education in South Florida. First the sponsors got broad buy-in in all three counties -- no easy task. Now under the chairmanship of Leonard Miller, CEO of the Lenard Corp., the laser-like focus of the Annenberg effort is on building capacities of strong principals, accountable for demonstrating improved performance of students. The potential payoff for South Florida schools could be stunning.

Transportation key

Another possible breakthrough area: transportation. Here's the assessment of Palm Beach County Commissioner Carol Roberts: The international economy may be the new "glue that will get us to recognize our differences and work out an agenda." And that, she says, will "show up first in transportation." Traffic, and the realities of international competition -- watch them interact in the years ahead in this jam-packed region. Carolyn Dekle, chief executive of the South Florida Regional Planning Council, fears imminent economic loss because the region can't get its act together. She cites consequences of congestion on I-95 for commerce, the looming threat of the deepwater Freeport option, the maneuvering of New Orleans and Orlando for trade.

But in the small garden of governance we imagine, there is a notable seed. Thinly planted and wanting for nourishment, the Regional Transportation Organization (RTO) is the fledgling product of public officials from all three counties who recognize a serious and growing mobility crisis. It has no policy-making authority, controls no flow of money. County officials are supporting it. Tri-Rail is staffing it. A number of private citizens are involved; at least one, Claire Vickery, has been a major force in pushing for an action agenda.

Mayors may be one key to change. Mayor Neisen Kasdin of Miami Beach has pulled together mayors from across the region to pose a question they often don't hear: What do they think are the critical elements of a successful South Florida region? Kasdin thinks the mayors may have creative ideas about school governance and broader issues of government reorganization, annexation and incorporation and how they relate to a strong region. Mayors were reportedly one of the strongest forces pushing for the RTO.

The cities, says Jeff Koons, a private citizen member of Palm Beach County's transportation planning organization, are now so pressed fiscally, that they're ready for an action agenda.

Maybe the Everglades will focus the need for cross-county collaboration, too. There was real vision in the comprehensive restoration plan passed by Congress, says James Murley, director of the FIU/FAU Joint Center for Environmental and Urban Problems in Fort Lauderdale. But in the conflict-resolution process the legislation created, Murley notes, only the Secretary of the Army and the governor of Florida are central players. The South Florida Water Management District, the region's premier regional governmental body up to now, is not. "Where will the voice of urban South Florida be heard on critical Everglades-related issues?" Murley asks. Bottom line: Lots of forces are starting to push South Florida toward more cross-county collaboration, smart thinking, joint action. Among those who will need to pay attention are members of the region's historically splintered legislative delegations to Washington and Tallahassee, learning for a change to unite for the entire region's interests.