All (Dirty) Politics Are Local

Every so often life affords us a bird’s-eye view into the workings of local politics, and more often than not, the results are even more disheartening than watching Washington at work… if that can be imagined. My opportunity came this summer, as I observed a pathetic little municipality trying to annex my house. They are using every trick in the book, so let us count the ways.

Here is the background. My home is in an unincorporated portion of Miami-Dade County, right alongside the city of North Miami Beach. The city actually extends in a very thin band around our entire section, so nominally it qualifies as “enclosed.” When they originally voted to create the city, our area was not in the mix, for the simple reason they knew we were not interested in joining.

Now that we are in “the donut hole,” we are made to look arbitrary, stubborn and illogical. Of course, the real illogic was extending the city out into this thin cinching strip that does not really relate to its center. Here, the old debating trick applies to politics as well: get one small illogical thing accepted, thus laying the groundwork for a big illogical thing to seem a symmetrical move afterwards.

City residents are very unhappy living next door, because the county government serves us far better. The building codes are enforced in a very balanced and reasonable way. I expanded my home by 25% last year, entailing multiple permits from departments of construction, electricity, plumbing, gas, you name it. I dealt personally with a wide range of inspectors who were prompt, cooperative, reasonable and fair. When I failed some steps, they outlined in detail the exact remedies so I could get it right the next time. The process was rigorous in a reassuring way, and when my new Certificate of Occupancy arrived I felt the pride of a significant accomplishment.

My neighbors within the city limits sit around and share horror stories of abuse by peevish and arbitrary inspectors. The rules keep changing along the way, and if someone complains then things get even nastier. A Jewish communal building was finally finished after two years of hassles, and the electrical inspector showed up and said: “Nah, I want more lighting.” This, despite the plans having been fully approved by all departments. Stories like this are standard fare in these parts.

Naturally, the city government would like to snatch our territory. It gives them a huge increase in their tax base to add an upper-middle-class section. Their expenses will hardly go up because they are anyway providing the water and sanitation in a contract with the county. The county, for its part, will still get plenty of our tax money, while providing far less services. And the dirty little secret is that white people in local government are hoping that adding our mostly-white voting bloc will prevent Haitians from getting a majority of seats on the city council; they currently hold three of seven.

To facilitate this plan, they took the following steps:

1. A phony-baloney citizens’ petition of seven hundred people who putatively wish to be annexed. Neither I nor any of the tens of neighbors I know were ever approached to sign. The initiator of that petition is a public employee, albeit of a different government body. One hesitates to accuse one hand of washing the other, but neither hand looks real clean.

2. City lawyers then pick up the cudgel to promote this supposedly citizen-based plan. It is a fairly good bet none of them are working pro bono. The result is that at the County Planning Board hearing to consider the annexation, the ONLY people to appear in favor of the motion were the city manager, the city attorney and a city councilwoman.

3. The county commission tabled the motion in 2005 in the face of powerful opposition, until such time as the county Manager could study it and issue a report. Then the September 2006 election for county commissioner and the May 2007 election for city council passed. Voila! The report was completed in May 2007 and submitted to the planning board. The matter is referred to committee.

4. The planning board schedules a committee meeting at 4:30 p.m. of August 20, the first day of school. They schedule the board meeting at 5:30 p.m., back to back. Most of the neighborhood simply could not get downtown to the county government building at that time of that day. The ten of us work-at-home types who did were nine-to-one against the idea. We were allowed two minutes each at the committee meeting and then two minutes each at the board meeting.

You guessed it. The committee approved it forward to the board. An hour later, the board approved it forward to the county commission. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, we pleaded. But the fix was in, and when the tax bill comes we will be broke.