With recreated Sheriff role inbound, Miami-Dade eyes expanding its seat of government countywide
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Freddy Ramirez Miami-Dade Police
'This opens up Pandora’s box.'

For the first time in nearly 125 years, Miami-Dade County commissioners are looking at changing the bounds of the county seat of government, a move that could alter the layout and location of its constitutionally required offices.

Jose “Pepe” Diaz’s powerful Chairman’s Council of Policy voted 7-1 Thursday to advance a resolution to expand the geographic bounds of Miami-Dade’s seat beyond the corporate limits of the city of Miami.

If passed, the new seat limits would encompass the entire county.

The seat of Miami-Dade — originally called Dade County — was first moved to Miami in 1844. After a decade-long relocation to Juno, it returned in 1899 to Miami, where it’s remained since.

The change the Commission is contemplating would allow elected offices — including the previously abolished elected jobs of Sheriff, Tax Collector and Supervisor of Elections, which voters will again choose in 2024 — to set up shop anywhere in the county.

Florida’s Constitution and State Statutes require that the principal offices and permanent records of all county offices be located in the municipality designed as the county seat. But the proposal by Joe Martinez contends that concept “is an outdated law designed for a time when transportation to government facilities and access to government information was substantially more difficult and costly.”

Today, the item said, that rule “can create a financial strain on both the county, county officers, and the county seat municipality by requiring the use of high value real estate for government function that can be more effectively located elsewhere.”

Miami’s property values and housing costs are among the highest in the nation. The average rental rate for an office space within the city of Miami is about $43 per square foot. By comparison, office space in Hialeah, just 8 miles away, goes for about $25 a square foot, according to the Property Shark website.

Less than 17% of Miami-Dade’s estimated 2.7 million residents live in Miami. Conversely, more than a third of them reside in the county’s unincorporated area.

State statutes authorize county commissions to expand the geographical area of their seats by adopting a resolution after two public hearings. No public hearing occurred Thursday, but there was debate.

Raquel Regalado — who has led calls for planning ahead of the required reinstitution of the elected Sheriff, Tax Collector and Supervisor of Election offices — said expanding the seat would be premature because the Commission hasn’t yet decided which powers each office will have.

Martinez did not attend the meeting to advocate for his item.

Regalado, who cast the sole “no” vote, called for a fiscal impact study ahead of any vote to advance Martinez’s item. She originally recommended that the council defer the item, but no one seconded her motion.

“This actually puts the horse in front of the cart,” she said. “It impacts a lot of things that folks are already working on.”

It also would open the door for all other elected offices to scatter across the county, she continued, rather than having the preponderance of its offices and key services centralized at the Stephen P. Clark Government Center in downtown Miami.

“I don’t know what government center we’re going to have if people can’t do the work of government here,” she said.

Miami-Dade’s Tax Collector and Supervisor of Election jobs are currently appointed. Miami-Dade’s Mayor Daniella Levine Cava currently serves as the county’s de facto Sheriff, overseeing a police force of some 4,700 employees, an annual budget of $815 million and an appointed police director, now Alfredo Ramirez III.

The 13-seat Miami-Dade Commission approves that budget and wields other powers with serious bearings on the county police force. Levine Cava has said she may want to keep much of that arrangement in place if she wins re-election in 2024.

Martinez told Florida Politics in December that might work counter to what voters wanted when they voted on the subject more than three years ago.

Martinez planned to embark on a “fact-finding mission” early this year to determine what residents want. The decorated former police officer said he is unsure how interested he is in running for the office himself.

He has nonetheless raised more than $416,000 through a political committee, Let’s Move Forward, despite being term-limited on the Commission.

Regalado on Thursday noted millions of dollars being invested in the Government Center Subzone, a rapid-transit hub comprising 27 acres around the Stephen P. Clark Center, plus another group of parcels nearby on five acres.

Redevelopment of that area could result in up to 15 million square feet or more of usable space and create “a mass of activity” in the area, where all of the county’s main public transportation modes and inter-city commuter rail Brightline converge, Jess Linn, a principal planner for the county, told Miami Today.

Regalado warned that Martinez’s item could upend much of those plans.

“We cannot make a decision like this until we look at our assets,” she said. “This opens up Pandora’s box.”

Oliver Gilbert III, a former Mayor of Miami Gardens, said he agreed with Regalado in theory and recounted the frustration the city’s residents had with having to travel to Miami to access government services.

While that issue may now be moot because many of those services are available online, he continued, it would be wise to determine what the structures and strictures of each newly created elected office will be before opening the door to physically decentralizing the county services they’ll render.

“I don’t know that we do it before we have a broader conversation about how we’re going to handle the positions,” he said. “So, we’re going to say now you can move wherever you want to before we tell them all the powers that they’ll be taking?”

Diaz acknowledged Gilbert’s point and agreed a study of the potential impact of each office and their possible relocation. He said there will be more than enough time to hash out the details before March, when the item would return to the full Miami-Dade Commission.

Regalado said that won’t likely include direct talks between her and Martinez outside of Commission Chambers.

“I did ask Commissioner Martinez for a (meeting) on the issue of the constitutional officers,” she said. “His response was, ‘It’ll never happen.’ So, I mean, that was his response.”

Jesse Scheckner

Jesse Scheckner has covered South Florida with a focus on Miami-Dade County since 2012. His work has been recognized by the Hearst Foundation, Society of Professional Journalists, Florida Society of News Editors, Florida MMA Awards and Miami New Times. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner.


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