Miami Dysfunction: Mayor’s transparency pitch all talk until he answers questions | Opinion

Stephanie Severino, left, director of communications for Miami Mayor Francis X. Suarez, center right, shields the mayor from Herald reporter Tess Riski, right, after his State of the City address.
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Moments after proposing reforms to boost transparency in city government in his State of City address, Miami Mayor Francis Suarez returned to his default setting of opacity.

Sadly, that’s not surprising. Hours before the mayor’s Tuesday speech, the Miami Herald published another story about more potential conflict of interests between his public office and private work. The Herald’s latest piece showed that Suarez advocated for Miami to enter a no-bid contract with a startup that, at the same time, was negotiating a partnership with a private firm that was paying him $20,000 a month.

This is just one of a number of outside employment and consulting deals that raise questions about whether Miami’s mayor is using his elected position to enrich himself and his business allies. Suarez’s work for a developer is already the subject of a federal investigation, the Herald reported.

Not only did Suarez turn down the Herald’s request for an interview before the story was published, he hid behind his entourage of law enforcement officers when a Herald reporter tried to ask him questions after his address at Camillus House.

Suarez did give one-on-one interviews to every other news outlets who attended the event, according to the Herald. Among them was Channel 10 but that interview quickly soured when reporter Glenna Milberg asked him: “Do you think those companies would have you on the payroll if you were not in a position of power in the city of Miami?” After Suarez said the premise that he’s working for those companies was wrong, Milberg tried to rephrase her question. Still, he cut her off, saying, “Thank you. I’m done.”

Suarez has said many times that he’s been above board about his employment arrangements, but usually refrains from answering specific questions. For example, he supposedly reimbursed billionaire hedge-funder Ken Griffin for tickets to the Miami Formula One Grand Prix worth $14,000 but didn’t provide receipts to prove it when contacted by Herald reporters in September.

Asking if a mayor accepted gifts from a billionaire who also happens to lobby the city, or whether the mayor would have gotten more than a dozen lucrative consulting and employment side gigs were he not Miami’s head political figure, are legitimate questions, not some kind of liberal media plot to orchestrate his demise, as Suarez has tried to paint it.

Politicians have long used their elected position to land good-paying jobs. That’s not necessarily illegal but it becomes problematic when their professional interests interfere with their work on behalf of the public. Unfortunately, Suarez hasn’t quelled concerns that’s exactly what he’s doing.

All of this impedes Suarez from displaying leadership on what are actually sound calls for reforms in city government.

In his address, Suarez echoed some of the Herald Editorial Board’s proposals from our Miami Dysfunction series of editorials. He said he supports growing the city commission from five to seven seats and moving mayoral and commission elections from odd-numbered years to the same years as midterm and presidential elections to boost Miami’s dismal voter turnout.

Ironically, the mayor who refuses to answer questions about potential conflicts of interest also suggested hiring an independent auditor to ensure officials have no conflicts of interests. That’s an idea worth exploring, with Suarez as Exhibit A.

Suarez also revived his failed proposal for a “strong mayor” system of government. Voters rejected that idea in 2018 — and that was before there were so many scandals surrounding Suarez. How can he successfully make the case for a mayor with more power over city government now?

The mayor of Miami has no power to create policy, only to veto it. The reforms Suarez proposed would be up to the city commission to approve and put before voters. With some exceptions, Suarez has generally abdicated the soft power he does have to convince commissioners to vote on issues he cares about.

Maybe it’s not too late. Suarez could still try to make good governance reforms a signature issue. But, first, he has to walk the walk and answer some important questions, fully and without holding anything back.

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