Miami-Dade County Mayor Is Removed
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HIALEAH, Fla. -- Mayor Carlos Alvarez of Miami-Dade County was removed in a recall election on Tuesday as voters punished him for raising property taxes and increasing the salaries of his closest aides at the height of the recession.
Walking out of polling stations, irate voters said Mr. Alvarez's greatest offense was his effrontery: Two years ago, with Miami sinking under foreclosures and a housing bust, he called on residents and county workers in a speech to brace themselves for "tough times." But he gave his own top aides hefty raises, including his former chief of staff whose salary climbed to $206,783 from $185,484.
Last year, he pushed through a budget that raised property taxes for 40 percent of homeowners, despite plummeting property values, to avoid laying off firefighters and other public employees. Yet, most county workers are getting raises this year.
And then there is the car. The mayor shuttles around Miami in a sleek BMW 500i Gran Turismo, which taxpayers help subsidize. None of this sits well with voters, most of whom voted for Mr. Alvarez in the past, including in a 2007 election to give the county mayor more power. They now say he did not uphold a promise to clean up government.
"I saw him on TV with a car from here to there," said Edelmira Triana, 73, a Hialeah resident who recently arrived from Cuba. "And he's giving money to his own staff and raising taxes and he's got that enormous car. He's living the good life."
Mr. Alvarez, a Republican, has defended the tax increase, saying it was the only way to preserve vital services and make up a $444 million budget gap. Without it, the county would have had to close fire stations and parks and lay off workers. The raises given to workers this year, Mr. Alvarez said, are part of a three-year-old collective-bargaining agreement that also entailed pay cuts. He defended the raises for his aides, saying their workload increased greatly when voters granted him more power in 2007.
After conceding defeat, Mr. Alvarez said: "No matter which side of the recall issue, one thing is certain: we all care very deeply about this community. A professional management team remains in place in Miami-Dade County government, and I know they will work hard to ensure the smoothest transition possible in the coming days."
The recall campaign was spearheaded by Norman Braman, a billionaire car dealer, philanthropist and onetime owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, who said he was outraged by the property tax increase and the "erosion in the quality of life" in Miami. Mr. Braman spent more than $1 million hiring consultants to collect signatures to call for the recall election. He collected 114,000, more than double the required number. A frequent guest on Spanish-language radio here, Mr. Braman, who does not speak Spanish, succeeded in energizing Hispanics who said they felt betrayed by their county mayor.
Voters favored removing the mayor by 88 percent to 12 percent. The county commission has 30 days from the election's certification to appoint a new mayor or call a special election that would have to be held within 45 days. Candidates are already lining up to replace Mr. Alvarez, including the mayor of Hialeah, Julio Robaina.
"This was about empowering the citizens of the community," Mr. Braman said. "It's not just a recall of the mayor but a referendum for change."
A county commissioner, Natacha Seijas, was also recalled in a separate campaign organized by Miami Voice, a political action committee. The scandal-plagued county commission had voted to approve the mayor's budget and Ms. Seijas, a longtime commissioner, was viewed as particularly vulnerable.
Kenneth W. Goodman, co-director of the University of Miami's ethics program, said that in better economic times, the decisions made by the mayor would not have led to such extreme action. He fell victim in large part to the surge of antitax sentiment around the country but then mishandled the situation, Mr. Goodman said. "A reasonable person would say there is a kind of radioactive crankiness in the air," he said. Also, he said, "In times of duress, you want to be careful about what kind of car you drive."
Walking out of a polling station in this onetime Alvarez stronghold, Luis Diaz, a 56-year-old airport worker who like most voters here had supported Mr. Alvarez in past elections, said he was angry. "It's a farce what he has done," Mr. Diaz said. "He needed to raise taxes to keep the county running, but he also had to give raises to his friends."
"Let him leave office tomorrow," Mr. Diaz added.
First Published March 16, 2011 12:01 am