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Miami-Dade charter reform bill divides delegation

A proposal that would allow Miami-Dade lawmakers to put county charter reform changes on the ballot failed in the floor of the Florida Senate after drawing surprisingly heated debate and showing a fracture within the Miami-Dade legislative delegation.

Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah and the measure's sponsor, characterized SJR 1954 as an effort to give Miami-Dade voters a say on reforms that county commissioners have been unwilling to put forth.

"For far too many years, our county commission has done what it's wanted," he said. "We have an opportunity to stop that practice."

But Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, a Miami Republican and former county commissioner who tried to stop the proposal from coming to a quick vote Monday,

"This will set a very, very bad precedent," he said. "We don't want all of a sudden the Florida Senate to become the Miami-Dade commission.

"We should let Miami-Dade County decide its own future," Diaz de la Portilla added. "I don't believe that this Senate and this Legislature should be involved...This will do nothing more than pit us against that local government, and that's the last thing we want to do...We want to be collegial and above the fray."

As his colleagues debated, Diaz de la Portilla then walked around the chamber, apparently working the room to explain his side to other senators. His colleagues looked on in amusement as Miami-Dade legislators took sides on the proposal.

"Let people of the entire state of Florida have a voice," said Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, who supported it (because of Miami-Dade's home rule charter, all Florida voters would have had to sign off on giving lawmakers the power to propose charter amendments).

"It isn't really up to the Legislature to decide what's going on in Miami-Dade County," said Sen. Gwen Margolis, a Sunny Isles Beach Democrat and former county commissioner.

"There are members of the delegation that don't live [in Miami-Dade County], sometimes don't even attend our delegation meetings," said Sen. Oscar Braynon II, a Miami Gardens Democrat, referring to lawmakers whose districts may cross into Broward County.

Lawmakers from elsewhere weighed in, too.

"I'm from a charter county, and I'm not in the Miami fight, but I would hate to have the next senator or House member all of a sudden now ,they want to take Hillsborough County," said Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, who opposed the measure.

Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando and the majority leader, supported the move -- backing his House counterpart, Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, the Miami Republican who sponsored the measure in that chamber.

"I have been here long enough to know that every year -- every year -- we're embroiled in Miami-Dade politics. That's the reality of what we're talking about," Gardiner said. "If the Miami-Dade commission chooses not to act, then the people can come to the delegation."

The proposal ended up failing, with a 15-21 vote.