Carollo files suit against Suarez to stop 'strong mayor' referendum

Suarez seeks to expand the powers of Miami's mayor

MIAMI – City Commissioner Joe Carollo filed a lawsuit against Miami and its mayor, Francis Suarez, Wednesday in an effort to thwart a referendum that would allow voters to grant the mayor more authority.

"Mayor Suarez and the committee (that backed the referendum) are entitled to propose bad public policy. But they are not entitled to lie about it. And because they have done so -- repeatedly -- the court must enjoin the referendum in order to protect the integrity of the ballot and our democratic process," the lawsuit said.

Under the current system, the mayor of Miami hires a city manager who handles the day-to-day administration of the city. But the mayor can't order the city manager to carry out policies, and the city commission can vote to fire the mayor.

Suarez has proposed changing to a "strong mayor" system of government, which is common among cities of Miami's size. As a "strong mayor," Suarez could directly oversee city departments and hire and fire major city officials such as the police chief. Suarez has said that Miami has been hamstrung by a weak leadership structure.

However, Carollo, a longtime political rival, said the wording of the referendum would give the mayor even more authorities than the average "strong mayor" in cities elsewhere, including complete control of the city budget.

"If this passes, it just may be the last mayor we have because the city of Miami would not be able to withstand what would come afterwards. And I think we would see ourselves soon spinning into a bankruptcy," Carollo said. 

In the lawsuit, Carollo, himself a former mayor of Miami, also took issue with how the referendum would affect the mayor's salary.

"The referendum purports to transform the office of mayor from a part-time position paying 
a generous $97,000, per year to a part-time position paying Mayor Suarez no less than $350,000 
per year," the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit called the petition drive that allowed the "strong mayor" question on the ballot "illegal and 
fundamentally flawed," saying many of the signatures came from people ineligible to vote.

With November quickly approaching, both sides went before a judge Thursday to decide how they would proceed forward. 

"This issue is going to be on the ballot. Whether those votes are counted is what the litigation involves," Suarez's attorney, Ben Kuehne, said.

Kuehne denied that the mayor gathered petitions from non-registered Miami-Dade County voters.

"Three city of Miami commissioners voted majority to have it added to the ballot, so it's for city of Miami voters to decide," he said. 

The trial is scheduled for the first week of October.