Miami anticorruption effort hits the books

New $500 fine for city workers who go over budget without permissionmay be first of its kind in a US city.

When Donald Warshaw accepted his appointment in June as Miami's sixth city manager in a year, he knew he was joining a government with a reputation for corruption, where stories often emerged about dead men voting, commissioners pocketing bribes, and lobbyists awarding kickbacks.

What the former police chief didn't know was that he would continue in his role as a cop - fining city administrators for going over budget.

Last fall, the Miami City Commission approved a landmark ordinance that slaps administrators with a $500 fine for exceeding their annual allotments without permission. Everyone from emergency service managers to park supervisors will be subject to civil charges and a state attorney's investigation for busting their budgets.

"Many people were concerned this might be too restrictive," Mr. Warshaw says. "But there is now a clear message: The executives of the city have to be aware of what they're doing. The budget can't run itself."

The "antideficiency" ordinance - which may be the first of its kind in a US city - is aimed at ending this cash-strapped city's habitual problem of administrators acting behind commissioners' backs, or with their wink-of-an-eye approval.

Things hit a low point in 1996, when then-city manager Cesar Odio was arrested, and subsequently convicted, in a federal corruption probe.

The city's $68 million deficit prompted former Gov. Lawton Chiles to appoint the state's first oversight board and threaten to take over the city if commissioners didn't approve a credible bailout plan. The ordinance fining budget-busters - based on a federal law that subjects managers to criminal charges if they exceed allocations without notifying Congress - should remove the threat of the state stepping in.

Still, critics of the new fining system wonder if it's not just avoiding the problem, or creating new ones.

"Why not just hire people who can do their jobs?" says Ken Goodman, co-director of the programs in business, governmental, and professional ethics at the University of Miami. "What happens if there's a good reason for a cost overrun?"

An amendment to the law, which went into effect in late December (the fines take effect January 2000), allows managers to transfer as much as $5,000 between accounts before the close of the fiscal year, though commissioners would have to be notified. Furthermore, budgets can be expanded at any time by a majority vote in the city commission.

The spending controls have also been questioned by the city's union leaders. They argue administrators would live in fear of either being fined or having to come before skeptical commissioners to seek more money. Managers could be forced to make cuts that could affect their workers' jobs and benefits, says Tom Gabriel, president of the International Association of Firefighters, Local 587.

BUT advocates say such stringent measures are needed to change the city's climate of corruption.

"The climate here has been unduly accepting, and we want to become hostile to this sort of unethical behavior," says Edward Foote, president of the University of Miami and co-chairman of the Alliance for Ethical Government, a recently created government watchdog group. "We have had more than our fair share of public corruption in recent years. It needs to stop."

Long home to pirates, mobsters, and well-dressed drug dealers, Miami has seen its image for flashy recklessness and seaside blas sink into the pit of old-style corruption.

In the past year, a Miami city manager and city commissioner have gone to prison for obstruction of justice and bribery. A mayoral election was thrown out because of rampant voter fraud. And the head of the Miami legislative delegation in Tallahassee, the state capital, will soon be tried on charges of money laundering and doling out kickbacks.

In the past five years, criminal charges have been filed against more than 260 public officials, with more than 60 percent convicted, according to the state attorney's office.

It was these alarming statistics that the ordinance was designed to eliminate, says Warshaw, the man in charge of enforcing the new law.

"Things are changing in Miami," he says. "We hope this helps."

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