MIAMI Voters in Miami-Dade, one of the most populous U.S. counties, removed Mayor Carlos Alvarez from office in a special vote on Tuesday triggered by popular anger over a hike in property taxes.
With 707 of 829 precincts reporting, official results showed 88 percent of voters backed the effort to oust the once-popular mayor, who is his second four-year term.
It was the biggest such ouster, or recall, of an elected official before the end of his official term since California voters tossed out Democratic Governor Gray Davis in 2003.
A Republican, Alvarez was first elected mayor in 2004 and re-elected in 2008. County commissioners can now either appoint an executive to serve out his term through late 2012 or call a special election.
The Miami-Dade recall bid, spearheaded by a billionaire anti-tax crusader, is the latest in a growing number of similar such attempts across the country to remove officials from office by voters angered by everything from taxes to the salaries of elected officials and union rights.
Miami-Dade County, which includes Miami, is home to about 2.5 million people.
The Cuban-born Alvarez came under criticism last year when Miami-Dade, saddled with record high 12 percent unemployment and the same budget deficits faced by many local and state governments, introduced a property tax increase to help fund vital services including police and public schools.
The 14 percent tax hike was imposed despite double-digit declines in real estate values as south Florida was hammered by the U.S. housing and mortgage foreclosure crisis.
Norman Braman, an auto dealer mogul listed by Forbes magazine among the 400 wealthiest Americans, bankrolled the petition drive that led to Tuesday's vote. Local media reports say he has spent about $1 million on the effort, which he orchestrated through two political action committees.
Braman, known in Miami for leading a campaign to halt a 1-cent sales tax increase for mass transit improvements in the late 1990s, strongly opposed a baseball stadium deal and the property tax rise forced through by Alvarez.
"We've been hit hard," he told Reuters in an interview in January.
"The federal government is cutting taxes, state governments have cut taxes to stimulate the economy. But here we're doing the opposite -- we're raising them," he said.
Alvarez, 58, was also criticized for raising salaries for some county employees as well as backing a deal to use nearly $350 million in public funds to build a new stadium to house the Florida Marlins baseball team in Miami's Little Havana district.
"Why would you raise property taxes when many people are fighting just to hold on to their homes? And then he raises salaries for some county workers," said Olga Navon, a 45-year-old housewife, who voted in favor of ousting Alvarez.
"He should have looked for another solution and been more sensitive at a time when people are worried about the economy and their jobs," she said.
(Writing by Kevin Gray and Tom Brown; Editing by Peter Cooney)