Below I offer an account of the debate among the three candidates for Mayor in Coral Gables held on Tuesday at the Cosford Cinema. Yesterday I posted Coral Gables Candidate Debate: Part 1 – Commission Group 4 and Group 5 (Updated). Since then there has been writing about the debate elsewhere, notably George Volsky’s dyspeptic but not unfair critique of the format in the Coral Gables Gazette, Chamber’s Election ‘Forum’ A Bust. Candidates were limited to tiny short answers about complex subjects, were not actually allowed to engage each other (thus, it’s not really a ‘debate’ at all), and the questions were somewhat limited in range.
Before the debate I had not been paying as much attention to the Mayor’s race as to the Commission Group 4. One reason was that, as I have written before, I think the incumbent, Don Slesnick, has done an OK job. (I know many others disagree, but that’s how I feel.) So I went in willing to be persuaded someone else was better, but not feeling that I had to have a change. I was willing to listen to challengers James Cason and Thomas Korge, but I was feeling skeptical. For all its faults, which were numerous, I thought the debate told me something useful about each of the three candidates. I left leaning fairly strongly towards one of them.
What follows is my paraphrase of the questions and answers (I’m no stenographer!) and some editorial comments.
Mr. Cason had campaigned in my neighborhood last weekend, and we had a chat when he got to my door, during which he promised he would serve no more than four years. I had read his literature and looked over his web page. He has an unusual background for a candidate, having been a Foreign Service officer for his entire professional life, ending up as an Ambassador. He moved to the Gables only two years ago. He is an energetic guy, and enjoys the good fortune of having been attacked by the Castro regime for his service as the head of the US Interests Section in Cuba, which ought to be good for a vote or three in South Florida. (See Cuban Government Attacks Coral Gables Candidate For Mayor.) You could say – and indeed I sort of want to say – that it takes even more hubris (or something) than I have to move to a place and decide in the space of two years that you should be its Mayor. On the other hand, there’s something possibly attractive about the idea of a citizen retiring from a life of public service deciding that his community needs to be sorted out and riding to the rescue.
James Cason clearly had a strategy going into the debate: attack the incumbent. And that is what he did. In his opening he said it was time for new blood. He called for greater transparency. He promised to be an Ambassador for the city, to be “frugal,” and create greater efficiencies.
On Streetscape, Cason said he supports it, but has three concerns: 1) Do the merchants really want it? 2) The essence of it is fix sidewalks and trees, but we also must find new parking, and we should have no parking meters after 6pm; 3) Doesn’t like the bond, should figure out how to pay for it [which I took to mean out of existing revenue].
On pensions, he said it was the City’s biggest problem, as Coral Gables is the most indebted city per capita in Florida. The Mayor, he said cuttingly, represents unions. The Mayor must support the City Manager, who is negotiating for us. We must reduce the pension multiplier, not allow sick leave or overtime into the base used to compute pensions. We should increase the employee contributions, cut merit and loyalty pay and the maximum accumulation per year.
On the Biltmore, he said we can’t let it close; but the study on the management is secret. The Biltmore were paying, then they stopped. (He also said something I didn’t follow about lots being carried on the books as receivables.)
On whether Building & Zoning is on the right track, Cason said it should have been on the right track years ago. The City had a consultant’s report and ignored it for six years — why did it take so long for the reforms? It took six years for the Mayor and others to focus on this issue.
On relations with UM, Cason said Coral Gables should have good relations. The U should do more with interns helping the city. “We haven’t used the resources of University to the fullest.”
On schools, he said schools quality matters to recruitment. Placement matters, e.g Somerset neighbors need to be assured there will not be huge traffic problems. Cason said he is not in favor of 750 students, but we can come up with a number. He promised to work out a solution “in a diplomatic manner”.
The next question noted that decreases in real estate has caused budget shortfalls. What can the city do without? Cason’s answer was that reserves are too low. There are too many city workers . We should privatize. Why do we have our own TV station? Our own IT dept? Outsource. Recycling could be done by same truck [as the garbage truck, I presume] like other cities. [The audience clearly didn't like this answer. Neither did I.]
How to balance residential and business communities? Do more to encourage business to come downtown. Need incentives, make permitting easier. Don’t collect parking fees after 6pm. Make it nice for people to come and shop without getting an $18 ticket. Other cities are aggressive about getting international biz.
Should the City offer businesses specific incentives to locate here, or is the allure of Coral Gables enough? Cason replied by saying he was in Doral when a consulate was looking for a place to site, but there was no one from Coral Gables there. The incentives would come in fixing permitting. We should seek more consulates as they bring business and tourists. [Mayor Slesnick had a good reply on this point.]
Cason’s first priority after the election would be to meet employees, hold hearings on pensions, have public sessions to hear other voices. He would meet with the City Manager to “let him know my expectations”. The Mayor needs to supervise the city manager and offer “creative solutions”. [Like what, for example, I wondered.]
In Cason’s final statement he said he knows how residents feel: they don’t think we’re on the right path. There’s nothing in the budget for sidewalks. They want no tax increases, they want them to go down; we should be reducing the millage when property values go up. Cason pledged to reduce the city contribution to pension funds. And he said he “won’t try to stay on forever, either.”
Overall it was a pugnacious performance. I get why he did it – the playbook says a challenger has to attack to unseat an incumbent. But I wasn’t as impressed as I expected to be by this former Ambassador and recent neighbor.
I have to admit that I knew absolutely nothing about Tom Korge going into this debate. I was impressed.
Tom Korge opened by introducing himself. He is an adjunct tax professor at UM. [I had never met him. That's not unusual as the tax adjuncts are a breed apart.] He has 12 years of Coral Gables experience including time as Chair of the Pension Board and the Zoning & Planning Board. The City’s problem is overspending. Korge promised to reform the pension system, fix the Building Department, and invest wisely.
On Streetscape, I favor “the improvements which are needed” especially those to Miracle Mile such as new sidewalks, drainage. A charrette three yearrs ago supported it, and then the project sat. Need to get it done.
On pensions, Korge said he didn’t have a 60 second answer. A defined benefit plan can be made to work at reasonable cost if we redefine the benefits. I support the plan Slesnick opposed. We must prevent insolvency. This is the top issue.
On the Biltmore he discussed the history of long failures to resolve issue. Their lender has to be brought to the table. We should resolve it quickly.
On whether Building & Zoning is on the right track, Korge said it is dysfunctional, runs you in circles. The Mayor should sit down with the City Manager. He should get a timeline, have measurable standards. The Issue isn’t code enforcement – we’re all for that.
On relations with UM, Korge said, “I teach at UM” [meaning that he can make better relations happen] and the new development agreement between the city and the university will help with relations.
On the schools question, Korge hit it out of the park. First he was straightforward: “this is about Somerset. I tell them: we have a process we go through.” To increase the number of students allowed you have to go through the process. The Commission process is quasi-judicial, we can’t discuss it in private. I’m committed to doing what the numbers say. [I thought this was the best answer of the night.]
Should the City offer businesses specific incentives to locate here, or is the allure of Coral Gables enough? Korge said we don’t want to reduce essential services. The challenge is to get our budget back in line and to fix pensions.
[I seem to have failed to transcribe his answer to the seventh question about what the city can do without. Sorry about that.]
On balance, Korge agreed with Mayor Slesnick’s earlier reply that we’ve done a pretty good job of preventing commercial intrusion into residential areas. In the CBD, he said, we have not done our share. Instead we “bled them dry”. We should fix sidewalks, landscape. We must invest consistently.
On incentives, Korge said that the city’s allure is “enough to keep me here”. The tax base doesn’t allow us to throw incentives at businesses. Must fix sidewalks, make enough schools.
His first act as Mayor would be to sit down with the city manager. The top issue is the collective bargaining issue – pensions. The police say they are dissatisfied. “I want to know why.” Move on the big money issues.
Korge’s finale was good. He told the audience that if they are happy with things as they are, “vote Don [Slesnick], you’ll get more of the same.” But for change, “vote for Jim or me.” We agree on many issues, he’s new to town. Me, I have 21 years here, my law practice is here.
Don Slesnick (Incumbent)
Reports of the first debate suggested Mayor Don Slesnick was not in top form. He seemed to me to do well at this debate.
He opened by saying “I’m your neighbor and your Mayor and proud to be both.” Slesnick said he was proud of his record – I have kept promises in my campaigns. I have 38 years of service to this city. I’m not one who does nothing for the city.
On Streetscape he said, “It’s complicated. I’ve cast one vote in favor of moving forward. The Commission voted 5-0 to go forward and get details, but we haven’t had them yet.” We are moving down the road in a conscientious, sane, sound manner.
On the pensions question Slesnick had what I thought was his best moment. Responding to Cason’s dig about his being a labor lawyer, Slesnick said, “I’m proud of what I do, representing working people.” Then he had a jab of his own: I’m not on a federal pension criticizing pensions. We started requiring employees to contribute. I voted for an alternate plan last August, but we forced a different plan on them [i.e. one that Slesnick had opposed] and it’s in court.
On the Biltmore, Slesnick said it is iconic, helps Coral Gables get tourists, business, income, is a big employer, must be kept open. In hard times tenants don’t pay bills, but we’re working on it. On the way to resolving it.
Regarding Building & Zoning, the Mayor referred to the Vice-Mayor’s earlier answer. I heard Kerdyk explain the changes in the department . Things are being done. We added an ombudsman several years ago. We’re on the right track.
Re: UM. I have a fine working relationship with UM. New agreement is just one of many agreements such as Bank United, University Village, the Development Agreement. The twenty- year plan gets $22m for city.
On schools, Slesnick noted a compact with the Dade County School Board six years ago. He said he had a record of improving schools, and that they were opening a new magnet middle school international program at Gables. [No mention of the existing IB Middle School right down the street at Ponce – I think it's a good program.] Somerset offers another option, and many parents want an option. Neighbors are opposed for various reasons. Commission will handle it in an orderly legal way. [This speakers didn't always go in the same order, but this answer came after Korge's on the same question.]
On the question of lower real estate tax revenue, the Mayor said we have great services — people who have lived here more than two years know that [another dig at Cason]. We reduced the head count and didn’t reduce services. I don’t see budget shortfalls in the coming year. Despite “rising tax” mailers going to homes, the true story was that in 10 years taxes went up .2 mils. [Of course for a chunk of that period property values were going up so fast there was not much need to raise the millage....]
On how to balance businesses and residential communities, the Mayor said he used charettes, used zoning. “In my positive literature” (another dig) you see 45% of Coral Gables revenue is from the commercial zone.
On the incentive question, Slesnick responded to Cason’s dig about consulates by saying that in fact we have a very active consulate program, and are bringing them in, although it is more prestige than business. He suggested that the consulate in question had met with Coral Gables before the Doral people even spoke to them. Slesnick said he brought Bacardi world headquarters here; there are not that many world headquarters in South Florida. He boasted that he has cut ribbons on ten new businesses in the last six months, including four with over 500 jobs.
On the “first thing” question, Slesnick was funny and also tried to show off his experience: the first thing he will do, he said, is take the oath of office. I don’t need to meet with people because I know what is going on. We’re working daily on issues like the Biltmore and pensions. These are not solved by a person on a white horse. There’s a cultural center, a museum, medians, 2587 ongoing projects — the Mayor must be ready to be involved.
Slesnick’s closing started by noting that for ten years he has had twice a month meetings & TV shows. Then he did another jab at Cason–”our TV show is why other people will see you…if you had been here ten years ago you would know”. The Mayor noted that Coral Gables had an AA S&P rating. He concluded by saying, “We’re in good shape.”
In my opinion Slesnick was OK. His jabs at Cason were funny and mostly managed not to be mean. Cason was a bit too rough, and too easy with unrealistic promises (getting a few more consulates here will not get much business for the city unless we get Brazil’s, and we’re not going to). Korge was a surprise – very impressive. He didn’t jab. He wasn’t afraid to agree with other candidates. His answers were careful and often sounded more nuanced than the other candidates; they had lawyerly precision.
I left thinking, if the city’s biggest problem is really pensions, and all the candidates seemed to agree that it is, then maybe it makes sense to pick a tax and pensions expert like Tom Korge to solve it for us?
You can see the debate for yourself on Coral Gables TV at any of these times: 9AM on Saturday, 7PM on Sunday, 10AM on Monday, 1PM on Friday, or 7PM on Tuesday.