Last night I attended the Coral Gables Commission Candidates’ Forum for the Mayoral Candidates, organized by the Ponce Business Association. The candidates in Group I (Mayor, two year term) are Ralph Cabrera and incumbent James Cason. Cabrera is an incumbent Commissioner but is term-limited for running to retain his current seat.
It was standing room only (about 150?) at the Coral Gables Congregational Church. There was a larger and more animated crowd than last week’s Group II Debate and they frequently offered partisan applause. This was not your average crowd and I wondered if there were many undecided voters present or if they all were supporting one campaign or the other — when the moderator flubbed a biographical fact about Cabrera during the introductions half the audience shouted “no”. There were even polite demonstrators outside, handing out fliers in opposition to the Coral Gables garage. Many of the questions submitted from the audience read like plants, designed to help one candidate or the other.
Local CBS4 news anchor Eliott Rodriguez again served as moderator. The format of the Forum was similar to last week’s: three-minute openings from each candidate, then questions from the moderator followed by some audience-submitted questions read by the moderator. Each candidate had two minutes to reply to each question, and at the end there were three-minute closing statements.
The word about this election is that the two candidates represent different, very divided, factions on the Commission. You can get a flavor of the gossip from Political Cortadito’s post Gables mayor’s race has third ‘candidate’ — the manager.
Both candidates made remarks that were rude or easily misinterpreted; Cason was more pugnacious than Cabrera, but nobody won this debate on style.
On substance it’s also a tougher call than I expected, in part because I still feel like I don’t know who is right about many facts on which the candidates differed.
- Is the Coral Gables crime rate up (Cabrera) or down (Cason)?
- Is the City Manager doing a great job (Cason), or worth retaining but needs his feet held to the fire sometimes (Cabrera)?
- Is Cason deferring too much to the Manager (Cabrera), or meeting privately with the Manager to shape the agenda in a manner that excludes other Commissioners (Cabrera), or a tireless public servant and paragon of openness who would happily meet with all Commissioners regularly (Cason)?
- Is Cason more confrontational with the Unions and City workers than necessary, and has he missed out on opportunities to negotiate in favor of shoving concessions down their throats?
- Is it true, as Cabrera charges, that the City would save money if it let the general municipal union leave the city pension fund, but the Mayor and Manager refuse to consider this option because it would mean less control over their workers?
Cason wins points for doing what he promised. Two years ago I thought it was fair to say Cason was a risky choice because, as a recent arrival to the City and to City politics, he was basically an unknown quantity. That argument cuts no ice today: Cason has a record on which he stands or falls.
So, while Cason wins points for doing what he promised, was what he was doing actually good? In some ways, yes; in others, not so much.
I think everyone agrees the City’s finances are in better shape today than they were two years ago. The whole Commission, and especially Cason, deserves credit for that.
I also agree that the City needs to upgrade infrastructure including roads and sidewalks. Cason wins a point for emphasizing that, although I didn’t hear Cabrera disagreeing with the objective, just the manner in which it was pursued without sufficient opportunity for citizen, or even Commission, input.
Cabrera has a record too. Cabrera wins points for opposing some initiatives that I don’t think were at all good:
- Forcing low-paid employees to take a 20% salary cut – which was moved into pension contributions — is pretty bad, especially if, as Cabrera charged, it made some employees lose houses or cars or forced them to go on Food Stamps. A de facto 20% pay cut is no joke for people living on a budget. Not making highly paid employees take a similar haircut seems to just underscore that someone has a management philosophy we cannot be proud of. Cason says that ‘City workers have tremendous salaries sand pensions,’ but how can that be true if some need Food Stamps?
- Spending $305,000 – yes $305,000! – on a bunch of “skinny palms” in a bunch of utterly pointless traffic islands on LeJune – a road the City doesn’t even own but will now have a continuing duty to pay to maintain a piece of. (Cabrera also claimed Cason pushed through the change without allowing citizen consultation or checking with Fire and Police about the negative effect on emergency service access during rush hour.)
- Waiving City procurement rules with some regularity and allowing no-bid contracts.
- It seems pretty clear that Cason takes a Tea-Party-like approach to unionized workers: he would rather impose things on unions than have to negotiate with them. That saves money in the short term, but isn’t a great labor relations strategy for the long term.
Cason tried to harp on Cabrera not winning any divided Commission votes in the past two years. That hardly seems surprising if there is a Cason-Kerdyk-Quesada majority that regularly votes against Cabrera-Anderson. The issue for me isn’t who was winning those votes, but who was right. And as I noted above, without key facts, it can be tough to answer that question. Meanwhile, Cason’s implicit argument that winning proves you are right and losing a divided vote proves you are wrong just reinforced his opponents’ narrative that he’s a bully.
Bottom line: I dunno. Neither candidate scored a knock-out in my view. I tend to agree with Cabrera’s view of labor relations and public participation much more than with what appeared to be Cason’s. On the other hand, Cason is better at articulating a vision of what he wants Coral Gables to be like and other than his strong anti-worker vibe has some sensible things to say about what is needed to achieve those goals – infrastructure repairs, a downtown night life that makes people want to stay after dinner. I just don’t much care for what I hear about his means of getting us there. One might argue that the advantage of a bull in a china shop is that it does tend to get where it is going. Or one might worry about who and what gets trampled on the way.
Below I reproduce my notes of the event for those who want a less filtered account of the forum and don’t get Coral Gables TV. The event was recorded for Coral Gables TV, which is available on Comcast Cable (channel 77), or Adelphia Cable (channel 97), or online if you have not disabled the vulnerable Siverlight plugin from your browser.
What follows are not verbatim transcripts, but rather my summaries, unless I put “quote marks” around a text, in which case I did attempt to scribe it verbatim. I also inserted a few hyperlinks and added some personal comments in [brackets]. Both of these guys talk pretty fast; I’m sure I missed something from time to time.
JC When I came in I made 10 promises and I kept all those promises: I am a full time Mayor, on the job all day, attend events. I would focus in on the finances of Coral Gables; we were broke, reserves were almost zero now almost $12.5 million. Pensions – pensions were taking out most of our money; we have now reformed 2 of 3 pensions. Rent dispute with Biltmore: with Commission we arranged for them to pay the back rent with interest — they are paying on time and we were able to bring back the fireworks. I have no outside business interests — I don’t have a private business, and have focused on working with staff to bring greater efficiency: we have 77 fewer employees, have cut $3.6 million on salaries; we have put money back into infrastructure – street paving and tree plantings.
RC Want to start by telling you about myself – when I was 5-7 my family was planning to become exiles from communist Cuba. I recall my parents talking about America. My mom would say, “I don’t care where we live in America as long as it is in Coral Gables” — shows why Coral Gables means so much to me. As a HS student I once had to get a variance for my parents and attended a Board of Adjustment meeting; there I learned about the Commission. I skipped school the next day to attend a Coral Gables commission hearing, and thought one day I would love to be able to do that. I got to live that dream for 12 years. I’ve concentrated on quality of life issues. “My record speaks for itself.”
Q (to JC): Many residents think the biggest problem is $230m unfunded pension obligation. Who is to blame for this too-generous plan. [This sounded like a softball from a JC partisan, much of the audience went “noooo…”]
JC: It was too generous. I get a 1.7 multiplier from the feds; City gave 3.0 to its empoyees. System was too generous allowing people to inflate their last-3-year salary base. For 10 years nothing was done other than lamentations, I came in and decided we needed a pension reform we could live with; change multiplier and change high-3 to high-5 [last years that count for base].
RC: From 1989 to about 2003 we had a non-contributory pension plan — employees were not asked to contribute. We recognized that in 2001 [the year RC joined the Commission] and started to work with the unions. Contributions started in 2005. This is not a short-term issue, problems started a long time ago. Plus we had two major recessions. When a recession hits you have unfunded liabilities. All municipalities have suffered. This was building for years. Good news is that Commission as a team has taken strides to fix the problem. I’d like to get out of the pension business. Get fire, police, general employees union to come forward with ideas–some have.
Q (to RC): During 12 years, as pension liabilities swelled from $12m to $230[?] million. what did you do?
RC: I set out budgets so harshly that some colleagues wouldn’t speak to me back in 2006. I understand how important the issue is; I also understand that some retirees are very low wage earners. We did better reforms than State of Florida. Also need to consider employees so they will do a phenomenal job.
JC: Aug 2009 budget – ex-Mayor Slesnick mentioned “pension reform”. [Reads from paper] RC said “we’ll only deal with it when the fecal matter hits the oscillating device” . That’s not leadership [I thought listening to it that the context made it sound like RC was unhappy about the delay and thought this was a cheap shot by Cason] We are making strides. Heavy lifting has been in last 2 years.
RC: I was trying to wake my colleagues, say that we couldn’t wait — we had to act now. If you, Jim, are trying to read from minutes to manipulate my remarks…I’m glad you can read them because you weren’t here then.
JC You may have tried but you were not successful. You had 10 years and nothing was done. We went to 99% funded to one of the lowest % funded.
RC: I was there and have been there for 47 years. General employees presented to City Commission to leave our plan and to go into their own. I have presented that. Cason agrees with city that we want them to stay in the plan. Why? It’s about control. It’s not about doing the right thing for the people who work for us. It’s about being punitive. Jim Cason has not led — he’s been led. But in spite of what he wants to criticize, we have worked together, he has not led, he’s been lead by consultants and others. We don’t have a strong Mayor system – we [on the Commission] all approved the pension reform, lowering rates. [applause]
JC: I wasn’t taking the credit, I was saying Ralph should take the credit for what was not done. There was a proposal from the Retirement Board for a 6% COLA – it cost $1.6m for 20 years, $48 million more total cost. Our city attorney advised us not to do it because it was an additional unfunded liability and was illegal. Ralph voted for it. We just got a letter back from the State of Florida saying it would be illegal. [RC shakes head]. It wasn’t the right thing for Coral Gables taxpayers. This was the equivalent of a huge tax increase.
Q: Why approve the COLA in a time of unfunded liability?
RC: We have a contract with the people that work for us. We have a responsibility to uphold it. This wasn’t just my decision, but an ordinance relating to employees and retirees. Jim didn’t reach out to them, talk them, he decided to ignore them; leaving them no opportunity to do it outside of the public forum. I talked to the three unions, they were willing to work with the City. But we had a contract to uphold. Now we’re in a lawsuit with 2 of the unions – maybe soon 3. That’s expensive to taxpayers. I’m not saying that $1.6m was necessarily right; I’m saying let’s meet with them and compromise.
[At this point there was an interruption from a member of audience who was stopped by the moderator.]
JC: Last round of contract negotiations resulted in an impasse vote 5-0 from the Commission. Workers have tremendous salaries and pensions. To vote for COLA over advice of counsel would just add to the deficit.
Q: Under your leadership there have been new contracts with Police and Fire, some say they are too harsh, what do you say.
JC: I understand unions want all kinds of things. We have to look at what is best for the citizens. We were paying up to 88% of revenue to employees and pensions. When times are good and we can afford more, we can, but we are still not out of the recession.
RC: 22 people make $2.8 million. Top earners [on city payroll] get a lot. We used to have a Public Service Director [and some other Directors] reporting to the Manager. We now have those Directors reporting to a Super-Director who reports to the Manager. Jim talks about great salaries. But garbage workers lost 20% of their salary to the pensions, but top earners didn’t get charged for this. I’ve questioned this but get no answers why senior managers don’t get subject to same contributions as workers. I question this at budget meetings.
Q: Has the city been heavy handed in dealing with the unions?
RC: Unions are not stupid. They understand what is happening. They are willing to meet with the City to make a compromise. We have been heavy-handed, we acted in bad faith when on October 1st we decided to take 20% from salaries. Some of these people lost their homes, their cars, are on food stamps. I know these people. I believe in pension reform but we have to do it methodically to get the best out of the people who work for us. [lots and lots of applause]
JC: The reason they went up to 20% is they had agreed to it. Management salaries are basically what they were before; some people coming in have lower salaries than before. What we have now is better management. We used to have terrible management. He started as an attendant at the Venetian Pool [as opposed to being a professional manager]. “The cats were away and the mice were playing”. We bought premium gas with no contracts from friends. There was no management control over the City. Salaries today are $3.3m less than in 2009; there are 77 fewer employees. We have excellent management. We need to be even better to have greater efficiencies. I investigated the Baghdad embassy. I know how to find waste, fraud and abuse.
Q: What is your opinion of the City Manager?
JC: We have a great City Manager who replaced a terrible Manager – sexual harassment, faking documents. The previous administration brought in the current Manager and he’s done a great job. We have a strong Manager. He’s full time, even seven days a week. He’s honest. This is not an election about the City Manger. He’s up for elections every 2 weeks – any 3 Commissioners can vote him out. Ralph and Maria didn’t try to remove Brown, why not?
RC: We don’t have a strong manager [system of government] — we have a City Manager/Commission form of government. I have various responsibilities as legislator, quasi-judicial officer, and under Charter have oversight over City Manager, City Clerk and City Attorney. Yes, I hold him accountable. We’ve had disagreements, but it’s not personal: I think you hired me for that. I play the role of checks and balances. Jim has yet to question one action item about legislation brought by staff. That’s wrong. You elect us to represent you. Who knows why he’s there seven days a week, maybe he doesn’t have a great home life [cries of shame! boo!]. I have a responsibility?
Q: Would you like a different city manager?
RC: No. I would like to continue to hold him accountable — as we did in July. Even Jim said he needs to start being nicer to people. It isn’t about being nice: He needs to start being fairer to all.
JC: One of the most important things we have on Commission. RC refuses to speak to City Manager. He belittles him. City Charter says manager has right to participate in Commission meetings. I talk to him every day, so I know what is on the agenda. Over last two years, RC has not proposed a single thing that has prevailed on a split vote. What have you accomplished in the last two years? You are a great talker but you are not effective. Manager gets a lower salary than predecessor. You want a teddy bear, bring back Brown. You are the one guy who always votes against what he brings up. It is extremely personal.
RC: Jim says he discusses things with manager. Do you realize how wrong that is? Everything should be on an agenda so all five Commissioners can decide. Don’t make decisions behind closed doors. Don’t decide if there are the votes to waive the procurement code. We should waive it only when there is an emergency . We don’t waive it to buy skinny palms. [loud applause]
JC : We have not bought any trees in this city [yes, that is what he said]… we got a good deal… we got them under MDX contract prices… we have not been doing sole-source contracts. We have a very transparent city government, trouble is you don’t know what is going on.
Q (reading question submitted by audience member): It’s been said crime is up in Coral Gables 13%. My neighborhood is besieged by crime. we do not feel safe in our homes. What is the City doing?
JC; December 12 the City Chief of Police gave a long briefing to the Commission. The fact is that crime is down. It is not up 13%. Property crimes 20yrs ago were two times today’s rate; violent crime was four times. Bicycle theft and theft from vehicles are the only categories that are up. Coral Gables does not have a crime wave. For RC to say on Spanish radio we are like Opa-Locka… you’re going to find spikes up and down…crime is steadily going down. We have same number of police, we have same number on patrol. We’ve done something about it. Spent $42,000 for study on how to reorganize police, found we can get many more officers on street.
RC: My stats come from Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE). They say last year there was 13% increase. Much of it was property related. From June – March there were 533 reported vehicle burglaries, 205 residential burglaries, 71 auto thefts — these are not violent crimes. But each of them could have been if the owner had run into the criminal. That is what I’m concerned about. This is first time in 12 years we’ve had this issue. In my 12 years representing Coral Gables crime has never been on mind of neighbors like this. My colleague refuses to recognize this. We fix it by empowering the police department to do what they want to do to fix it. We have a great police department that can get the job done.
Q: About that Spanish-language ad comparing Coral Gables go Opah-Locka – How do we do compared to them?
RC: Many local communities in Miami-Dade such as South Miami have lower rates than ours [audience didn’t like this!], but the issue isn’t just statistics, it’s fear. All you have to do is talk to people like on the 700 block of Santander Ave, where door was kicked in and thousands of dollars of jewelry stolen. Go down Santa Maria – a street with multiple burglaries. There are purse snatchings in downtown. The Police Department is not allowed to talk about the issue in election year, they say “I have a gag order.”
JC: That’s outrageous. Our police chief is closest to knowing what is going on, says all categories except theft from homes is going down. We have 100,000 people and 25 miles of road. Less than one home burglary per day. Rate has been going down. Perception is caused by going on radio and saying there is a crime wave. Crime is down, down, down. “Where do gold miners go? They go where the gold is. We’re a rich community” [so there will be crime]. We’ve pulled out 13 police officers to go after spikes of crime. They run in little waves, trend is down.
[Comment: I’ve done some research on the crime numbers and will have a separate post on it later.]
Q: Many have lived in Coral Gables for decades. You moved here 5 years ago. Is 5 years enough to know the City?
JC: Argument you have to live here long enough or you are not one of us is a discriminatory argument like those that used to be used against Blacks, Jews and others. [Boos from audience.] When I retired from Foreign Service I picked Coral Gables over all the cities in the world — this is where we wanted to live. You don’t need to know Mary’s ponytail was pulled by Bobby in 6th grade. You have to go out and talk to people and I’ve done it. We don’t want to be discriminatory. 75% of people in City were born outside Florida.
RC: I don’t need a GPS to get around the City. I’m glad you picked it – we must have been doing something right. We are not discriminatory. But many people on Commission have long experience of City.
RC: Those do not come from my campaign. It’s not hard to understand that in two years you haven’t brought one single initiative, one single piece of legislation, one action item; you have chaired the meeting. There is truth to the content of those fliers, but that’s all I can say about them.
JC: We could have an empty suit with Ralph — he’s been defeated on every single item he’s brought up. These negative pieces are only the first, there will be more. He’s trying to say I’m wandering around town with a rum bottle. The mayor of Cognac who wants to establish business relations, and I gave the key to the City gave us the first bottle of Coral Gables Cognac. Don’t hide that you don’t know about it
RC: I didn’t say I didn’t know about it.
JC: He put on a credit card. I don’t have a credit card. He was having dinners with the former city manager [at city expense].
RC: That’s not true.
Q: Is your experience in the Cuban interest section relevant? [That experience is a source of Cason’s popularity.]
JC; I have not raised the issue of Cuba. I have a lot of support. I don’t think it is relevant to being Mayor. I had 19 different assignments all over world in different cultures, in large organizations. I have learned from my diplomatic life. I try to be a gentleman, I try to facilitate discussions in the Commission. I am not running on what I did in Cuba, but I am running on my record in the last 2 years.
RC: This is not about Cuba I don’t know why we are even touching the subject.
Q: What will be your three most important issues, initiatives?
RC: Three priorities: 1. Crime — discussed it – have to recognize problem, give Police strategies and resources. 2. Government waste. LeJune rd project is going on at light speed due to election year. We took money out of reserves – $305,000; only 3 blocks [of the project] went to the Commission, they didn’t go to Planning, or Firefighters or Police. Just for skinny palms for 12 islands on a street we don’t own and we now have to assume liabilities for. 3. Keep taxes and also fees low. Millage rate went down a little but fees are going up.
JC: Same three as before: 1. Lower millage rate, people especially in North Gables are really suffering. 2. Continue to build up reserves 3. Continue to work on pensions – we have to lower the multipliers and invest in infrastructure . Ralph says infrastructure work is “gratuitous” – he has voted against projects but streets and sidewalks are broken. I will put in a plan to fix all sidewalks. Ralph voted against the Senior Center and street re-paving. Landscape improvements on a street lead to 5-10% improvement in property values there.
Q: Miracle mile – what are our views on parking and Steetscape?
JC: We decided to do another study on parking for a 5-year plan. We don’t know what they will say yet. Downtown is decrepit: sidewalks are broken, the streets flood. Coral Gables downtown can be beautiful; we still don’t have a final plan. We can’t keep neglecting downtown. If we don’t “it will be a miracle if anyone walks on our mile”. Merchants will pay 75% ; our share is already in our budget.
RC: This Mayor likes talking about cosmetic improvements. We forget to take care of the things that we already own. $305,000 could fix a lot sidewalks. Why spend it on something on LeJune that does no crosswalks, helps no one? Regarding parking, I’m the guy who brought the parking issue up, I went and counted the spaces. I said we may reduce parking, need to communicate that to the merchants, residents. Need new ways to get the funding besides taxing the merchants.
Q: We citizens beg you for neighborhood schools.
RC: I talk to School Board members who represent us. Best way to give our kids best alternatives is to dialog with School Board. They are their own government. Have to maintain relations with them.
JC: I’ve been meeting with Regalado about exchanging school fields; I’ve visited all 20 schools that Coral Gables sends children too. I have been working to bring Brazilian Portugese to Coral Gables since Brazilian companies are important. I have been working with Taiwan to have Chinese in schools. We’re limited what we can do with public schools.
Q: Senior center?
JC: Commissioner [RC] voted against it 4 times. We’re negotiating now with the Palace. [Comment: does he mean the guys who keep sending me mailers?]. We’re close. It’s one of my highest priorities. Needs to be accessible. It’s in the plan. Half of what is neighborhood renaissance plan is to repair things.
RC: I voted against the neighborhood renaissance plan because Jim Cason voted to increase debt 13% (in connection with reducing the interest rate). I lobbied for a senior center, but wasn’t for the whole project because there was no process. Citizens didn’t get to speak on a $4 million park on Miracle Mile, called “a lovers park”. Public didn’t get to comment on a new “public living room” — there $8.5 million total between them. We needed public process, input, but just went ahead. Mayor voted for it without any public input. [applause]
Q: Position on annexation of High Pines and Little Gables?
RC: I am for annexation opportunities — they are well suited geographically. We can bring them to code, need to be sensitive to community. The big problem is that the County wants to charge us for it, and I find that unconstitutional. If it does happen I don’t want to pay a heavy price for it.
JC: I’m not in favor of Little Gables annexation; High Pines and Ponce Davis, yes, if they want it. Little Gables has too many anomalies.
Every one of the 17 projects in the plan will come to the Commission, e.g. civic monuments – final designs will come to Commission where there will be public process. In 12 years RC never had anything like that. If he prevailed we would have had none of it. there will be plenty of opportunities to comment.
[Comment: it seems to me that there’s a world of difference between being invited to comment on whether a project should go forward in the first place, and being asked for in put on what it should look like. Not being involved in step one means first that you can’t argue for alternatives and also that by the time you are in the process the freight train is running down the tracks.]
Q: If Somerset Charter asks for more numbers, how do you vote?
RC: Premature for us to give an answer [boos, cries of “just say no”].
[Comment: I would surmise that as a matter of administrative law, the Commission sits in a quasi-judicial capacity when it rules on zoning matters of this type. I don’t know Florida law on this, but in most states it would be wrong – illegal – to prejudge such an issue before its submission. A public comment suggesting a closed mind on the merits could lead to a claim that the Commissioner should be disqualified from participating in the matter. I wonder if Cabrera’s answer – which seemed politically tone-deaf – was based on an understanding of what is required by law? But I stress I don’t know the law on this in Florida, which is a state with an administrative code that is quite different from the federal code that I teach. If anyone knows the answer to this please tell me.]
Q: What would you do to improve the City’s bond rating?
RC: National scope determines bond rating. Bond companies come to us, we are continuing to strengthen our financial position. Reserves are over $27m but we hide it with unassigned categories. The City was never broke.
JC: Bond ratings went down due to too much variable rate debt and too much liabilities. We are refinancing and have moved 92% variable to 92% fixed, saving millions. We have special reserves for sewers. We have no plans to borrow more money for City. We have one of lowest interest rates in Miami-Dade. Refinancing saved money.
RC: Thank you for those in audience who practice civility [oh’s from audience]. I’ve have always brought initiatives to the Commission. They didn’t always work [pass], but we got to deliberate. We didn’t have someone present something and we have to decide [immediately] or the deal is gone. Now Commission has no debate. Mayor defers to City Manger. It’s a shame. I look forward to being the Mayor, hope you will give me that opportunity.
JC: I think I’ve done a good job cleaning up the inherited mess. I eliminated cronyism. Stood up to unions. Cut taxes. Got more out the same dollar. City is lot better than two years ago. It’s great to be a great talker – Ralph is a slick talker – but words are not deeds. when I promise, I deliver. I have never missed a vote. Ralph has missed [many] [Note: I didn’t get the number Cason quoted]. Ralph has never prevailed in a split vote. He has voted to raise taxes. He called our last reduction of the millage rate ‘gratuitous’ – it saved voters $6 million dollars. He voted against street works, the senior center. He says he is for pension reform but where was Ralph when pension costs went up? Crime has been declining across the board – he is using scare tactics. I called for reorganization of the Police – we’ll free 13 Police officers — you’ll see more Police out there. Previous police reform was very inefficient. This is a safe City to walk in.