I attended Coral Gables candidate event sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce held at UM’s Fieldhouse on Tuesday, March 26. There were well over 100 people there, including a lot of familiar faces from previous debates and from Coral Gables politics. The speaker from the Chamber said the event was for “discourse and exchange” but the ground rules said otherwise.
The event was moderated by Perry Adair, the chair-elect of the CG Chamber of Commerce, who explained how the clickers would work, and admonished the audience to maintain “decorum” i.e. not to boo, heckle or the like.
The total event included three panels, one for each of the contested seats. I’ve posted my first impressions of the entire event earlier. What follows are my notes from the Group 3 portion of the meeting, which to me was the most interesting part. (I may post the others if I get motivated.) Nothing below is verbatim unless I put it in “quote marks”. I have also added some personal comments in [brackets].
The Chamber offered the audience ‘clickers’ which can be used to poll an audience. As the moderator noted, since the audience isn’t a representative sample (indeed, although he didn’t say this, the Chamber had invited the candidates to pack the meeting with supporters), the results are not scientific. Mostly it seemed a pointless distraction. Totals for the polls don’t add up to 100% because some people pushed buttons other than the approved choices. Below I report the winners, not the total breakdowns, because they didn’t leave them up very long and I don’t type that quickly.
Group 3 went first. There are five candidates: Jackson Rip Holmes, Patricia A. Keon, P.J. Mitchell, Norman Anthony Newell, and Mary Martin Young. [The kindest word to use for Jackson Holmes’s candidacy is daft. He has a place in history, but not one on the Commission.] The Herald recently published profiles of the candidates.
In the fist clicker POLL the audience was asked if they have decided who they will vote for. 44% said yes, 54% no.
Holmes: Many of you in the audience would make a better commissioner than me. [Comment: I agree!]
Keon: Almost 40 years in the Gables, last 9 in south part of city. History of civic activities, PTA, City boards including 8 years on planning & zoning.
Mitchell: Live and practice law in Coral Gables. I have some concerns: $230m of unfunded liabilities. My generation didn’t run up the debts, but my generation will have to pay for those, and that’s why I’m running.
Newell: We all want lower taxes, for pension reform, improvement ot neighborhoods, for Streetscape, we are all pro-good and anti-bad…that’s what you’ve heard. I encourage you to seek some depth.
Young: I have a history as a business leader, neighbor, disability board member, award winner, served on Coral Gables parking board, I have “been by your side these many years and am ready to be your Commissioner”.
Q: What prompted you to get into this race?
Keon: History of public service, starting as a nurse, raised a family, worked in government. I have experience, time to be full-time commissioner>
Mitchell: Unfunded liabilities. Twelve years of experience as a lawyer convinces me I am the person for the job.
Newell: I wasn’t going to run, didn’t start until February, when others suggested I should. I am the youngest candidate here, thus I have the most at stake in the race. I plan to retire in the Gables –”hopefully there will be a Senior Center by then”. We lost a lot of momentum — the old guard did us a wrong — a little new blood might be what this city needs.
Young: I think I am the most qualified. I understand what your concerns are. I was the first to run.
Q: Pick one major Commission decision that you would have handled differently in the last 5-10 years.
Keon: Unless you are sitting in that person’s shoes, it is very hard to second guess them. I think they had good intentions. I am not here to pass judgement. [Comment: This felt to me like ducking the issue.]
Mitchell: Back to the pension issue. I would have handled it differently; we wouldn’t have “given everything away” to the unions.
Newell: The way we handled pensions – to go from $8 million to $230 million in a decade, that shouldn’t sneak up on us. It was a prosperous decade, “that covered up a big hole.” We have our own social security problem here in the city. [Comment: oh boy that is BAD ANALOGY - social security isn't the deficit problem, health care is.] The sky isn’t falling, we are not about to be bankrupt.
Young: There is still no formal plan in place to fund pensions. We need a strategic and executable plan for fiscal responsibility.
Q: What is your position on historic preservation — preservation of property rights and the tension between that and the pressure for development?
Mitchell: Have to preserve Gables, have to respect owners’ property rights. Have to balance it out. There is not one standard fits all, have to look at totality of the circumstances. Have to have a balanced approach. [Comment: believe it or not, that sounded even more vague in person. And yet it is probably not a bad answer.]
Newell: ‘Balance,’ yes but what is that? It’s like being for ‘better’ again. We have community standards. The problem is that there is ambiguity in the code. There is too much discretion in enforcement. A more carefully written code that would allow for less arbitrary enforcement is the key. [Comment: that sounded good in person, but may reflect an engineer's unreasonable optimism about the extent to which codes can be drafted to provide certainty in the face of life's complexities. As a lawyer I think it is wildly unreasonable optimism.]
Young: Historic preservation is a key value, Need to ensure that modifications are in keeping with neighborhoods
Holmes: I’d like to live next door to an exciting building like the Freedom Tower.
Keon: We have a preservation officer and board; and an obligation to protect rights. These tensions are dealt with on an incident-by-incident basis.
Q: The trolley — what are your thoughts on the system?
Newell: I’m fine with it if money comes from outside the city; there’s a “kerfuffle” with Coconut grove residents, one possibility is to go across US1 , which would let residents use it and also correct a problem for UM students crossing US 1 if we can’t get County to move on a bridge.
Young: I started my career by working for Gables gallery night, which used trolleys. It’s a way to think green [Comment: ducked Grove garage issue.]
Holmes: I agree with others.
Keon: Trolley has been very successful; it is supported by gas tax money. Route should be expanded onto Grand avenue. Also look into possibly extending hours to early evening..
Mitchell: Does the trolley have a purpose? Is there a need for the expansion? If so, we can address that need, but first need to assess the need, otherwise increase costs for no reason. [Comment: ducked Grove garage issue]
Q: Views on Miracle Mile Streetscape?
Keon: Sidewalks and drainage is first priority. Streetscape has a preliminary plan, not yet approved; need to understand affordablility. “Most of you know” that there is a set-aside for it.
Holmes: I am critical of two aspects of Streetscape. My grandfather knew George Merrick. Timing is wrong – cost factor for stores may be too high: can be $60,000 for a store, could cause bankruptcy for them. Changing from angle to parallel parking would reduce parking when we need more, not less.
Keon: I like the conceptual plan. I think it is a great plan. Miracle Mile is unattractive and needs to be redone. Garages should be rebuilt first, make parking available for changes to Miracle Mile. Women are not comfortable in parking garages, need to design them for safety, comfort, so people are not fearful of parking. [Comment: this was Keon's best answer.]
Mitchell: I endorse plan conceptually; have some concerns such as angle parking. Need more parking.
Newell: I am all for this. Needs to be done yesterday. Will be funded by bonds and interest rates are very cheap right now, don’t want to wait until bonds cost more. 25% of money is put aside. 50% is special assessment on businesses and 25% is based on tax receipts based on higher property values, but if they do not materialize then businesses pay . Need to change parking from current system to get wide sidewalks for dining.
Moderator polled audience on whether Commissioners and City Managers maintain proper decorum in meetings. [Comment: this was a really weird question. How many people WATCH the meetings? And what if you think some do fine and others misbehave?] 52% polled (34 people) said they didn’t maintain proper decorum.
Q: Do you think Commissioners and City Manager maintain proper decorum in meetings?
Holmes: Recession meant I couldn’t go to commission meetings for last 2 years. I have a plan on my web page on how to fix the recession
Keon: Both Commission and Manager are there for a good purpose and good reason and they are passionate as to how they feel about a variety of issues [Comment: this felt like another ducking.] Upcoming election will tell us if community is happy with that
Mitchell: As an attorney I wonder how you define ‘proper decorum’. Procedurally it is run appropriately. But voters think it is an issue. Personalities can “overshadow”.
Newell: Everyone knows that there is conflict between manager and some elements on Commission. It is harmful in my opinion. Reasons may run deep, may be personal. We’re better than that.
Young: “As a public servant you look to us as a role model. More importantly, our youth looks to us a role model:” [Comment: she went on to say more, but I was so disgusted at the 'think of the children' line being injected into this ridiculous context – how may kids other than a young Ralph Cabrera avidly follow Commission proceedings? – that I froze up in horror.]
Poll of audience: Who responded to that question best?
Newell had the best score, with 45%
Holmes got 5%, which was was sort of amazing.
Q: Pensions: one side says a deal is a deal, other side says it is unsustainable. What are your ideas on how to address pensions that is both fair, but also averts the problem?
Keon: We relied on inaccurate actuarial numbers that underestimated costs, and inflated investment numbers. Pensions are negotiated. [Comment: this answer too seemed very tentative.]
Mitchell: Must keep our promises. Look at all new employees, Defined benefit? Restructured pension plan? Won’t resolve over night. Must work with unions.
Newell: Police & Teamsters now brought in line with market rate, and multiplier reduced. If you switch to 401k employees now paying 20% so city would lose. [Comment: As the change would only affect obligations going forward, this doesn't appear to be correct.] Market rate ensures fairness. Investment return assumption should be lowered and pegged to Treasuries. and restructure pension board so it’s not dominated by unions.
Young: Need to have a plan [Comment: that is not very specific!] We have to look at efficiencies and have voters hold us accountable. City has $21m in reserves up from $12m last year. If it is unaffordable, have to change plans for new employees, but have to be respectful to people who have already planned their lives.
Closing Statements (90 seconds)
Young: I was the first to file to run. 352 days of knocking on neighborhood doors. I will be here as your neighbor and your advocate.
Holmes: You are world-class people. I am thrilled to be here. I came up with my own solution to ending the Great Recession, you can see it on my web site. Miami-Dade County is a gateway to Latin trade, need to remove restrictions on hemispheric trade. I’m a big picture guy for a big picture City.
Newell: I’m not going to ask for your vote – I’m supposed to earn your vote. We need substance, I’m not sure we did that [in this hour]. We have to demonstrate some depth and offer vision, not platitudes, namedropping, or “I love you more”. The old guard did the retail politics, and what did they do, create 30 times debt. We focus on the wrong things. I hope in the closing weeks I can offer you more substance.
Mitchell: I believe that pension issue is “where we’re at, what we need to resolve”. I promise I will do everything I can to resolve the unfunded liabilities issue.
Keon: We can make Coral Gables even better. See postcards I am sending to homes on important issues. Greater accountability on city finance, performance measures, working with school board, quality of life, traffic, public safety. Experience matters.
Poll, based on tonight have you changed your mind
A Yes 68% (61 people)
B No 27%
[Final comment: having reviewed my notes, I still think Mr. Newall was the most impressive performer...but having had more time to think, I'm troubled by the substance of quite a bit of what he said, especially the naive optimism about re-writing the code. So I'm guess I'm leaning lightly Keon at present, mostly on the strength of what other people say about her and her relevant experience.]