Author Archives: Michael Froomkin

Cabrera Makes His Case — And It’s a Good One

I spoke with Ralph Cabrera two weeks ago about his campaign for Mayor of Coral Gables. Election day is April 14. Cabrera seems very well informed, as you would expect from someone who served multiple terms on the Commission and also ran for Mayor two years ago.

We began by talking about the development issue. Cabrera took me through the statistics – three million square feet of coming development – and pointed out that six of the projects are seeking variances beyond the “Mediterranean bonus” they are entitled to for incorporating various architectural details into their plans. These include requests to provide lessened parking on the theory that mixed use development means the same spots get used by different kinds of people at different times of day, requiring less parking overall. He noted the effects of the proposed projects on roads, sewerage and water.

The bottom line, Cabrera was clear, is that while he’s for development there is a need to carefully consider and minimize side effects.

As regards the current Master Plan, Cabrera had a number of ideas for improvements – frankly, he was much better informed about this than I am. For example, Cabrera said he would favor setting new parameters for landscape tops and swales (some proposals want parking on swales to count as part of their parking quota). The rules need to give staff clearer guidance on what the city wants and will accept. The city should get its own traffic studies rather than relying on developers to provide them. He would not, however, support changing the CBD’s coverage area without an analysis of the consequences, and especially the effect on traffic flows.

I thought Cabrera was at his best when he discussed infrastructure issues, in which he included traffic, water, sewerage, buildings police and fire. The new development we’ve had recently, not to mention what is coming, increases the demand on all of these. Of these, Cabrera rated public safety as the top priority: while we have fewer fire rescue staff than we used to, some of the new places in town such as the Palace (retirement center), and the Riviera Health Resort (rehabilitation center) produce as many as five calls per day. Furthermore, the new construction on the drawing board is for taller buildings. These impose additional demands on both police and fire. For example if police or EMTs are on the 15th floor, they can’t respond as quickly to something in another part of town. Greater numbers and greater density thus both create needs for more police and fire/emergency staff. As for the buildings, Cabrera waxed indignant about the poor conditions of our fire stations – one has asbestos, the other has a water problem.

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The Issues in Coral Gables–A Personal View

As I try to figure out who to vote for in the Coral Gables Commission elections coming up on April 14, I’ve identified the following issues that seem most important to me.

Development It seems to me that the biggest issues are development-related, but that they go beyond the Agave project. Agave is an important short-term issue that understandably has gotten the most attention in debates, but there’s more to consider. In particular, the sudden – and until recently rather poorly publicized – growth spurt also raises the question whether Coral Gables’s master plan might need some updating or revision. In particular, should the City be trying to create more green spaces? Should we be worrying more about sea level rise or other green issues?

The coming tax revenue spike Like it or not, there’s going to be a whole lot of development in the Gables in the next year or two. Depending on what the Commission does there might be a bit more or a bit less, but there’s going to be plenty. Among other effects, that new construction is going to create a substantial increase in our City’s tax base. A critical issue that the Commission will need to address in the next two to four years is how to allocate that new revenue stream.

Experience and conflicts of interests It’s good to have Commissioners who bring relevant experience to the dias; it’s bad to have Commissioners with significant conflicts of interest especially if they would need to recuse themselves with any frequency. It’s also good to have people familiar with how the Commission works, people who have been going to meetings or at least follow proceedings carefully on Coral Gables TV. Similarly, I think on balance experience with a wide range of Coral Gables committees and civic groups is a plus.

Garbage Fee Ariel Fernandez has suggested that we eliminate the annual garbage fee, and fund the current garbage collection, several million dollars, out of general revue. Is this a good idea?

Solving the problem of current electoral system Our current electoral system has two problems: because the election date is in April in an off-year, turnout is very low. Second, as there no run-off election, if there are multiple candidates a person can be elected with a very small fraction of the vote. This year, in theory, a candidate could win Group V with under 17% of the vote. What if anything should we do about these issues?

I sought out a few of the candidates for the Coral Gables commission to ask their views on these issues, and I’ll be publishing the results in the next few days. I didn’t get to talk to everyone, and that is my fault not theirs: I prioritized talking to candidates I was thinking of voting for in the Group V race because that’s an open seat, and because that is the race where I’m most undecided.

I also spoke to Mayoral candidate Ralph Cabrera, even though I was planning to vote for him on the ABC theory (“Anyone But Cason”) because I wanted more affirmative reasons to vote for him. I’ll be publishing that one first.

I asked each of the candidates I spoke to pretty much the same set of questions relating to the issues above. In the next few days, again subject to a busy work schedule, I’ll be posting summaries of their answers.

Spoiler alert: We have a lot of good candidates – but there are some substantial differences between them in substance, experience, style, and tone.

I corrected a typo in the above – the interviews are with Group V candidates, not Group IV!

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Must-See TV

John Oliver interviews Edward Snowden.

Warning: Not utterly safe for all workspaces….

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Tis the Season…For Negative and Misleading Campaigning

Here we go again. Coral Gables campaigns usually have a strong veneer of civility (Tony Newell was an exception at the most recent candidates’ forum). But that veneer seems to collapse in the last couple weeks of a race, when the gloves come off — or at least the mailers turn up.

So far I’ve gotten three very negative mailers and one that I think is intentionally very misleading. In all four cases, the mailers are attributed to independent groups.

The ultimate in negative campaigning, so far at least, has to be the hit mailer that just went out against Jeannett Slesnick. This mailer says it was paid for by “Families for Lower Taxes, 6301 N. Wickham Rd. STE 130, Melbourne, FL 32940″. A group by that same name was described as an agent of the Florida Justice Association, a group that represents state trial lawyers, in a 2014 campaign in Polk County. It’s very hard to see why upstate (or any) trial lawyers would be anti-Slesnick, or even care about her at all, so I have to wonder if it’s just a handy shell company that some political operative uses.

Details–and scans–below.
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Coral Gable Chamber Candidates’ Forum (Part III): Group I

The Coral Gables Mayor’s race was the last part of the Chamber of Commerce’s candidates’ event held last Tuesday. You can see it on YouTube – it starts at about the 1:51 mark and runs about an hour.

By accident or design the Chamber structured the event in a very unfair way, making challenger Ralph Cabrera answer every question first. This is very unfair for two reasons. First, the second responder, here incumbent Mayor James Cason, gets more time to think about his answer. Second, under the ground rules of the Chamber – no rebuttals – the second responder gets to reply to the first responder, but the first responder never gets a chance to reply to anything the second responder says – no matter how tendentious or inaccurate. By running the event in this manner the Chamber did a real disservice to the community.

I don’t think I learned a great deal from the event. Cason was in better form than his lethargic performance in the earlier debate. (See Coral Gables Election 2015: Candidates for Mayor Debate.) Cabrera was just coming off bronchitis, and he sounded a bit hoarse, but perhaps that kept him a bit more subdued and calmer, which in his case tends to be good. Overall the battle seemed fairly even, which given the lopsided ground rules has to count as a win for Cabrera.

Of course, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not neutral on this one. I think James Cason does not deserve your vote due to his support of the former City Manger even after that manger was caught hiding traffic accident data from the Commission. That sort of behavior subverts democracy, and anyone who supports the subversion of democracy ought not to hold public office. If you disagree, you may discount my assessment accordingly.

So, what nuggets did we glean? Probably the biggest one is that Cason hopes to have the Commission lower the millage a bit for the fifth straight year, a triumph of appearance over substance, since the cuts are small and the tax bills go up anyway.

We learned that Cabrera is firmly committed to making the city safe for bicyclists in part because he himself is a “competitive cyclist”.

Cason wants more red light cameras in the Gables. (Personally, I’m not a fan; these seem to mostly make money for the red light camera people.)

We learned that Cason loves the Agave project, and the Cabrera has “strong concerns” about it on traffic and scale grounds. But we knew both those things.

We heard again about Cason having attended 5100 events representing our city (one of which I gather was a city-financed junket to China). Figure four years, six days a week not counting the Sabbath, that makes for just over four per day. Does that leave time for much else?

Like I said, overall, much of the same.

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Coral Gable Chamber Candidates’ Forum (Part II): Group IV

The Coral Gables Commission Group IV candidates’ non-debate (“forum”) at the Chamber of Commerce yesterday was only about half an hour long. There are only two candidates, Enrique Lopez and incumbent Frank Quesada. Most people I’ve talked to think Quesada will win because Lopez is a late entrant, and hasn’t raised much money.

Lopez’s best issues are: (1) that Quesada approves of too much development and that Agave/Mediterranean Village is too big and short 600 parking spaces; (2) that Quesada participated in the Cason-Solerno (ex city Manager) scheme of budgeting money for police and then not hiring them to firm up the city’s finances (Lopez noted that response time for EMT’s is up, and said that “at my age I can tell you that 30 seconds can mean the difference between life and death”), that (3) the Commission borrowed heavily for the “neighborhood renaissance” plan four years ago but as now has only commenced six of the 72 projects in the plan and (4) that like the other sitting Commissioners Quesada allowed the city’s Green Task Force to die on the vine by not appointing any members to it (as a result it currently has none). Lopez noted that he was a member of the original Green Task Force, which was sidelined by Solerno.

As this list shows, Lopez has some issues to beef about, but in yesterday’s event he never found a consistent way to make his key points without risking sounding either angry or weird (the phrase “overdevelopment frenzy” didn’t always come out sounding good). It didn’t help that for all but a few questions at the end Lopez always had to speak first, and Quesada always got to respond, which was unfair.

For his part, Quesada can rightly claim some credit for being a part of the team that help improve the city’s books. I could do without his mailers that claim to have “cut” taxes every year when in fact the City has just reduced the millage rate by a small amount in order to claim bragging rights – while in fact taxes have gone up due to the rebound in property prices. Note that I’m not against the taxes, I’m against the misleading claims about them.

Quesada certainly didn’t look threatened yesterday. Quesada responded directly to two of Lopez’s charges: On (1) Agave, Quesada agreed that the traffic issues need to be watched carefully and said the Commission had hired a consultant to help it do this; on (2) the staffing of police below budgeted levels, Quesada responded first that the Commission also protects the city’s quality of life by making sure finances are in order [and in fact there’s no real sign that crime is up currently in any meaningful way; I don’t like the way Lopez goes on about it, although I understand the issue polls well and probably reflects what he’s hearing on doorsteps].

Quesada basically didn’t bother to refute some of Lopez’s other claims: on (3) Quesada talked up some of the things that are happening but was silent about where the other 66 projects were. On (4), the Green Task Force being empty, Quesada said nothing; the response was to talk about other green initiatives such as a “sustainablity master plan,” a loan plans for people who want to do energy-efficient alteration on their homes, and a pilot project to test LED lights in street lamps. Lopez came back with a zinger: the city paid $4.587 million dollars for consultants – why not get (free) assistance from willing people here in town, many of whom have relevant expertise. That was the purpose of the Green Task Force, why sideline it? (Lopez also objected to LED lights being preferred over the historic lights in the neighborhood renaissance plan – “I do not wish to have a Disney look in Coral Gables.” Quesada’s response was that citizens say they want more lighting to make their streets safer.) As for the consultants, Quesada said that the Commission can’t be expert in everything so it needs expert advice.

Incidentally, Quesada said one thing in the debate that I really agree with and one that I don’t agree with at all. The good thing was that he considers trying to get FPL to bury the giant power lines it plans for US 1 to be an important priority. The thing I didn’t like is that he wants to lower the city speed limit to 25 MPH everywhere. I think that’s a rotten idea. We have lots of 30MPH streets – the medium-sized ones – that IMHO are perfectly safe at that speed.

Lopez is your anti-“overdevelopment frenzy” vote. Quesada is your steady-as-she-goes vote. Both candidates seem good with numbers. I voted for Quesada in the last election, and I like his lawyerly manner better than Lopez’s manner which on stage at least is mixture of seriousness and bombast. I do wish Quesada were less pro-mega-development, and less beloved by the developers.

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Coral Gables Candidate Forum Debate March 31, 2015 Video

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