Category Archives: Coral Gables

House Rules

Dear Candidates and Friends-of-Candidates,

Thank you for sending me your opposition research. While it is interesting to read the dirt you’ve dug up on your opponents and the harrowing accounts by anonymous witnesses to various things, I am not going to print anything for which I do not have a source I can link to, or a person who is willing to stand behind it. I am prepared to hold back the name of the witness if I can meet the person myself and reassure myself of their bona fides. (But keep in mind I’m going to be out of town Monday and Tuesday.)

This blog permits anonymous comments, and a portion of my scholarly work has been about the importance of protecting anonymous speech as a constitutional right, a human right, and an essential safeguard against various forms of repression. If you want to say stuff either anonymously or under your own name in the comments, attributing it to someone you know, I’m fine with that. Readers can make their own judgements. It does not follow, however, that I will lend whatever little credibility I have to publish something that you give me, under my own name, when I don’t know where it came from.

Just wanted to make sure we’re all clear on that.

Yours Sincerely,

A. Michael Froomkin

Posted in Coral Gables, | Leave a comment

Pro-Cason Mailer Tries to Suggest UMiami Endorsement

I think this pro-Cason mailer that turned up in today’s mail is sort of sleazy.

It is by some Electioneering Communications Organization based in Venice, FL (!) called Citizens United For Future Leaders, represented by one Eric Robinson.

The mailer is clearly designed to create the impression that the University of Miami has endorsed Jim Cason by making it look as if UM is saying “Thank You” to him.

It uses UM colors and the overall design resembles genuine UM printed things I see all the time.

And one side features quotes from Charles Cobb, a leading UM Trustee, and from UM President Donna Shalala.

I’m sure neither Shalala nor Cobb intend these statements to be used as political endorsements.

I wonder who paid for these mailers? I also wonder if they sent them to everyone or just folks with a UM connection? I mean, back in the day, suggesting you were endorsed by UM would have been bad for your chances…

Posted in Coral Gables | 5 Comments

Vince Lago’s Homestead Exemption Becomes a Campaign Issue

According to the Eye on Miami blog, there may be an issue as to the legitimacy of the homestead exemption for Vince Lago’s new house on San Amaro Drive because he has yet to actually live on the premises. This turns out to be potentially a pretty complicated and unclear issue. Please don’t jump to conclusions until you’ve read all of what follows.

I don’t know much about the homestead rules. The Homestead instructions say

Every person who owns and resides on real property in Florida on January 1 and makes the property his or her permanent residence is eligible to receive a homestead exemption up to $50,000.

The heart of the accusation related at Eye on Miami is that Mr. Lago didn’t actually live in the house on San Amaro on January 1, 2012, the relevant date for getting the 2012 exemption. (The exemption was also renewed for 2013.) There are also suggestions that maybe at some relevant times he may not have lived in Coral Gables, which has a one-year residency requirement for candidates, ending on the day of the election.

Since the house in question is just down the street from me, and since I was pretty sure no one had been living in it for some time, I called Mr. Lago to get his side of the story. We met at the house in question and he dictated the following statement to me:

When I moved out of my apartment at 100 Edgewater, in Coral Gables, my wife had just given birth and we were going to be moving into 5200 San Amaro. We bought the house in August 2011, and planned to move prior to the year ending.

What occurred was that as we started fixing up the house — painting, and so on, minor repairs — we were shocked to find mold throughout the entire residence. So we had to remove the drywall from the interior of the home. But we had a bigger issue. The issue was that we had rented our apartment in Edgewater to a new tenant for one year and could not afford to pay a mortgage on this property and to rent another home or apartment.

Due to the mold report and our newborn baby we could not live in a house that had water intrusion and had mold throughout the residence. So our wonderful in-laws invited us to stay with them a few months on Alhambra Circle in Coral Gables. We expected the mold remediation to take two months. But as we began to open walls we realized that the damage was extensive. And we had to replace all the electrical, which required us to see an electrical engineer, draft plans and submit them to city, which is an extensive time-consuming process. Our intent was to move into the house immediately, but the process lagged, due to construction costs and the scope of the project growing in nature. Our intent has and will be to live in this house so we can raise our child. And we plan on moving in the next two or three weeks after the election.

Mr. Lago then showed me a report he’d had done as part of the renovations once they found the first signs of mold on the premises. It said there was a lot of mold. He asked, who would expose a new baby to this?

I asked Mr. Lago how that was responsive to the allegation that he filed for a Homestead exemption when he didn’t live in the home, and thus wasn’t entitled to it. This was his response:

The issue is intent. When Andrew came and ravaged our city, thousands of residents were displaced who continued to hold on to their Homestead while they were displaced for years from their primary residence.

After speaking to both friends and advisors in regards to this issue, I was notified today that my intent to make this my primary residence but being displaced due to the mold infestation was permissible.

When I lived in the Edgewater Dr. apartment I had my homestead exemption. And when I moved out and rented the apartment I transferred my homestead to my new residence on San Amaro Drive.

So there you have it. On the one hand, there is no debate that the property was not being lived in. (Indeed, as one of the people living on the street, I could see it had been empty for a long time. And it’s hardly surprising to discover that a Florida home with no A/C for a few years might develop a bad mold problem.) On the other hand, there’s a claim that an intent to live there blocked by unhealthy conditions satisfies Florida law on what amounts to “residing” at a property.

But does it? Was this a valid homestead exemption?

I am not admitted to the Florida bar, and I don’t claim that I know the definitive answer to the question as to whether mere intent without ever actually living in a home qualifies. We’ll need to find a Florida property or a tax lawyer to tell us that. What I can report is what the Florida Supreme Court has recently said about the subject. Hang on, it’s complicated.

In the recent (Oct. 2012) decision of Garcia v. Andonie, 101 So.3d 339 (Fla 2012), the Florida Supreme Court held that part of the Florida Code relating to homestead tax exemption violated the Florida Constitution:

… we hold that the express language of the Florida Constitution, as amended in 1968, creates the right for every person who owns Florida real property to receive a prescribed reduction in the taxable value of that property[3] where the owner maintains on the property either (1) the permanent residence of the owner or (2) the permanent residence of another legally or naturally dependent on the owner — provided the individual for whom the permanent residence is maintained has no legal impediment to residing on the property on a permanent basis.

In Garcia v. Andonie the taxpayers weren’t living in the house, but their dependents were. The Florida Supreme Court said that sufficed.

When the Florida Constitution was amended in 1968, the homestead tax exemption provision was renumbered and the requirement that the property owner reside on the property was removed. See art. VII, § 6(a), Fla. Const. Article VII, Section 6(a), of the Florida Constitution, as amended in 1968, states in relevant part:

Every person who has the legal or equitable title to real estate and maintains thereon the permanent residence of the owner, or another legally or naturally dependent upon the owner, shall be exempt from taxation thereon … upon establishment of right thereto in the manner prescribed by law.

Art. VII, § 6(a), Fla. Const. (emphasis added). Thus, the plain language of the Florida Constitution, as amended in 1968, requires that the property owner maintain on the property either (1) the permanent residence of the owner; or (2) the permanent residence of another legally or naturally dependent upon the owner. Accordingly, under the Florida Constitution there are two separate and independent means by which a property owner’s entitlement to the homestead tax exemption may be accomplished

So how do you tell if a home is “the true permanent residence” of the owner?

Section 196.012(18), Florida Statutes (2006), defines “permanent residence” for ad valorem taxation purposes and states that the inquiry to be made in determining whether one’s property qualifies as a “permanent residence” is whether the property in question is being used as the “true” permanent home of the individual:

“Permanent residence” means that place where a person has his or her true, fixed, and permanent home and principal establishment to which, whenever absent, he or she has the intention of returning….

§ 196.012(18), Fla. Stat. (2006). Accordingly, because the legislative definition of “permanent residence,” consistent with the constitutional context from which it emerges, requires a determination as to whether the property is being used as the true permanent home or residence of the owner or his dependents, most determinations regarding whether a permanent residence is being maintained on Florida property will involve some level of factual inquiry regarding the actual use of the residential property in question.[12] Indeed, section 196.015 states that “[i]ntention to establish a permanent residence in this state is a factual determination,” see § 196.015, Fla. Stat. (2006), not an issue of law. Although section 196.015 contains a number of relevant discretionary factors that “may” be considered to make the factual determination as to whether the applicant for the tax exemption has the requisite intent to establish a permanent residence on his or her Florida property, this provision also cautions that no one factor is “conclusive” on this issue of fact. Id.

Thus, in most instances, an individual’s intent to establish a permanent residence on a piece of Florida real property will present an issue of fact.

In other words, it depends.

The Court also tells us, in footnote 12, that the “true” permanent residence is a separate matter from domicile, so forget anything you know about that concept.

I’m willing to bet that had the Lagos actually moved in, then been forced to move out pending the works, they’d have a very strong case that the San Amaro house was their “true” residence. But never having moved in at all – even accepting that they intended to – makes it a tougher case. So I don’t know. But I think on the facts as he describes them, Mr. Lago has at least an arguable case, maybe more.

Other Issues

In response to the suggestion that Mr. Lago had a City of Miami address at some point, which suggests he might have moved out of the Gables, Mr. Lago vigorously denied the claim. He said,

I have been in Coral Gables for seven years. And before that, for eight years. …. My in-laws are great people, but you think I would rather live with them or in my own residence with my wife and my daughter?”

Mr. Lago added that he suspects the confusion may be due to his Edgewater Dr. address having a 33133 zip code. His street was part of Coral Gables but, he said, many other addresses with that zip code were not.

My short interview with Mr. Lago concluded with this commercial which he asked me to include for him:

What I’m concerned about is the residents of Coral Gables, and making sure that we deliver on pension reform, keeping our streets safe, delivering the senior center, and constructing a Streetscape project which benefits both the city and its end-users.

He’s certainly on message.

Bottom Line

Should your vote in this election turn on the homestead exemption issue? Based on what I think I know right this minute, I don’t think this is anything like the Brad Rosenblatt check affair from two years ago. Like I said above, the exemption might well be legal. I am prepared to believe that the Lagos thought they were entitled to it – they gave up one homestead exemption and picked up the next as they planned to transfer their residence. The Garcia v. Andonie case was decided by the 3rd DCA (the lower court with jurisdiction over Miami-Dade) on Dec 15, 2010, so the Lagos’ homestead exemption was arguably legal on the day it was claimed, although I don’t know if they (or their lawyers) knew of this.

At the end of the day, I think there are better ways to decide who to vote for in Group 2 -– like who is concerned about our getting insurance in the event that the water table rises, or who is funding which candidate.

Or, just maybe, you might wonder whether a person who is surprised to find a serious mold problem in a South Florida home that has been sitting abandoned for years is sufficiently skeptical of what seems like too-good a deal to be an effective Commissioner.

Posted in Coral Gables | 2 Comments

Election Coverage Elsewhere

Recent Coral Gables election stuff appearing elsewhere, in case you missed it.

Please let me know of anything I should add to this list.

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Don’t Be Fooled

I don’t know who is behind, but they have a Coral Gables correspondent with pretty strange views about Coral Gables. Today’s article, Few candidates want to promote freedom in Coral Gables has a fundamentally wrong basic premise. It also gets several specific facts wrong — even falling for my April Fools jest (as improved by Ross Hancock) about Bill Clinton endorsing in the race. Désolé M. Crevaux, c’est un poisson d’Avril. Une blague.

Among the other errors in this article:

  • “In reality, no major group or individual has dared to endorse a candidate in the City Beautiful based on what matters the most: the issues.” That’s nonsense, even if it also true that some endorsements, especially the individual ones, are based on personal ties.
  • Candidates, “such as Ralph Cabrera and Ross Hancock, don’t even hold official positions on any issue.” That’s also nonsense. It isn’t true of Cabrera — he has some positions, just not as many as I want, and it certainly isn’t true of Hancock, which is a key part of Hancock‘s appeal.

I think the suggestion that Marlin Holland Ebbert is almost libertarian is sort of odd too, as she seems like an old-fashioned cozy government Coral Gables type to me.

I also found strange the suggestion that the answer to the crime problem — if there is a problem? — is not more cops on the street but encouraging private hiring of rent-a-cops. Not only does that make for uneven coverage, but we have ample evidence that rental police are not renowned for their devotion to civil liberties.

Indeed, I think they only thing this article got right is that Tony Newell has some strong libertarian tendencies. But that’s the heart of what is wrong with him as a candidate for Coral Gables.

The fundamental problem with the entire the ‘less we have a government in Coral-Gables the better’, or the suggestion that voters should always go for the most anti-tax candidates because they are the ‘only choices to be made if one cares about freedom and free markets’ (starve the beast!) is that we are not talking about a national (or world) government here. We’re talking about a locality that people chose to live in. We all voted with our feet. Houses on my side of Red Road cost more than similar houses in unincorporated Miami-Dade on the other side of Red Road because we get valuable services. We not only get Coral Gables Police and Fire/Rescue, but the benefit of a code enforcement group that, as far as I know, is one of the few in the county that can’t be bribed. We get the confidence that builders really did use all the nails they were supposed to when they built our homes. We chose this for a reason. Libertarians want to take that option away from us and force us into their cookie-cutter and impoverished vision of what localities should be like, even though they are already spoiled for choice of low-government zones throughout this County.

The people trying to import Tea Party or libertarian ideology into Coral Gables — one of the original and model planned communities in the USA — are doing us, and themselves, no favors, as they seek to enlist us in their race to the bottom. Yes, Coral Gables has a lot of government compared to some places, although actually our taxes are not that high compered to some; what the blinkered ideology of people like fails to grasp is that as winners in a struggle to the top, that very government is enhancing quality of life — as well as the very property values they claim to care about so much.

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Guest Blogger Bill Clinton to Give Endorsements in Coral Gables Election

I am very pleased to announce that due to my winning a lottery sponsored by the Clinton Global Initiative former President Bill Clinton will post one item on later today, in which he will reveal his endorsements in the upcoming Coral Gables election.

Gables-watchers may recall that Mr. Clinton provided a robo-call endorsement in the 2011 Mayor’s race for Tom Korge. I do not know what prompted his interest in the 2013 race, but the former President is known as an avid follower of political races around the country, and Florida would be an important swing state were Hillary Clinton to run for President in 2016.

Check back often — I will approve President Clinton’s comments as soon as he sends them to me.

Creative Commons photo by veni markovski. Some rights reserved.

Posted in Completely Different, Coral Gables, | 8 Comments

Thoughts on the Race for Mayor of Coral Gables

Absentee ballots are out and being returned, so I should try to figure out what I think of the Mayor’s race between incumbent Jim Cason and challenger Ralph Cabrera.

As a lawyer, my training is to make the case for and against both sides and then weigh them. It’s not easy, since the key issues seem to require a closer observation of the workings of the Coral Gables Commission than I have been able to make. The fact is that, like many voters, I don’t follow Coral Gables politics much — except in the run-up to elections. But here’s how it looks to one voter who is trying to make sense of things. I welcome comments and corrections.

Both candidates are endorsed by people with good track records and who are more attuned to Coral Gables politics than I am, so that doesn’t help me much. Similarly, both candidates have run mildly ugly campaigns, so I’m prepared to treat this as a wash. Cason repeatedly quoted Cabrera ludicrously out of context to try make him look bad on the pensions issue when the original remark clearly meant the opposite of what Cason was trying to suggest. Cabrera has been pushing dated statistics on crime – a real, if arguably misguided, concern of many residents. In an effort to make Cason look bad, an independent expenditure committee linked to Cabrera’s people also sent out an anti-Cason mailer with a cropped photo of Cason with a ceremonial cognac bottle.

The Case For/Against Jim Cason

The case for Jim Cason is based on the substance of his plans for Coral Gables and his demonstrated muscularity at getting what he wants. Cason also has articulated a big-picture vision of his plans for Coral Gables that has many attractive qualities – making the City a place where young professionals want to spend an evening, and worrying about competition from South Miami seem like the right sort of things a Mayor should be thinking about. (Its main deficiency is a missing concern for the regional planning and environmental issues that Group II Candidate Ross Hancock has been championing.) Cason has worked hard, and can boast a two-year track record of delivering on promises, both good and bad.

The heart of the case against Jim Cason is what appears — from a distance — to be a disdain for process values. It is no secret that the Commission has been factionalized these past two years, and that Cason has been part of a 3-2 majority. Both Cabrera and the other Commissioner in the minority are term-limited this year. To me, the most significant of Cabrera’s criticisms of the Mayor is that major decisions are made in private, with the City Manger, and not subject to much discussion or review at full commission meetings. Commissioner Anderson, who I think of as a pretty reasonable voice, has made public comments that suggest information-sharing is at a low ebb. That isn’t good.

On substance, the biggest negative is the City’s treatment of its lower-paid workers, or rather Cason’s seeming disinterest in the issue. Chopping 20% of their take-home pay is not a joke; that some have allegedly been driven to food stamps as a result should be ringing alarm bells for all.

Another knock on Cason is his support, along with other Commissioners, for big spending on things like palm islands on LeJeune – a project whose effect on property values seems likely to be small, whose cost will be ongoing, and whose effect on traffic is unwelcome.

The Case For/Against Ralph Cabrera

Commissioner Cabrera wins big on process values. Both because of temperament and experience it seems likely he would run a more open ship. This is no small thing, especially if, as seems more likely than not, the Kerdyk-Quesada-Cason faction will likely pick up at least one more vote from the Group II or Group III elections. I think we would benefit from some debate on the Commission and I worry about ideological monoculture.

Substance is a more mixed bag. Cabrera is convincing when he says the small declines in the millage rate that the incumbent Mayor brags about are mostly counter-balanced by the increases in fees (although there is a distribution effect that is beyond my abilities to figure out). And Cabrera can point to his opposition to plans (like those expensive palm islands) that seem like mis-steps, but he has, at least in this campaign, done a better job of explaining what he is against than what he would be for. And some of what he is for – like more traffic calming – I don’t especially like because, in my neighborhood at least, it produces far more inconvenience than calming.

Cabrera will undoubtedly foster an atmosphere that will be better for workers, especially those further down the totem pole. And he likely will exercise greater oversight over salaries – and especially the number of positions – for more highly paid employees.

The case against Ralph Cabrera starts with an absence of the vision thing. Maybe having a 12-year track record means there’s less call for a vision – what you’ve seen is what you’ll get. But it also means Cabrera hardly qualifies as new blood. In this campaign, Cabrera has seemed more reactive than proactive. Perhaps that is a consequence of being cut out of the information loop. Or it may be that Cason is right, and being a full-time Mayor with a federal pension is an advantage over having to earn a living.

It’s clear Cabrera and the City Manager do not get on well; it’s clear also the City Manager and Cason are so tight that the City Manger feels empowered to diss other Commissioners from the dais. Voting for Cason will keep things cozy, and keep the rest of us more in the dark, but more may get done. Voting for Cabrera suggests we’ll get more sunshine, but raises the possibility of strife.

Well, Who Then?

The Kantian choice – based on the maxim that we should treat people as ends rather than means – leans strongly for Cabrera. The Habermasian choice – based on the principle that no political decision is legitimate unless it is the outcome of a fair process — also weighs a bit for Cabrera. But the realpolitik choice is less clear. If you are the sort that likes omelets but doesn’t care about how eggs get broken along the way, there is a case for Cason’s damn-the-torpedoes approach to governance so long as you agree with his overall goals.

The good news is that Coral Gables sounds like it is in decent shape, and neither of these candidates is going to run it into the ground. They actually seem to agree on many issues. I think at the end of the day, I’d feel better about a City that prized treating its lowest-paid workers well, and that was a model of openness. The price of that decision is losing an energetic ambassador for the City who does have some good ideas.

I guess I am leaning Cabrera. But just a bit.

[See my previous Coral Gables posts.]

Posted in Coral Gables | 2 Comments