Category Archives: Coral Gables

Summary of Group 3 Portion of Chamber of Commerce Candidate Event

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 III

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.

Introductory Statements

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.]

Posted in Coral Gables | 1 Comment

Endorsements in Coral Gables Commission Races?

I thought I would create a place for people to post information about endorsements in the Coral Gables Commission and Mayor races. I’m primarily interested here in organizational endorsements, not individual endorsements by local elected officials and worthies.

Thus, for example, I emailed the Christian Family Coalition, which usually endorses in County races, and was told they have not endorsed anyone.

I emailed SAVE-DADE, but haven’t heard back yet, and will post an update when I do. (I couldn’t find anything on their web page.) [Update 4/1: Still nothing on the web page, but multiple sources tell me that SAVE-DADE endorses Ralph Cabrera, Ross Hancock, and Mary Young.]

Ross Hancock said at the most recent forum that he was the only candidate in his group endorsed by the Sierra Club. Have they endorsed in any of the other groups?

Please let me know in comments of any endorsements, or of other groups that you think I should contact.

Update 3/29/13:
From President John Baublitz, Fraternal Order Of Police, Coral Gables Lodge #7

The Coral Gables Fraternal Order of Police Walter F. Stathers Memorial Lodge No. 7 has endorsed the following candidates for their hard stance on crime in the “City Beautiful”. These candidates have acknowledged that crime is on the increase and are committed to providing our members with the tools needed to fight these increases in crime.

Mayor: Ralph Cabrera
Commission Group II: Ross Hancock
Commission Group III: Pat Keon

Update 3/30:

Democracy for America has a web page endorsing Ross Hancock

I’ve got more emails out to local groups, and welcome your comments and suggestions for who to contact.

Update 4/6:

Forgot to link to Miami Herald Editorial Board Weighs Into the Coral Gables Commission Election, discussing the Miami Herald’s endorsement of Jim Cason, Vince Lago, and Pat Keon.

Posted in Coral Gables | 4 Comments

Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce Commission Candidate Forum – First Reactions

Here’s a quick write-up of my first impressions of tonight’s candidate forum. I will post something much more detailed and somewhat less opinionated later. Be patient: It was a long event so it might take me a while. The event was recorded for Coral Gables TV so if you have cable, or can figure out how to navigate their web page, you can see the whole thing for yourself.

Coral Gables Commission races attract high-quality candidates. It gives you a degree of faith in democracy, one that participation in national politics can so easily leach away.

The Structure of the Event

Thanks in large part to the Chamber keeping the use of the clickers to a minimum, the Forum went off significantly better than I had feared: it wasn’t a circus. Parts of it were even informative despite the very short time-limits for candidate statements.

The focus on “decorum” and the prohibition of having candidates address each other directly turned out not to be a problem in the two Commission races where there is no incumbent.

Unfortunately, this ground rule did harm the discussion in the Mayor’s part of the program, as a significant aspect of the Mayoralty race is that it is a referendum on Mayor James Cason‘s tenure – and arguably that of Commissioner Ralph Cabrera too. As applied, the rule seemed like an effort to protect the Mayor from Cabrera’s criticism, and the moderator’s genial but yet slightly barbed banter with Commissioner Cabrera about his tendency to talk a lot (e.g “you just beat the over/under” for when he might go over time) might have raised an issue of partiality in the eyes of a suspicious watcher. Then again, for all I know, maybe they are all drinking buddies. I am not part of the Chamber and wouldn’t know.

Group 3

I was most interested in the first event, the Group 3 race, because I had to miss the previous debate. I came into the room thinking that the candidates I most wanted to see were Mary Martin Young and Patricia A. Keon, whom the conventional wisdom sees as the front-runners. I was also curious about P.J. Mitchell, who I thought wrote one of the better candidate statements. Of these, I was maybe leaning a tiny bit towards Patricia Keon, just based on her c.v. and what other people had said to me about her, but I was mostly undecided. And, to be honest, I just hadn’t focused on Norman Anthony Newell at all.

Ms. Keon, to my surprise, was just not impressive. Fresh off the Herald’s endorsement, she was overly cautious and unspecific and just plain ducked some questions. Maybe this was a calculated caution strategy to preserve a lead, but it came off as either unwilling to commit, or just uncertain. It wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t vote for her, but it didn’t make the sale. Ms. Young also ducked and weaved, plus managed to be at times sound-bite grating and often needlessly patting herself on the back for her achievements both in scripted and unscripted moments. It was so bad that I won’t vote for her. Mr. Mitchell was also a bit of a disappointment: he was (over?) folksy, but for most of the event struck a one-note candidacy: pensionspensionspensionspensionspensions. There is more to being a Commissioner than just that one issue, especially as most if not all of the candidates seem in fairly broad agreement about it. Jackson Rip Holmes is not a serious candidate in either sense of the word “serious”.

In contrast, Mr. Newell was thoughtful and substantive (and seemed justifiably to chafe at the format). He didn’t duck the questions. I didn’t agree with everything he said, but he made the case that the Commission needs some new blood and he, the youngest candidate in the race, might be the person to provide it.

Bottom line: I left very impressed by Mr. Newell. I don’t know if he has a chance in this race, but even if he doesn’t win, maybe he ought to keep running until he does.

Group 2

On the whole there were not that many differences from the Coral Gables Commission Candidates’ Forum (Group II) meeting a couple of weeks ago. I thought Marlin Holland Ebbert did considerably better than the first time; I still thought Ross Hancock had the best policies (and he’s endorsed by the Sierra Club!), but he came off as a bit more pugnacious than last time which probably won’t help him with the average voter. He had the best and most detailed answer to the trolley question. Vicente Carlos Lago was more subdued than he had been. I had some trouble with his reply to the question about historic preservation which, although saying it matters, also seemed suggest an appetite for development that plays into the ‘special interest candidate supported by developers’ story that the other two candidates were selling with various degrees of gentleness. Mr. Lago also was the only candidate who ducked the hard part of the question about whether the Commission was right to site the Trolley garage in the Grove over the objections of local residents. (The other two said that at least we could extend the service to them, which I think is right.) Off the dais Mr. Lago is about as friendly and charming as a person can get, and I think he’ll be a great neighbor, Commissioner or not. But I don’t think what the Gables needs right now is a development boom (although I am persuaded it needs a downtown makeover of some sort), so that made me a bit nervous about adding another pro-developer vote to the Commission.

Bottom line: Still leaning pretty strongly Hancock, but feeling OK about all the candidates as individuals (the issue of their effect on the overall makeup of the Commission is something I’m only starting to think about).

Mayor

Again, the substance of this debate was largely a replay of last week’s debate. I was a bit shocked that incumbent Mayor Jim Cason again quoted Commissioner Ralph Cabrera out of context in order to try to make it look like he was ignoring the pensions crisis when in context the remark Cason seized on clearly meant the exact opposite. This is really a cheap shot. It has to make you wonder.

On the other hand, I was also surprised that Cabrera is still flogging the crime issue to the point that his campaign workers were handing out copies of my post Is Crime Up or Down in Coral Gables? Yes. (which would have been fine if they had included the Creative Commons copyright information) since that blog post suggests Cason’s numbers were on the whole better than Cabrera’s. I guess the crime issue polls well. I’d feel better about it if Cabrera had something more specific to say other than ‘we should give the police the tools they need’. What tools those are, he does not say.

Bottom line: Still undecided. Ouch.

Posted in Coral Gables | 6 Comments

Appalling Ground Rules for Coral Gables Candidates Event

Large cattle-call events are never a very good way to figure out who to vote for. Even so, tonight’s Coral Gables Commission candidate event at UM seems to have been expressly designed to be about as awful as possible.

Consider this trifecta of horribleness:

  • The candidates have only sound-bite-size times to speak.
  • The candidates are discouraged from responding to each other: the event is “not designed or intended to be an opportunity to engage and debate your fellow candidates”.
  • Candidates are expressly encouraged to pack the meeting with partisans — and their responses will be monitored in real time with electronic clicker-style devices.

This is a recipe for a circus, not an meaningful moment of civic deliberation. Clicker rating of candidate statements makes sense if you have a panel of representative voters but not if the sample is biased by who bused in the most partisans (read, who has the most money to spend).

Shame on the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce for emphasizing the superficial and making meaningful discussion not just unlikely but nearly impossible. And shame of then again for going for glitz over meaningful data.

Here is the text of the ground rules circulated by the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce for the event tonight at the University of Miami Field House.

Based on the large number of candidates who have qualified, we will be modifying the format of the Forum slightly from our original plan. The new format is as follows:

1) Group III, which has 5 candidates, will take part in the first session, commencing at 6pm
2) Group II, which has 3 candidates, will begin at approximately 7:15pm
3) Group I, the mayoral candidates, will begin around 8pm

There will be a short break in between sessions to allow for re-set of the dais. Coral Gables TV will be televising the program, live to tape.

Each candidate will have one minute for his or her opening statement, 90 seconds for closing remarks and one minute to answer each question posed by the moderator. We strongly encourage candidates to use their time to promote their platforms and to share their ideas and experiences. The Forum is not designed or intended to be an opportunity to engage and debate your fellow candidates.

Each candidate is encouraged to invite his or her supporters to attend the Forum. We have included the event invitation for you to post and share (attached). Each candidate will also be provided a 6-foot table outside the venue to place campaign literature. No distribution of campaign materials will be allowed inside the Field House.

Appropriate decorum from all candidates and their supporters is expected at all times. Any disruption or outburst takes away from the seriousness of the occasion.

We invite each candidate to submit one question that will be asked, without attribution, to all the candidates in your Group. Please submit your question by Friday, March 22nd at 4 pm directly to Patrick O’Connell at [email address] for inclusion.

Our moderator will be Perry Adair, Incoming Chairman of the Chamber and Managing Shareholder of the Coral Gables office of Becker & Poliakoff. It will be his responsibility to make sure the candidates abide by the rules of the event, and in particular, the time allotted to each candidate for opening/closing statements and to answer each question. The moderator will have the authority to ask follow-up questions. If he does so, he will announce the time allotted for the candidates to answer the follow-up question.

This will be an interactive event. There will be real-time audience participation in the Forum via a “clicker” system. Much like the “ask the audience lifeline” we are all familiar with, members of the audience will be given wireless devices that they can use to give their input. For example, on some questions, the audience will be given an opportunity to indicate which candidate’s answer to the question was the best. At the beginning and end of each session, the audience will be asked to indicate which candidate they are leaning towards supporting.

Coral Gables deserves better than this.

Posted in Coral Gables | 3 Comments

Is Crime Up or Down in Coral Gables? Yes.

One of the most contentious issues in Thursday’s Coral Gables Mayoral Candidate debate was about whether crime was up or not. Since at the end of the day this is a factual question, I thought I would try to get to the bottom of it. Here’s where I looked and what I found.

The most recent data I could find on a quick visit to the FDLE crime data web pages was for an earlier period, January – June 2012. There it shows a 6.5% increase for Coral Gables crime. If that is a six-month gain, then annualized it would be at at 13% rate as Commissioner Ralph Cabrera said in the debate and as has been claimed in anti-Cason mailers.

As an experiment I called the Coral Gables Police Department to get a copy of their crime data. I got shunted around a bit, but ended up with a public records clerk who took down my request for total crime numbers 2000-present at six month intervals (thus comparable to FDLE), and violent/non-violent breakdown. He told me it could take 2-4 weeks to respond to my request because they are very backed up. I asked if I could be treated like Press and get an answer before the election.

Eventually I ended up speaking to Officer Dean Wellinghoff, the Coral Gables Police Public Information Officer, who very quickly pointed me to a video of Acting Police Chief Scott Masington testifying to the Commission in December 2012.

I would suggest that for full context you play Item F-4, which is Cabrera’s set-up, and then H-2, which is the Chief’s testimony. The Chief’s presentation includes charts with a 5+-year comparison. According to the Chief’s testimony, and from what I was able to see from the fuzzy images of his charts, violent crime is quite low and generally stable, and usually involve parties known to each other. Robberies (which are distinct from burglaries) are declining. Assaults are more or less stable. Residential burglaries were up, but started to decline in June and were way down in the later months of last year; commercial burglaries are down. Larceny (simple thefts, including shoplifting), is maybe up a tiny bit. Vehicle burglaries (stealing from cars) are also up – although the Chief says the cops caught the guys behind at least 20 of the car burglaries in November. Auto theft is up. Vandalism is down.

I am not completely sure what to make of this. The bottom line total number is stability, or maybe a tiny decline. In a literal sense, though, both Cason and Cabrera are telling the truth: crime was up 6.5% in the most recent period covered by the FDLE data, which if you annualize becomes 13%. On the other hand, if you add in five more months of data, as the chief does in his December testimony, the total picture looks a lot less bad. The uptick in vehicle burglary and auto theft is largely counterbalanced by lower levels of other crimes. Given he’s using the more recent data, though, it would seem Cason has the better of the factual argument assuming the two data sets are comparable.

One other thing that comes out clearly from the H-2 video is that the Commission, at least by the end of a long hearing day, really is factionalized and is sort of dysfunctional. Plus, the City Manager really is out of line making political statements from the dias designed to undercut Commissioners. No wonder they don’t like him. And it’s likely mutual.

Posted in Coral Gables | 7 Comments

Miami Herald Editoiral Board Weighs Into the Coral Gables Commission Election

The Miami Herald — which IMHO has very little credibility in Coral Gables elections given the weirdness of its endorsements two years ago (Renee Alvarez? Really?), has chosen to endorse Cason, Lago and Keon. As I’ve said previously, I’m a bit torn in the Mayorality race, think Hancock won the debate in Group II, and am as yet undecided in Group III.

There was a time I thought the Herald’s electoral endorsements were useful input into my decisions, especially for more obscure races. Ever since I started doing my own research, I’ve largely abandoned that view.

I guess I will make up my mind after the next cattle-call style candidates’ debate.

Posted in Coral Gables | 1 Comment

Coral Gables Mayoral Candidates Debate: Lots of Heat, Some Light … and a Lot of Facts Not in Evidence

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.
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