Category Archives: Coral Gables

PJ Mitchell — Sincere and (Too?) Frugal

I had a chance to talk to PJ Mitchell last week about his candidacy for the Coral Gables Commission. He’s a good, soft-spoken, advocate for himself.

I asked Mitchell the same questions I’ve been asking everyone, starting with development. Having served on the economic development board, Mitchell had seen some of the proposals in some depth, and he wanted to distinguish between those that sought variances from the code (possible) and those which sought to have the code changed to their benefit (like Agave), a process that was quicker for them, but not in his view better for the city. Each project should be judged on its merits, he said, and the problem with Agave’s initial proposal is that it created a ‘city within a city’. Coral Gables needs to have the project connected with downtown, so pedestrians go from Agave to Miracle Mile and back. Mitchell said more than once that seeing the animated version of what the project would be like had shown him just how big it was – too big.

On green space, like everyone else he was for it in principle. On the sea level rise question, Mitchell said he thought that the state and federal governments needed to take the lead, and create a master plan in which Coral Gables could then participate.

Regarding the potential new tax revenue, Mitchell’s first response was that “cities will spend any of amount of money that comes in” – an anti-spending attitude to delight an penny-pincher’s heart. He allowed, however, that there were infrastructure needs. When I pressed him for his top three priorities, Mitchell listed the fire stations as number one, noting that some new police officers are already in the budget and that we might also need to replace one or two missing fire fighters. I had to nudge him to list any others, but then he said eliminating the city’s $75 million debt, and then attacking the unfunded pension liabilities would be his next priorities.
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Tony Newell is Not a Libertarian

Tony Newell, Coral Gables Commission Group V candidate, wants me to to tell you that despite some suggestions in this space in the past, he’s not a libertarian. We spoke on March 17, between the two major candidate events, and thus before his spectacular, seemingly unprovoked, public attack on three of his fellow candidates (see Coral Gable Chamber Candidates’ Forum (Part I): Group V (Updated)).

I wanted to ask Newell about my list of issues, but I have to admit, the libertarian thing was my first question to him in light of his endorsement by a libertarian publication in the previous election. Newell replied, “No. I am a big believer in market principles. I resist the false choice of ‘all market’ or ‘everything regulated’.” Yes, Coral Gables “does attract people due to – I wouldn’t call them Draconian – rules. We place a high premium on zoning … The Gables brand was based mostly on aesthetics. The conservative part of me says, that’s the tradition, don’t abandon it … on zoning, new development I’m a big believer on strict regulations.” On the other hand, “When it comes to business impacts, we should let the market do it. I don’t think it is our job to protect businesses. By creating an environment in which business can thrive the city has done its job.” In other words, the City should not be “picking the ratio of restaurants to boutiques.”

This led to us to the Master Plan question. Newell said he wants to create a “real master plan” not a “nominal” one like we have now. In his view the current plan lacks “cohesive vision”. Newell, however, disclaimed a right to decide what that vision should be, as “it’s up to the people” but he suggested we might start with “low hanging fruit” such as how far outside the CBD we would allow certain projects, or whether we keep existing boundaries. That debate is one for a large committee staffed with local residents, like a bigger version of the committee shepherding Streetscape. And we could use the Metroquest platform to stimulate public engagement online.

What Newell says he wants is clearer rules that would give developers a clear sense of what we would and wouldn’t allow; what he opposes is the current system where the Commission can demand things like trees or trolleys in exchange for allowing deviations from the zoning rules. The Commission shouldn’t be doing that, he tells me: that’s imposing their views rather than having consistent rules. “I don’t have very specific designs for the city. I don’t want to be … a taste Czar.”
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Jeannett Slesnick: the Big Name in the Race

Whatever the outcome of the Coral Gables Commission Group V election, I think we’ll all owe Jeannett Slesnick thanks for setting the agenda. Under her leadership the Gables Good Government Committee (GGG) has done more to publicize the surprising amount of development coming to Coral Gables than anyone else. Former City Manger Pat Salerno and incumbent Mayor Jim Cason certainly made no effort to tell us. That job fell to the GGG which put out a newsletter in November 2014 saying Here Come the Cranes! and then did a full print magazine in February 2015 describing the coming development in much more detail (see pages 22-46, it’s pretty amazing). The magazine is also viewable online at

Those publications, more than anything, set out an account of what will be built around us in the next year or two – and it’s a lot. But that alone doesn’t mean Slesnick is the best choice for Commissioner.

Jeannett Slesnick also has the longest Gables c.v., having served on – or run – a ton of entities both public and private. And, of course, she’s also the wife of an ex-Mayor, Don Slesnick, although he hasn’t been visible in her campaign, and when I interviewed her about my issues in their Gables home on April 1, he was nowhere to be seen and she made of point of saying that she decided to run on her own, while her husband was out of town and surprised him with the news by phone.
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Ariel Fernandez – a Grass Roots Candidate With a Past

Ariel Fernandez is the alphabetically first candidate for Coral Gables Commission Group V. We met on March 13, at what seemed to be his defacto campaign office at the Liberty Caffe at the Coral Gables Country Club. Despite the tony address, it’s not a formal place. (Half price gelato on Tuesday! Free parking!) I wanted to ask him about my list of issues.

Broken sidewalks got Ariel Fernandez into Coral Gables politics. His background is in constituent services. Fernandez worked for Illeana Ros-Lehtinen for 11 years and also for David Rivera for two years (a fact omitted from — or perhaps it would be better to say utterly obfuscated on — Fernandez’s online bio). Local gadfly George Volsky, whom I used to respect until he started attacking the people who rightly demanded that former City Manager Pat Salerno resign for misleading the Commission, basically says that Fernandez lied on his bio by claiming 11 years with Ros-Lehtinen. Volsky claims that, “Records of the U.S. Congress state ‘Ariel Fernandez’ worked for Ileana as a Congress employee for only 18 months, thus all the other years he must have been, if true, a volunteer.” I asked Fernandez about this on April 7 and Fernandez replied that he worked for Ros-Lehtinen in various capacities part time while attending FIU, so his work record is a combination of part and full-time but it does cover 11 years. And he says he has the online pay records to prove it. Because the records on that page are locked to subscribers I have not actually seen the linked entries, but on the surface their very existence would seem to be strong support for Fernandez’s version of this story. Fernandez says that Volsky — who unlike me used to be a professional journalist — never called to get Fernandez’s side of the story. (I called Volsky this morning and asked him whether he had called Fernandez to check out the story, and Volsky confirmed he had not, saying he’s writing an opinion column and that the rules are different for opinion pieces and it was enough to rely on the Congressional Record; that’s a correct statement of the dominant journalistic ethics, but in my opinion — as an opinion columnist — a poor rule to go by nonetheless.)

Although one should have expected greater candor about the Rivera connection, dealing with constituent problems has to be good training for being a Commissioner, and it’s a key part of Fernandez’s narrative about himself. The way he tells it, he didn’t plan to run for Commissioner, he was just trying to organize some residents in his neighborhood to ask the City for some improvements to sidewalks and trash pits and other issues. Pat Salerno, the former City Manger not only ignored them, he denied there were any broken sidewalks in Coral Gables, and a campaign was born. There’s little danger that Fernandez sees this job as a springboard to higher office; it’s clear from the way he talks that he doesn’t want to live anywhere else, and indeed resisted pulls by his former employers to move to Washington.

There’s something attractive about a grass-roots candidate. But what about the issues?
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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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