Category Archives: Coral Gables

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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Coral Gable Chamber Candidates’ Forum (Part I): Group V (Updated)

This evening the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce hosted its candidates’ forum for the upcoming elections on April 14. Group V, which went first, started with a moment of actual drama, and then had another dramatic moment with an unexpected question.

There are three races, and the forum had three long hours. Rather than splitting the time into three parts, the Chamber gave about an hour and a half to the Group V race (six candidates), but only half an hour to the Group IV race (2 candidates); it gave a full hour to the Mayor’s race (Group I). This probably reflects the competitiveness of the respective contests. The event was televised on channel 77, will be rebroadcast on Coral Gables TV, and is supposed to be upon on YouTube soon.

This post is about the Group V forum. For some background and a list of candidates see my post on Campaign Web Sites, Coral Gables Commission Group V and Report on Group V Debate — Six Candidates.

I’ll try to write up the Group V and Mayoral events soon, work permitting. For now, though, I want to point out a very odd feature of the other two parts of the forum: in the Group IV debate the challenger almost always got called on to speak first, so that the incumbent usually got the rebuttal, without the challenger getting to reply to what the incumbent said. In the Mayor’s forum — twice as long as Group IV — the incumbent Mayor never had to speak first on anything. I think this undermined the event as a fair forum. The Chamber owes us a more level playing field. Or else why not just endorse publicly before the event and get it over with?

There was a big turnout, a couple hundred or maybe more. Juan Mendieta, director of communications at Miami-Dade College, served as moderator. Most of the questions came from the Chamber, but they also invited questions from the audience and might maybe have used one or two.

For the information of those wanting to discount my bias, I went into the Group V debate with no clear idea of who I wanted to vote for. But I have formed some ideas about the issues. One is that the crime “issue” is a non-issue. The second is that the two biggest issues are related: whether and how Coral Gables wants to change how it regulates development, and what Coral Gables will do with the potential tax windfall coming from all the development currently in the pipeline.

But first, the drama.

Candidates, sadly, were asked not to debate but to address the audience; I thought that meant we were in for soundbite city. In at least one case I was wrong: Norman Anthony (“Tony”) Newell’s opening was a direct and seemingly unprovoked attack on three of the other candidates in the guise of self-praise for running a positive campaign.

Couching the attacks as things he could have but didn’t put into his incessant mailers (we come to bury Caesar?), Newell (1) accused Ariel Fernandez of being linked to notoriously crazy former Congressman David Rivera, (2) accused Sandra Murado of claiming to be a citizen activist but never having served on a city board, and (3) accused Jeanette Slesnick of wanting “the power to reshape property in the morning so she can sell it at night” something I couldn’t hear related to development (I’ll update with a better description when I hear the tape). The audience gasped at this rat-tat-tat attack, and I felt like I was seeing a candidacy go down the tubes. Newell settled down after that, but I think the irreparable damage was done.

Each candidate Newell attacked had a response.

(1) Ariel Fernandez responded on stage by saying “I take offense of comments by Mr. Newell”. After the debate I asked him about Rivera and Fernandez said he had worked for Rivera as his Deputy District Director while Rivera was in Congress, having been hired out of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s office. Fernandez said he soon realized the job was a mistake, and tried to get a new job but felt he couldn’t afford to leave until he had one as he needed health insurance for his diabetes. Fernandez also stated that he brought an ethics complaint against Rivera, but being a lousy reporter I didn’t get the details…and Mr. Google didn’t lead me anywhere when I got home.

(2) Sandra Murado responded by saying she had in fact served on a city board: the Parks & Recreation Board 2012-13. (Incidentally, I wonder how many city boards has Newell served on? I know he was on the Coral Historic Preservation Board. Any others? Can’t be much more than Murado.)

(3) Slesnick later responded that she did 100% residential real estate.

The other highlights were less dramatic, but they had their moments. (Please note that EVERYTHING in this blog post is my paraphrase unless in “quotes” in which case it’s my best effort to write it verbatim.)

Agave Mediterranean Village

On the Agave Mediterranean Village project, Fernandez suggested the city should first take care of incumbents on Miracle Mile.

Slesnick said that the Agave group builds beautiful buildings and knows what they are doing. We need reassurances from city on height extensions; more generally we need ‘smart growth’ and need to pay attention to the variances in this and other projects. The problem is the Master Plan isn’t being followed.

Sandra Murado noted that Building and Zoning unanimously passed the project 7-0; then there was a commission hearing. On April 2nd commissioners will have first reading on the project – it will die or pass. If it passes it goes to the state. And then in July or August it comes back to the new Commission for its 2nd reading.

PJ Mitchell said that the animation of project to scale showed that project was too big. It eliminated the buffer zone around the property. Parking is not inadequate. It’s too high. It is, he said, a beautiful project but we have a lot of concerns. But as of right they could do one million square feet1, which is comparable to village of Merrick Park. Citizens need to show up April 2nd and tell the Commission what you think of the project.

A Cuban Consulate in Coral Gables?

The surprise question of the night was what the candidates would say about the idea of a Cuban Consulate in Coral Gables, given the US has now normalized relations with Cuba.

Ariel Fernandez went first, and he hit it out of the park. Until the Castro brothers are gone, and there is true democracy in Cuba I would not support such an office. But with ur current Mayor2 I highly doubt they would come to Coral Gables. Cubans have suffered. My grandparents suffered. It upsets me that someone would say lets normalize relations.

Everyone agreed in a different way, starting with Jackson Holmes.

PJ Mitchell said that Cuban-Americans built much of this area. Absolutely would not want a consulate out of respect for what has happened.

Sandra Murado agreed on the “emotional” issue, but noted that “legally speaking” that will never come before a commission – this is an issue of the relations between two countries. (It was the right answer bust risked sounding like she had a tin ear.)

Tony Newell said his view was “over my dead body” until the Castros are gone.

Jeanette Slesnick said “emphatically no”. It needs to be elsewhere.

Controlled Choice

PJ Mitchell had the only interesting and surprising comment here. He said “I am not in favor of eliminating school choice at this time.” Coral Gables gets a preference on magnet programs – if the Gables dropped controlled choice, other areas would challenge the preference. Beware unintended consequences. Beware rash decisions. (I thought that was at least gutsy and probably wise.)

Random Other Comments

(All lifted out of context from other questions and answers.)

Ariel Fernandez said he thought Commission elections should have a runoff, as it looked likely that whoever won this election would have only a minority of the votes and that would be unfortunate.

Jackson Holmes said he’s an Uber driver in addition to his other jobs.

Sandra Murado suggested we calm traffic by making streets more narrow and the spaces around roundabouts tighter. (Hearing that, I resolved not to vote for her.)

Tony Newell suggested a local ordinance to prohibit texting while driving; the current county ordinance on this is only a secondary offense, he said, and thus a cop can’t stop you just for texting.

PJ Mitchell suggested that Coral Gables ought to reorient its economic development strategy to borrow the best features of Miami-Dade’s “one community one goal” plan – but Coral Gables should focus on attracting technology companies here.

My Takeaway

Tony Newell really hurt himself with his opening; he calmed down after that. Jeanette Slesnick didn’t say anything wrong, but once again she failed to stand out.

This time, the two best performers in the group were Ariel Fernandez and – surprisingly given the first debate – PJ Mitchell, who spoke really well. Last time I saw him he was hesitant; this time he was fluent and seemed to speak from the heart and he said a lot of reasonable things.

Of course there much more to a candidate than a performance in one event. I hope to have some more to say about some of the candidates’ views in future posts.

  1. the proposal asks for approval of 1.3 million square feet of mixed use, only 300,000 sq feet of which is commercial 

  2. Jim Cason’s claim to fame is that when he was the US’s highest ranking diplomat in Cuba, he specialized in annoying Castro. 

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Group IV Debate Is On YouTube

Coral Gables Commission Candidates Group IV debate held March 16 at 7pm, as recorded by Coral Gables TV.

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News Flash: Agave Development to be Rushed Before Coral Gables Commission

Rather than the schedule I and (judging from the campaign talk) others expected, the Agave project — a big, big issue in this election — is going before the current, pre-election Commission, at a meeting on on March 25 at 1pm.1 This according to Group IV candidate Enrique Lopez who spoke at the Coral Gables candidate forum this evening.

While it’s undoubtedly smart lawyering for the Agave people to try to get approval from the known quantity of a largely pro-development lineup of Commissioners, given that their project has been part of the biggest issue in this campaign (if you discount the universal demagoguing about crime) this doesn’t sound at all good for local democracy.

How did the debate go? The great guys from Coral Gables TV say they’ll have the whole event up on You Tube by late tomorrow, the 17th. I’ll have my comments up on the whole debate soon too.

  1. I’m teaching a class at 2pm; guess I’m not going. 

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Guest Post: The Candidates and Controlled Choice, by Osamudia James

[One of the issues that has come up in the Coral Gables Commission candidates’ debates is “controlled choice”. Since I don’t know much about it, I asked an expert, my colleague (and Coral Gables resident) Osamudia James, to write an explanation for this blog. She was kind enough to agree. -MF]

Thank you to Michael Froomkin for asking me to guest blog here about the controlled choice issue which has come up at the Coral Gables Forum candidates’ debates.

Controlled choice school assignment initiatives attempt to guide or “control” student school assignments in a region while also giving parents some choice in the matter by asking them to rank their school assignment preferences. Controlled choice programs are said to maximize parental investment in the public school system—even when parents do not receive their first choice, the active selection of their second or third ranked school will encourage them to attend those schools if they are assigned them. Controlled choice programs are often used in school districts where residential segregation results in school segregation that a school district is eager to address, with the most famous controlled choice program probably being the two that were challenged before the Supreme Court in 2007.1

Not surprisingly, then, controlled choice in Coral Gables has its origins in the 1970s, when Miami-Dade was under court orders to integrate its public schools. In the late 1990s, the Miami-Dade County Public School (MDCPS) system adopted a controlled choice model under which a majority of Coral Gables parents do not have a home school dictated by where they live. Instead, parents have to rank their preferences among Coral Gables Preparatory Academy, Carver Elementary, and Sunset Elementary, and then enter a lottery that will determine their assignment.

Court supervision of desegregation and integration of Miami-Dade ended in 2001 when a federal judge concluded that the district had eradicated symptoms of the once-segregated system. Unfortunately, residential areas in Miami-Dade, including Coral Gables and neighboring Coconut Grove and South Miami, are still heavily segregated. This led to a resegregation trend in Miami-Dade public schools, just as activists predicted when opposing the release of court supervision in 2001. In fact, just last year, the Miami Herald found that tens of thousands of black and Hispanic students attend class in schools that would have been characterized as segregated during the thirty years federal courts monitored Miami-Dade’s integration efforts.

In Coral Gables, demographics at the three schools reflect some racial isolation, particularly for white and black students: at Carver Elementary, 21% of students are black, and only 11% are white. In contrast, only 3% of students at Sunset Elementary are black, while 36% of the students are white. Most egregiously, 14% of students at Gables Preparatory are white, while the percentage of black students at the school is zero. As in, none.

It is against this background that the debate regarding controlled choice in Coral Gables must be considered. It is unclear what role controlled choice was playing in ensuring any kind of racial diversity in the three schools. Although the district has not been willing to share its analytical data, it is at least plausible that the lottery enabled the enrollment of students in schools other than their nearest school, and that that enrollment may have resulted in increased diversity. Carver, for example, does not benefit from the same reputation that Gables Prep and Sunset enjoy, due, in part, to the school’s fluctuating letter grade, its location on the other side of US-1, and its racial composition.2 Many parents, however, reluctantly attend Carver through the lottery, only to end up loving the school and their child’s educational experience there.3 Similarly, it is plausible that black students who would be assigned to Carver under a neighborhood assignment plan would have an opportunity, through the controlled choice lottery, to instead attend highly sought-after Sunset or Coral Gables Prep. Although no black students currently attend Gables Prep, it is unclear whether that is because no black students in the lottery selected the school, whether no black students were randomly assigned Gables Prep in the lottery, or whether any assigned black students subsequently transferred out of the school.

Undaunted, however, by the lack of concrete data about how a release from controlled choice might impact diversity, the Coral Gables City Commission formally requested that MDCPS release Coral Gables–the last region in Miami-Dade County where controlled choice remained in effect–from controlled choice. Under the elimination of controlled choice, new attendance boundaries would be drawn allowing students to attend one of the three school based primarily on proximity. In an attempt, however, to respond to parent concerns about the impact of the release on current assignments, the Commission also requested that currently enrolled students be “grandfathered-in” so that they remain in their currently assigned schools through graduation. In an attempt to be responsive to issues of diversity, the Commission also reaffirmed a commitment to Carver Elementary, suggesting that the school become a mini magnet for foreign language to both provide an alternative to the highly sought-after language magnet at Sunset Elementary, and ensure a neighborhood feeder for Carver Middle, Florida’s top-rated middle school.

On February 26th, Coral Gables’s request was reviewed by the MDCPS Attendance Boundary Committee, which voted in favor of ending controlled choice in Coral Gables, but also concluded it was without jurisdiction to approve a magnet at Carver. On March 5th, the City’s request was then reviewed by the school district’s Diversity, Equity and Excellence Advisory Committee, which voted against Gables’s request for reasons that are not yet clear. The ultimate decision on releasing Coral Gables from controlled choice will be made in June by the full school board.

So, what does this mean for the candidates? Well, that all depends on the aspects of the controlled choice controversy on which you choose to focus.

Controversy regarding controlled choice is a perennial issue—parents often complain about the administrative hassle of entering the lottery, of not knowing until well into the summer which school they will be assigned, and about the burden of potentially having to pass a neighborhood school to attend another school across town. Candidates, therefore, might be assessed on how quickly they chose to respond to the issue this year, and on whether they did so in the appropriate matter. Although many parents are delighted that the City Commission, including incumbents Jim Cason (Mayor), and Frank Quesada (Commissioner, Group IV), decided to formally oppose controlled choice, many parents believe the process was rushed and parental notification inadequate. It was clear from some of the meetings held on the matter that the Commission was caught off guard not only by the virulence with which some parents opposed a release from control choice, but also by the (negative) racialized nature of commentary opposing a change that would force parents to attend less-white Carver. Accordingly, as a voter, I have questions about whether the incumbents properly gauged community sentiment about controlled choice (as opposed to responding to a small but vocal group of parents), and about whether they understood the larger racial context in which debates about controlled choice must necessarily take place. When assessing challengers on this metric, I might think about what their track record for more deliberative democracy is, and ask about whether they would have handled the controlled choice issue any differently.

There is also the larger issue of diversity in our schools. Although formal segregation has long been dismantled, it is no secret that enduring residential segregation in Miami leads to enduring school segregation, a reality reflected in the racial makeup of schools in the controlled choice boundary for Coral Gables. The very factor, however, that prompts school segregation is the same obstacle to its remedy—absent significant busing, the current demographic make-up of the Gables makes it difficult to ensure our neighborhood schools are appreciably integrated. MDCPS insists, for example, that the elimination of controlled choice will have no significant impact on the racial demographics of any of the three implicated schools. Such a prediction does not seem to take into account the potential increase in white flight on account of forced assignment to Carver. But even assuming the District is correct, what should Coral Gables do about diversity and inclusion in its public schools? What obligation does the Commission have to consider diversity and inclusion when making decisions that impact the school and larger community? What obligation does the Commission have to broach and discuss with its residents issues of race and class in the “city beautiful”? Ultimately, the answers to these questions will matter most to me when making my assessments; candidates who can show they understand how inequality, racial or otherwise, operates in the Gables, and who are prepared to discuss that reality with courage and clarity are the candidates who are sure to get my vote.

Osamudia James is a Professor of Law at the University of Miami School of Law, where she writes and teaches in the areas of Torts, Administrative Law, Education Law, Law and Inequality, and Identity. You can follow her on twitter @OsamudiaJ.

  1. The controlled choice programs in Seattle, Washington and Louisville, Kentucky were struck down by the Supreme Court because both school districts explicitly considered student race as one factor when making school assignments. The Court did sanction, however, race-conscious controlled choice programs that consider racial composition of schools when making assignments without explicit consideration of individual student race. Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007). 

  2. Although parents often assert that they care about academics, research suggests that even after controlling for educational programming and performance, parents use race as a primary heuristic when making schooling choices. Susan L. DeJarnatt, School Choice and the (Ir)rational Parent (2008). 

  3. See, e.g. Christina Vega & Monique Madan, School Boundary Debate Divides Coral Gables, The Miami Herald, 2/25/15 (describing the experience of Christine Austin, a parent of a fourth-grader enrolled in an Italian immersion and gifted program at Carver Elementary, who “cried for three weeks” when she was first assigned to the school, but who now enjoys highly personalized teaching support for her child, and notes that her “perceptions changed” and that she is “happy”).  

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