Monthly Archives: March 2013

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

Wagner on Robotic Autonomy in the Battlespace

Fans of law and robots may want to take a look at my colleague Markus Wagner’s latest, Autonomy in the Battlespace: Independently Operating Weapon Systems and the Law of Armed Conflict.

The article analyzes the use of autonomous weapon systems (AWS) and the challenges that such systems pose with respect to compliance with the law of armed conflict. Importantly, AWS pose different questions than those surrounding the current use of unmanned aerial systems. For that reason, the article briefly sketches the history of AWS. It then distinguishes the current technologies, which operate either by way of remote control or through automated mechanisms, from systems which are currently under development and which operate either wholly autonomously or at least at a higher level of autonomy and without direct human input while carrying out their missions (II.).

Part III. provides a detailed analysis of AWS under the principle of distinction and the principle of proportionality. It argues that while AWS may be able to satisfy the former principle under certain conditions, it is not clear that the same is true for the latter. The critical challenges with respect to the principle of proportionality and its applicability for AWS is manifold. The principle is difficult to apply in the abstract and thus is difficult to “translate” into machine code in a manner that allows it to be applied to real-life situations and changing circumstances. This problem originates in the lack of a generally accepted definition of what exactly the principle of proportionality requires in each situation. The article therefore concludes that current technology is incapable of allowing AWS to be operated within the existing framework of the law of armed conflict. While there may well be situations in which these requirements are met, these situations include only a fraction of modern military operations and AWS do not provide additional benefits over existing weaponry for these situations. Part IV. provides concluding observations.

PS. Don’t forget We Robot 2013 is at Stanford this year, April 8 & 9, 2013 (RSVP here).

And here’s news: We Robot 2014 will be back in Coral Gables, April 4 & 5, 2014.

Posted in Robots | 2 Comments

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.
Continue reading

Posted in Coral Gables | 2 Comments

Is It April 1st Already?

Gawker, Guy Scratches Own Back, Finds Knife Blade Someone Stuck In There Three Years Ago.

Note this is not from the Onion, in which case I would have expected it to be about Obama.

Posted in Completely Different | Leave a comment