Report on Group V Debate — Six Candidates

Yesterday I attended the Coral Gables Forum candidates’ debate for Coral Gables Commission Group V election. This is the race with the most candidates, making the events most difficult – they’re not real debates, and every candidate only gets to speak in short intervals – just 2 minutes for an answer, and a minute for a response.

The six candidates are Ariel Fernandez, Jackson Rip Holmes, PJ Mitchell, Sandra Murado, Norman Anthony (“Tony”) Newell, and Jeanette Slesnick.

It looks like in addition to the perennial issues of crime and whacking worker pensions, the big issue in this campaign will be – or at least should be – a surprisingly massive amount of development that will be hitting Coral Gables in the next year or two.

I went into the debate with a very open mind, and absolutely no idea who I wanted to support. I came away from the debate a bit confused. On the basis of this debate, I won’t be voting for Holmes or Mitchell, but I thought each of the other four candidates did well in different ways although their differences on most issues — to the extent there are issues — was not all that great.

Ariel Fernandez had clearly done his homework, and had facts at his fingertips. He answered questions. He also had what sounded like a really good idea about garbage fees that seemed to fly right over the head of most of the other candidates. (I’ll explain more in a future blog post.) It’s the sort of thinking out of the box that elevates a candidate above the pack. And he was the only candidate to note that developer money has a big sway in the election. I was impressed. But he was weak on the controlled choice question, basically saying it’s over and done with — although I suppose that is a view that many other voters will agree with.

PJ Mitchell hurt himself at the start of the debate with his attempt to wrap himself in the Kerdyk legacy. (My reaction was “run away!”). It got a little better as it went on, but there was a somewhat Kerdykian lack of substance. [[Update: I should give PJ Mitchell props for his answer on PENSIONS.] (corrected)]

Sandra Murado was perhaps the best speaker in terms of delivery. She sounded smart and I like smart. She had some facts and figures at her fingertips. But she also had a number of answers–especially on development–where she really didn’t answer the question. Then again, she ended strong, noting that her immigration law practice involves no issues that ever come before the Commission, and that she has no conflicts and she’s beholden to no special interest.

“Tony” Newell tried for vision and poetry and hit the mark (especially in his closing) more than he missed it. He was the candidate who spoke most about having a master plan for development and controlled growth rather than dealing with issues case-by-case although he was utterly vague about what he would want in this hypothetical plan. But Newell’s background, not to mention his election campaign two years ago, suggests a much more developer-friendly – even libertarian – stance than his presentation, so it looks like I have more research to do there. Has he changed? Newell also raised my eyebrows by suggesting that the police should be required to introduce themselves to two new citizens a day – maybe knock on your door to say hello. I’d find that creepy. I couldn’t figure out what I thought of his enthusiasm for a Crimewatch app, especially when it turned out to be a social media sort of thing in which residents would panic each other about something, and the police would not be obligated to respond, but would just monitor the app looking for patterns. On the one hand, I like the attempt to harness new technology – there’s a lot of ‘smart city’ stuff we could be doing – but on the other this did not seem the place to start. Plus Newell was the most outspoken about abolishing controlled choice-–on the grounds that parents should have complete control over their children. This sounded much more libertarian than neighborly.

Jackson Rip Holmes is a perennial candidate who rarely gets more than a few votes. He actually made considerably more sense in this debate than in any previous one of his that I have seen, but to be honest the bar on this one wasn’t that high.

Going in to the debate, Jeanette Slesnick was said by many to be the favorite due to her name recognition (wife of the former Mayor) and a long c.v. with extensive civic roles and connections in her own right. Many of her comments were about showing off her long civic record. Along the way she said some sensible things and, indeed, seemed very well informed. But she certainly didn’t hit this one out of the park.

There was a big audience turnout – far more than the number of chairs. The event was moderated by Coral Gables resident Channel 4 TV journalist Elliot Rodrigez (and, we were told “best dressed man in Coral Gables”). Attendees were invited to write questions on cards and after asking his questions, the moderator picked among them. (He didn’t pick mine.)

I still don’t know who I am going to vote for.

Below the fold, I reprint my detailed summary notes.

As always, there are NOT verbatim notes, just my summaries, unless I put words in “quotes”.

Ariel Fernandez (AF)
Jackson Rip Holmes (JH)
PJ Mitchell (PJ)
Sandra Murado (SM)
Norman Anthony Newell (NN)
Jeanette Slesnick (JS)

Opening Statement

AF Described his biography, worked for Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Learned the importance of constituent service. Decided to run when CG police wouldn’t answer questions about crime.

JH Noted that this was the first time he’s seen a standing-room-only crowd for these debates. Brought up what he sees as an “alarming” issue: the plan to make Miracle Mile into a “concrete canyon”. It would look like downtown Miami. Danger of “affluent flight” if crime goes up due to urbanization. For Miracle Mile property owners like me this is an emergency. They are going to 15 story buildings on Miracle Mile.

PJ Kerdyk tradition is “rich tradition of excellence”. Started at Miami-Dade Public Defenders’s office. Now in private practice. Sits on various CG boards and committees. Wants to “preserve the high quality of life” in CG. Will listen.

SM Moved here at age 1. Coral Park Sr. High. FIU international relations, political science. Trilingual, multi cultural. FSU law on a scholarship. State Atty’s office. Divorce lawyer, then “decided it was time to move to something else where I can bring people together” – immigration law. Has an office, a home, and 2 kids at Coral Gables Prep (age 8 & 11).

NN (“Tony” Newell) “I want to thank the other 60% of the city not running for this seat.” Historic preservation board service. City has changed: new city manager, new police chief, new challenges. Need fresh thinking.

JS “Most of you know me from my 40 years of being active in CG”. We need an uptick in our police protection. We are short 20 officers, have been for years. Support manning all those position. Give police what they need – more cars, radios. I strongly support commercial development. 38 years as a Realtor. I am just concerned that we take proper steps to follow the zoning code. 18 high-rises coming in next year and a half.

Q1: Coral Gables unfunded pension obligation has been an issue. City cut benefits and made workers contribute more. Has city done enough, or should it do more?

AF- we have not done enough. We should be at 80% but are only at 62% funding. Numbers are still alarming. We need to review budget – $155M in annual budget. Some programs/positions can be cut and used to fund unfunded liability. Issue will be around for a long time unless we take care of it now. Also need to take care of workers.

JH: SM pointed out a few years that Coral Gables gives better pensions than state, county. We can’t afford them. Golden pensions need to come down [applause]

PJ We need a defined contribution plan for new employees. We have great workers and need to keep our original promises to them

SM Current pension liability is $243M. Those benefits are unsustainable. We can’t afford that. We “have to look at revenue” should meet obligations to police, fire. I would find creative ways to find ways to pay down that debt.

NN We are paying down the debt. Our contribution is 23-26M/year. Of which 20M pays down the debt. Only 3M is paying actual pensions. We use a 7.75% assumption rate. Which is way too high. So we have to do something. Don’t take from fire and police.

JS Pension problem is being solved. I’d like to see hiring that makes sure we are competitive and getting best police and fire workers. New city manager will make sure we are fine in that issue.

Q2: Who should pay for $20m Streetscape. Right now it is 50% city and 50% business in area.

NN It’s about right. Businesses benefit the most from it. And we benefit the most from it, as that’s the main source of tax revenue for the city. Split is about right, unfortunately, it is new debt for us. But ok to make future beneficiaries pay too.

JS I’m concerned about Miracle Mile. It’s a shame that so many properties are owned by out of state investors. Mediterranean project is 300,000 sq feet of retail space – equal to Miracle Mile. We don’t want a ghost town in downtown Coral Gables. Need to support Streetscape.

AF Agree that Agave Project1 is a concern. On Streetscape, the issue is that we do things but don’t maintain them. For example Fire Station #1 is “falling apart”. Need to make sure we maintain StreetScape after we build it. We are losing 96 spaces, then build garage later.

JH As a long term Miracle Mile property owner, I have serious reservations about Streetscape, mostly about reducing the parking. If you can’t find parking you will go to another place.

PJ I support Streetscape. We need it to compete with other municipalities. It is a good plan. Need to stagger it with other projects in community to minimize traffic issues.

SM Every city needs a Main Street. I back Streetscape; the allocation is correct. Everyone should get on Coral Gables mailing list to get info about meetings on Streetscape.

Q3: Is growth out of control? Should we change the rate of growth?

JS – In next 1.5 -2.5 years we have 3 million new sq feet coming on line of commercial development. We have a total of 2m sq feet now. 18 hi-rises of 15 or more floors coming to Coral Gables. Plus 12 10-story buildings. We need to have things like this to keep tax base down. Just make sure we have right guidelines and traffic solutions. Adequate parking.

NN Need a responsible discussion about development too. Majority of 3m sq feet is by right, we have no way to stop it with current code. Growth can’t be stopped, must cope – plan traffic and infrastructure.

SM All these projects were in a business Monday edition that talked about the greatness of Coral Gables. Projects have gone through the process. Need to keep standards and stick to strict codes.

PJ Need controlled development. Smart balanced development. I won’t support any project that substantially changes the nature of the community. Will we let 36 months change what took 90 years to build?

JH What I am for is a dept store for Miracle Mile. In a low rise retail and parking garage. As an anchor. Keep suburban feel. We don’t have the right to block many of these projects. We can go for signature buildings.

AF I am concerned with rate of development. I don’t want to ‘cope’ with it I want to ‘do something’ about it. We have a pro-development commission. You see it in campaign contributions by developers. They plan to tear down Holiday Inn, build structure that will take 800 parking spaces, reached via street behind building. Neighborhood can’t handle that.

Q4: It’s been hard to know if crime is up or down. Can you shed any light on wether crime is increasing up or down and what should be done about it?

SM: One crime is too many – the solution is patrolling. Before Ed Hudak we had the city in 4 zones. Now we are in 12 zones. Patrolling prevents crime. I support what chief has done – eg 2 officers in a zone. I know them, I know the patrol cars, we watch out for one another. That deters crime.

PJ Stats may tell you crime is down, but not if you are a victim. To solve problem need to invest in tech for police.

JH We need more police. I think there is more crime out there than is being recognized. Thinks Chief is doing a better job.

AF 16 vacancies in police force is 16 too many. Police is understaffed. Recently did a ride-along, it was eye-opening. Add lighting to streets to fight crime. Ride-along showed how dark streets are.

JS Agree with Ariel on street lights. Near where I live a lot of the lights are out. We are down 19 officers, one car, and lots of radios. Need a very visible police force. Officers do a great job.

NN: Chief is working on it. He wants to hire 25 this year, 24% of the way there already. Crime comes from outside the city. Need to be proactive and prevent it. I’d like to have a police officer quota – to meet 2 new residents a day. They would knock on your door. We need to develop a crimewatch app – city is getting younger.

Q5:What do you think of [Acting Police Chief] Ed Hudak? Should he get the job permanently?

JH: “Ed Hudak is my homeboy” [audience titters]. Recession makes crime go up. His heart is in the right place. Yes, make my homeboy permanent.

PJ He is the right person for the job.

SM He’s been on the Coral Gables force for 27 years. He has my respect and I would make him permeant.

NN I agree he’s doing a fantastic job. Back to app: you download it and then report things and then all other people with app get a notice. Police don’t have to respond, but can monitor for clusters.

JS Agrees about the app. We used to have an active crimewatch committee. Funding was cut back but it should be funded. I support Ed Hudak.

AF I agree. I was there when he got appointed as interim. Wasn’t pretty day for the city. 300+ people there. People wanted him as Chief. I asked Cathy Swanson when will he be chief. Moral of police is much higher now.

Q6: How to pay for extra police and a car?

JH All position budgeted have not been hired. They are not all filled – lack of candidates.

PJ: Hiring has to be gradual, find revenue in general revenue fund. Have to deal with pensions, new employees would be in defined benefit plan.

SM: Rip is right – budget has allocated the funds. We don’t have to search for the funds. They’re there. The issue is finding quality police with high standards we expect. Unless they meet the criteria we are not going to hire them. When right candidate comes along, money is allocated.

NN: Money is there, but chief wants to go beyond what is there due to city growth. Need vertical patrol – officers who can go to the 16th floor. We haven’t budgeted for the rest. Need smart budgeting – get rid of “lot of sloth” in our budget. I can find it.

JS – Being short 19-20 police saved the city $2m/year on salary and pension. I think victims of robbery would have preferred money was spent. Savings went into reserves, which are large now

AF- City has only filled 176 of 191 budgeted positions. New projects will increase tax revenue, so we’ll have new revenue. Fire needs 4-5 more firefighters due to growth in high-rises. Firefighters don’t get social security so we have to consider that in considering their pensions.

Q7: Do you support controlled choice? Remain or change how?

PJ: Hot issue. I’m not running for school board. Families should have proper notice. I don’t think we’re ready to abolish controlled choice. Over next 12 months school board should take a hard look – beware unintended consequences. Do 12 months study. I would not direct city attorney to challenge school choice.

SM: Matter is not in our hands. Not in jurisdiction of commission, is in School Board. It was at the suggestion of the commission to evaluate it. We had meetings. Issues of due process and notice are important issues. But my problem is the School Board notice so in the future parents and community can learn how to participate.

NN: If something is broken, fix it or get rid of it. Controlled choice is broken. Doesn’t do what it should. I don’t “take kindly to children being used as political vessels.” You should have the choice about your children. Expand role of education advisory board.

JS: It think it’s a done deal that it will be ruled out. Our school board reps say that. This is not an issue. We’re going into the same system as the rest of MD county. What I’d like to see is that we improve our schools as much as they can be. City should be more involved in improving schools. I’ve been in PTAs for schools. Students are lost to private schools before high school.

AF controlled choice has run its course. The process has been fumbled. Parents were excluded from the drawing of lines. But City of Coral Gables can’t do it. I’d have taken a year to do surveys of what parents wanted, how they wanted borders.

JH: City inserted itself into the debate by passing a resolution to ask for end of controlled choice. “There’s nothing more important to parents than children, that’s how evolution happens”
Tough situation.

Q8 (from audience): How will you address over development and the ensuing traffic and stretching of natural resources in Coral Gables.

JH: Question is about over development, infrastructure. “Think in your own minds what is your favorite building” I love the Bicardi building. I like the Biltmore. I would like to see our development go to signature buildings. Coral Gables does well on traffic and infrastructure so far we haven’t had a lot of problems.

PJ Repeated that he’s against things that change fabric of Coral Gables life.

SM Repeated need for community standards and community input. Need to consider traffic that affects quality of life. Be creative. Use trolley system. Traffic is a problem. Need better public transport – but this is not in City’s jurisdiction.

NN Need controlled growth. This was a planned city. Built on a vision. Need a master plan for development. Not an ad hoc Zoning code. But even so, there’s development all around us, to compete with us. Miami-Dade county grows 4% per year. I don’t like being a ‘cut through city’. Have to deal with people who text when they drive. Enforcement is the answer.

JS My office is near Agave projects; 1.5 m sq feet of dev and they are talking of less parking. Need places for the trolley to pull over so they won’t block Ponce on one lane. Traffic is inevitable, but need to have community input.

AF We do not have a master plan; we go a day at a time; we approve projects without knowing their impact. Need to include residents in the process. Identify the problems; city doesn’t know where all the problems are – staff are in city hall.

Q9 (audience) to AF: You propose to eliminate garbage fee – how will you pay for it?

AF The garbage fee isn’t deducible on federal taxes. It’s 5% of budget, we can make cuts to pay for it. There is $1.8 in staff positions that can be cut. Director + Asst Director + 3 staff is top-heavy. New projects will help fund the costs. We can do it. $812 per year savings would be good for young families and for elderly on pensions.

JH I’m supportive. Bring down the fee. There are high salaries at the city.

PJ Priority for next 36months is development, safety, security, not the garbage fee.

SM It’s $729 if you pay a year ahead. Of the money 84% is for employees 16% is city subsidies. Not one person has complained about quality of garbage collection. We have high level of services. $812 gets you excellent service. Don’t fix what is not broken.

NN $10m/year spent on solid waste. $8m is from fees. How are we going to pay for that? Garbage guys are eyes for cops.

JS I’ve had the same 2-4 garbage collectors for 20 years. In 1984 I fought the imposition of big green cans ago – our foliage is so dense that the cuttings didn’t fit in them.

Q10 (audience): Do you have any ideas for resolving housing of Coral Gables trolleys?

SM Cost of the building is $5m. Of which, $4m the developer will pay. City would pay $1m. I’d put it where fire station 2 on US 1 is located. Zoning is in place. I’d even move police HQ there and have a location because the police HQ building is “falling down”.

PJ Echo SM position. Need to do it quickly – they are sitting out there unprotected.

RH I’m not familiar with the issue. Trolley is a great benefit. We need to solve it.

AF Need a location. Residents in that area don’t want it there. Need a location. Build facility on 72nd ave where trolleys are located. Priority is firehouse and police HQ. There was a flood there on Saturday night. Fire trucks are very expensive equipment and need protection.

NN Applaud Rip for his answer. Sometimes we don’t know everything. If it weren’t hard there wouldn’t have been debate. 72nd has issues . US 1 has issues. Everywhere has issues. When it comes before me, as commissioner, I’ll put it in best place possible.

JS I agree with Rip and Tony. We will need a bigger garage because of more trolleys due to development.

Q11 (audience): What is the most pressing issue and what will you do about it?

PJ Development. Then safety and security.

RH Are we going to lose the suburban feel of our city? Residential charm of Coral Gables. In 2001 there was a wave of development. The then-Development Director almost took us to 15 storeys – and she is now the City Manager.

AF Safety and development. In five years will City look like Brickell or how it looks today?

SM If I had to choose one issue, it’s ‘maintaining quality of life’ – it’s the umbrella for safe community, fiscally responsible government, keeping charm of City that is reason we chose to live here.

NN It’s all connected. You can’t remove one piece of the puzzle. Need money to preserve quality of life. You want to preserve quality of life – need growth to pay for it – but if you have too much then you have no quality of life. Have to address it all.

JS Crime is 80% on polls. Development and schools is below that. I think development is the big issue, think of the congestion in Brickell. Development is coming and it’s legal and can be wonderful. But we have to makes sure developers make changes to remove gridlock and have garages.

CLOSING STATEMENTS

JS When my husband was in office, I stood at his side, and was very involved. I have been a public servant all my adult life. I care about my city. I want to use my experience as a realtor and public servant to maintain quality of life. I’ll return phone calls, emails, make sure we have a lot of communication.

NN We all love this city. I’m in my early 30s – it’s not easy to find a starter home in this city. We chose to be here. City’s heart is the commercial sector – makes the revenue. Soul is you and me. Head is government – needs to be smart, efficient and transparent. We should have a Metroquest web site to allow citizens to monitor city. Need to have a master plan for development.

SM One more thing I want you to know about me: My law practice is exclusively dedicted to matters that will never come before the commission. I am special interest free and conflict free. I have one retired uncle who is a retired milkman like my father.

PJ “We stand at the metaphoric fork in the road” – will we choose the past or the future? What is in the best interest of our city? I want you all to be part of my team and together we will lay foundation for the future.

JH; Join me in opposing redevelopment of the parking garages on Miracle Mile – include a department store. If Miracle Mile stores know that they’ll never get a department store, then expenses will squeeze them out. Within 15 years you’ll see a concrete canyon. I have a UF law degree. I’ve been going to 2/3 of Commission meetings for 10 years, can hit the ground running.

AF I have been working on these issues for 15 years. We’ve lived here, we love it here. Preserve the City for future generations. Go to arielfernandez.com to see videos of my position on every issue. Cell and email are there. Tell neighbors to vote. 7000 voters in the last election out of 32000 eligible is not enough.


  1. Editor’s note: This big project is the same as the one known as the “New Mediterranean”. []
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