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?
On the Master Plan question, Fernandez doesn’t have a worked-out opinion although he says he thinks the City’s zoning changes are currently too ad hoc; he’d support a review. His example of a problematic local project is the plan to pull down the Holiday Inn off US1, across from UM, and build condos, a hotel, and offices – requiring 800 parking spaces, the access to which would be via Caballero Blvd on the back, which would create a great deal of traffic for residents in the area. Fernandez says too many big buildings will destroy the residential feel of the city, and we need at least to be sure we are not encroaching into residential areas. Parking needs to be considered – he’s suspicious of the ‘shared parking’ concept promoted by Agave. 396 Alhambra may be beautiful (that’s a reference to the then-recent candidates’ debate), but there’s not enough parking for residents. Streetscape costs us 116 parking spaces; then 260 more will be lost while garage #1 gets rebuilt.
More generally, Fernandez complains that parks are not always safe; sidewalks to nowhere are hard on users; deep trash pits make it hard to walk without sidewalks.
On the sea level rise question, Fernandez agrees it’s a real issue for the Gables, but all he has to offer is that we “need to start looking into” the issue.
That brings us to the garbage fee. My interview being soon after the first candidates’ debate (see Report on Group V Debate — Six Candidates for my take), Fernandez is anxious to emphasize that while he proposes eliminating the garbage fee he is not suggesting a reduction in services, just a different funding model: instead of having a separate garbage fee, we’d pay the $8 million or so out of general revenues. The good aspects of this are that we’d save the money it takes to collect the separate fee, we’d move a regressive fee over to a somewhat more progressive tax (since more valuable homes tend to pay higher property taxes) and, not least, residents could deduct the tax from their federal tax returns (local taxes are deductible, but user fees like the garbage fee are not). Fernandez claims this can be paid for without raising taxes at all (there goes my deduction); when I asked him point-blank if he would support the plan if it required raising the millage to make it work, even if total costs to taxpayers didn’t change, Fernandez demurred. (And on his web page it says, I will work with our City Manager and Budget Director to eliminate the garbage fee for residences in the City of Coral Gables, without raising our property taxes.)
I understand why no candidate wants to say anything that sounds like raising taxes, but I think that was the wrong answer. If we take an $8 million bite out of general revenue that will eat much of the coming surplus from the new larger tax base. That amounts, in my view, to saying that the new tax revenue we can anticipate should all or mostly be rebated to taxpayers when, again in my view, it’s clear that the city will have very substantial infrastructure needs both from deferred maintenance (like those decrepit fire stations) and the new burdens from new residents, shops, and offices (sewer, water, police and fire). I’m all for making local taxes less regressive, but $8 million or so of ‘rebates first’ doesn’t strike me as a responsible policy.
It’s true that separately in our interview Fernandez also said that due to all the coming infrastructure needs he would support not lowering the millage for up to five years until we understand all the costs that this development will impose. And he said there would be a need for 12-14 more police officers given there could be up to 20,000 more people in the city. So he’s not against infrastructure spending, he just thinks we can manage with less of it than I do.
On the question of election day and runoffs, Fernandez says he’d be open to moving the election to primary day in August, but not November as he thinks too few people make it to the end of a long ballot. He’d support a runoff – many voters tell him they think there’s a runoff already.
Fernandez proudly disclaims any conflicts of interest. Neither he nor his family members have any business before the commission (his wife is in a good-sized national law firm and does construction litigation, but I can’t see much danger of a conflict there if the firm manages its affairs normally). He isn’t getting campaign contributions from developers (or indeed from the look of his campaign finance disclosures a whole lot of contributions at all); at present he does PR for a group of non-profits.
My bottom line is that if Fernandez wins he’ll probably be a very constituent-oriented Commissioner. Other than the garbage fee proposal – which I would be for if only he were more wholehearted about it – his agenda struck me as largely reactive: stop doing some of the things we are doing wrong. He’d be great at listening. While he seems like a nice guy, I worried that he was a too willing to go for the stunt of promising tax rebates (which is what his garbage fee elimination plan seems to amount to), and a little too cautious about confronting our infrastructure needs and investing in our civic future. That is not a plus. Then again, if he got elected, I’m sure he’d listen to arguments about doing it differently.
As for the David Rivera thing, you can understand why a guy wouldn’t trumpet a connection with a very corrupt, arguably craziest, local politician. I am not a great believer in guilt just by association, especially for crazy bosses (although surely the signs of Rivera’s ethical issues were visible by the time he took office? even enough to make one wary of what was the offer of a large promotion?). What troubles me most in this story, perhaps because I grew up in Washington, D.C., is the cover-up. Surely anyone with 11 years — or 13 — in politics should know that the Rivera connection would inevitably be noticed by someone. The only smart thing to do in these cases is to get ahead of the issue. Fernandez didn’t do that.
A tactical silence isn’t a lie, at least not in politics. But that cover-up was, to be blunt, a pretty dumb move. It could be dumb enough to make one vote for someone else in a field crowded with plausible candidates.
In the spirit of disclosure, I should mention that Monica Segura, Ariel Fernandez’s wife, was a student of mine at Miami Law. I hadn’t seen her between her graduation and the first candidates’ debate, and I hadn’t met him, or learned of the marriage, before the campaign.
Previously: Ralph Cabrera