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 GablesCentral.com.

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.

If concern about the pace of development is what prompted her campaign, does that mean the Gables Master Plan needs revision? Only, Slesnick said, if it’s done with public input. It was revised in the 1990s with multiple public hearings, and modified in a 2003 charrette. The one place Slesnick is sure we need changes is along US 1 – but not to allow high-rises. On the whole, the current zoning code has worked for us; what we need to avoid is “spot zoning” or “form-based zoning” where developers ask for a change in the zoning code specific to their site.

If the Gables tax receipts go up due to the new construction, the money should be spent on new infrastructure to support the new buildings’ needs for water, road, sewer, police, and fire protection. Next priority would be to pay off some of the city’s debt, then save some “for a rainy day.” Among the projects it would be nice to fund are more street lights – but soft lights, not the high-density lights that denote high-crime areas. It’s important to be fiscally responsible, but part of being responsible is keeping up current amenities.

Should there be tax cuts? Not at the expense of reserves or amenities. We need to spend money maintaining the city, such as pressure cleaning sidewalks downtown (“some of them are disgusting”). It costs a lot to maintain the city’s buildings, and to pay for increased police, fire, and water. Plus the city needs to build adequate parking and to fix up our “two decrepit city parking garages” which are “old, antiquated, dirty, falling apart.”

What about the Fernandez garbage fee proposal? Not much: “I think it’s something that should be looked into.”

As to the issue of multi-candidate elections, Slesnick says that the GGG, whose Presidency she relinquished to Deborah Swain in order to run for Commissioner, supports a runoff and she does too. But Slesnick doesn’t support moving the election date: have the runoff two weeks later in April, even it does create a new expense for the City. The other dates would be worse: the August primary is when school is out, and too many people are on vacation; in the November general election too many voters are not interested in local government. Plus, if the election were in November UM students could pick the whole Commission. [I wondered if that democracy would be so awful, but didn’t say anything.]

Slesnick says she has no conflicts of interest. “I avoid them. I lost business when Don was Mayor.” She won’t be representing high rise developers to show their apartments, will only sell them if they are on the secondary market. Slesnick, however, took mild exception to Sandra Murado’s suggestion that every local business interest was necessarily bad, saying that Commissioners ought to have an interest in the city.

On sea level rise, Slesnick’s suggestion was that we work with the League of Cities, and other cities facing similar issues. The perception of danger is already affecting the willingness of people to buy on the waterfront; most of Coral Gables is above 11 feet above sea level, so most of the Gables doesn’t have a big flood risk except for some homes near a few canals. A bigger issue is whether rising sea levels will affect our water supply. There are 80,000 condos on Brickell, where will their water come from?

In my interview, Slesnick seemed most committed and most animated when talking about having an inclusive process, more than to any particular view of most issues. That suggests she’ll be a reasonable conduit for citizens’ views, but makes it harder to see what in particular she stands for.

As the biggest-name candidate in the race, by virtue both of her experience and her husband being the former Mayor, Slesnick has come in for a lot of criticism, only some of it fair. The unfair part is epitomized by the campaign leaflet put out by one of her opponents — we don’t know whom. (See Tis the Season…For Negative and Misleading Campaigning for a picture.) I have very mixed feelings about attacking a person for the actions of their spouse, and even more as those actions recede into the past. It seems particularly unfair – anti-feminist – to attack a woman for her husband’s actions. On the other hand, the Slesnicks used to be a team, and she’s certainly not running against his record.

There are some criticisms that are more fair, and they mostly go to the conduct of the Slesnick campaign. That big ad by her firm on the back of the Herald’s Neighbors section, showing a big photo of just Slesnick and wishing people happy holidays. Looks a lot like a campaign contribution in kind to me. And there’s grousing about the (totally legal) loan of $100,000 — $100,000! — that Slesnick has made to her own campaign. That $100,000 plus the circa $75,000 and counting in actual contributions puts her in the top for fundraising, although so far it hasn’t put her near the top for mailers to my household.

Some have tried to suggest to me that there’s a problem with having a Realtor on the Commission. (“After the election she just has to close two extra homes from people who want to influence the Commission to pay herself back,” groused one opponent.) I’m not persuaded that’s a real problem. A friend, not connected with any candidate, even suggested that a residential Realtor is an asset to the Commission because she will be in close touch with what people like and don’t like about neighborhoods and thus well-placed to notice and fix the things people do not like. Slesnick seems like she’d be a fairly safe pair of hands, would be committed to process values, and is deeply marinated in the political history of this town. Yet, despite saying she was moved to run by all the development coming down the pike, I find myself surprisingly unclear as to what she would in most cases do differently (on Agave, she told the Herald that she wanted less; that is, however, sort of the where the Commission itself ended up) — except that it is clear she thinks we’re overdoing it now and would want to get the public more involved. For some, that alone might be enough, and I do give her props for the GGG’s publicity efforts.

Has Slesnick closed the sale? Not quite.

Previously: Ralph Cabrera, Ariel Fernandez

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