PJ Mitchell — Sincere and (Too?) Frugal

I had a chance to talk to PJ Mitchell last week about his candidacy for the Coral Gables Commission. He’s a good, soft-spoken, advocate for himself.

I asked Mitchell the same questions I’ve been asking everyone, starting with development. Having served on the economic development board, Mitchell had seen some of the proposals in some depth, and he wanted to distinguish between those that sought variances from the code (possible) and those which sought to have the code changed to their benefit (like Agave), a process that was quicker for them, but not in his view better for the city. Each project should be judged on its merits, he said, and the problem with Agave’s initial proposal is that it created a ‘city within a city’. Coral Gables needs to have the project connected with downtown, so pedestrians go from Agave to Miracle Mile and back. Mitchell said more than once that seeing the animated version of what the project would be like had shown him just how big it was – too big.

On green space, like everyone else he was for it in principle. On the sea level rise question, Mitchell said he thought that the state and federal governments needed to take the lead, and create a master plan in which Coral Gables could then participate.

Regarding the potential new tax revenue, Mitchell’s first response was that “cities will spend any of amount of money that comes in” – an anti-spending attitude to delight an penny-pincher’s heart. He allowed, however, that there were infrastructure needs. When I pressed him for his top three priorities, Mitchell listed the fire stations as number one, noting that some new police officers are already in the budget and that we might also need to replace one or two missing fire fighters. I had to nudge him to list any others, but then he said eliminating the city’s $75 million debt, and then attacking the unfunded pension liabilities would be his next priorities.

This fits the model of someone who is very conservative about spending – it’s not a visionary agenda, it’s a careful one. On the other hand, Mitchell was also very clear that he sees the job of the City as providing services; that’s why people move to the Gables. But while he talked quite eloquently about preserving service levels, he didn’t go into great detail.

On the issue of conflicts of interest, Mitchell, a lawyer with a small specialist practice that frequently involves suing organizations – like cities – on behalf of victims of sexual assaults, was quick to tell me that he’s never sued Coral Gables. We then had a (totally hypothetical) law-professorish conversation about what his ethical duties would be were he ever to have a client with a case against the Gables. Mitchell seemed to enjoy it as an abstract question as much as I did.

Getting back vaguely in the direction of reality, I asked Mitchell about the garbage fee. Mitchell’s view is that the city should waive fee for disabled persons and hardship cases, and it could streamline bill collection by making it easy to pay online, but he didn’t seem much interested in other changes.

Should the election date be moved? Mitchell said he “would have to reflect more on it.” Low turnout is a problem, but he would not move the election to November. We could move it to a primary date; moving it to August would save money. Whatever the date, there should be a runoff.

Mitchell first ran for Commissioner two years ago, receiving only a small fraction of the vote. When he ran two years ago Mitchell listed these three things as his top issues:

  • The most important issue facing the city is the $200 million dollars of unfunded liabilities. Although the city is on a better financial footing in 2013 than it was in 2011, we still need to have a long term plan to bring down the cost. We need to reform the city’s pension structure as to more equitably provide savings for the taxpayers and maintain the world-class first responders we are so blessed to have serve our city. As your next commissioner for Group 3, I want to work with everyone to make this a fair and open process.
  • The issue of crime and public safety is a real concern for many residents. As I knock on doors throughout the city, folks are genuinely concerned with the issue of home burglaries. We cannot have the residents of this city fearful of leaving their homes. I will work with the police and city leaders to ensure that we are proactive and not reactive in limiting these incidents of crime.
  • Transparency in city government is an important issue and an important goal of mine. The taxpayers of this city deserve to have a city government that has their best interest in mind. To that end, I will work tirelessly to ensure that all of the city’s residents have a fair and honest government.

His current pitch is not very much different. What I think I failed to communicate in the fairly dry recital above is that – like the good trial lawyer I bet he is – Mitchell did a great job of convincing me of his sincerity. People always say that they are running because they want to give back and serve. When Mitchell said it, cynic that I am, I believed him.

I am not fully on board with Mitchell’s instincts about not spending as opposed to looking to nip problems in the bud. While he does talk about keeping up quality of services and quality of ife, he sounds even more earnest and persuaded when talking about fiscal prudence. I do, however, have to give him a lot of credit for having the guts to be the only candidate in the most recent candidates’ event to buck the consensus on dropping controlled choice. Mitchell urged caution not because he likes controlled choice (no one will say that) but because eliminating it will almost inevitably reduce Coral Gables’s access to magnet schools; right now we have extra access in partial compensation for controlled choice. Lose one, lose the other.

As someone who has come to think the city will face some substantial infrastructure spending needs in the coming years, both to replace things and to grow to meet the needs of all this new development, I wasn’t convinced that PJ Mitchell was totally in synch with that program. However, people who want a straight-shooter with a frugal streak may find Mitchell to be an attractive candidate.

Previously: Ralph Cabrera, Ariel Fernandez, Jeannett Slesnick, Tony Newell

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