Tony Newell, Coral Gables Commission Group V candidate, wants me to to tell you that despite some suggestions in this space in the past, he’s not a libertarian. We spoke on March 17, between the two major candidate events, and thus before his spectacular, seemingly unprovoked, public attack on three of his fellow candidates (see Coral Gable Chamber Candidates’ Forum (Part I): Group V (Updated)).
I wanted to ask Newell about my list of issues, but I have to admit, the libertarian thing was my first question to him in light of his endorsement by a libertarian publication in the previous election. Newell replied, “No. I am a big believer in market principles. I resist the false choice of ‘all market’ or ‘everything regulated’.” Yes, Coral Gables “does attract people due to – I wouldn’t call them Draconian – rules. We place a high premium on zoning … The Gables brand was based mostly on aesthetics. The conservative part of me says, that’s the tradition, don’t abandon it … on zoning, new development I’m a big believer on strict regulations.” On the other hand, “When it comes to business impacts, we should let the market do it. I don’t think it is our job to protect businesses. By creating an environment in which business can thrive the city has done its job.” In other words, the City should not be “picking the ratio of restaurants to boutiques.”
This led to us to the Master Plan question. Newell said he wants to create a “real master plan” not a “nominal” one like we have now. In his view the current plan lacks “cohesive vision”. Newell, however, disclaimed a right to decide what that vision should be, as “it’s up to the people” but he suggested we might start with “low hanging fruit” such as how far outside the CBD we would allow certain projects, or whether we keep existing boundaries. That debate is one for a large committee staffed with local residents, like a bigger version of the committee shepherding Streetscape. And we could use the Metroquest platform to stimulate public engagement online.
What Newell says he wants is clearer rules that would give developers a clear sense of what we would and wouldn’t allow; what he opposes is the current system where the Commission can demand things like trees or trolleys in exchange for allowing deviations from the zoning rules. The Commission shouldn’t be doing that, he tells me: that’s imposing their views rather than having consistent rules. “I don’t have very specific designs for the city. I don’t want to be … a taste Czar.”
Newell is for more greenspaces, but unsure if there’s much space left to build them on. As for sea level rise issues he says he doesn’t know what the City can do, so he’d lean on the U. as much as possible as a think tank.
Newell’s business is remediating homes after disasters strike them. Another thing Newell wants me to tell you about him is that he’s the only candidate in his race who doesn’t do business with the Gables. (“I’ve maybe pulled a handful of permits for residential repair.”) Trouble is, the claim that he’s unique in this way is not true: there are at least one, probably two, others who can say the same (Fernandez and Murado by my count).
Newell had what I thought was a thoughtful answer to the question of what the Gables should do if tax receipts go up due to the increased tax base. Some of the money has to go to defray the increased costs created by the new buildings – more patrols, more infrastructure generally. If after that there’s money leftover, he would not be for eliminating the garbage fee – that “is completely impractical” and is “never going to happen”. We should “do the equivalent of paying down our credit card debt, not go out to Joe’s stone crab.” Currently the City has City has $250m in debt, he says [actually, I believe it is technically unfunded liabilities]. If we have extra revenue we should use it to pay down that amount more quickly than the 30-year period currently contemplated. Right now the city is spending 15% of its budget on debt service; pay that off, or at least get to 80% funded, and then there would be more money to spend on other things. Meanwhile, though, there are some things that won’t wait, such as fire station and the public works building.
Should the city spend money on improving its carbon emissions? “Maybe every city employee should drive a Prius,” Newell jokes. Should the City use the money for tax cuts? Newell is cautious: “We have enough money to at least not raise taxes.”
Newell is young, energetic, and ambitious. He’ll turn 33 three days before the April 14 election. If he wins can we expect to see him running for higher office? The idea seem to maybe have some appeal, but he ritually disclaims it, “Probably not, but I don’t know.”
Of the candidates I spoke to, I probably had more fun talking to Newell than any other (I enjoyed PJ Mitchell’s company a lot too, but he’s so earnest it almost hurts.) He’s smart, energetic, articulate, holds his corner (and may have ambitions for higher office – why not?). Great dinner party companion. But I’m not going to vote for him. It’s not just his subsequent remarks in the unfortunate start to the second debate, although that is reason enough if you are looking for one. The real problem for me is that he thinks we can and should be writing a zoning code that takes the Commission out of the development cycle, i.e. one that would not need to be altered on a case-by-case basis when circumstances justify it. I don’t think that’s feasible, practical, or wise. I do understand the frustration developers feel when, from their perspective, the Commission holds them up for what seems like ransom for things like new trolleys. But my objection isn’t that the Commission is demanding concessions in return for variances, it is more that it isn’t asking for the right things. (Will four new trolleys do much to offset the parking issues at Agave? I’m dubious.) I think Newell might reply that this history proves his point – we shouldn’t rely on the Commission to make good choices on a case-by-case basis. That’s not ridiculous, but I think the most likely alternative to the current somewhat restrictive rules with the possibility of a variance is rules that just open the floodgates of development even wider than they are now. And I don’t see the case for that at all.
Our household has gotten more mailers from the Newell campaign than from any other two campaigns in Group V combined. That money is coming from somewhere; while developers have been contributing to his campaign, Newell promises that it won’t affect his vote. Those contributions certainly doesn’t mean his vote is bought and paid for, but it likely does mean that Newell holds views most congenial to those funders. I don’t.