Weird Doings at the Coral Gables ‘Debate’

Well, it wasn’t a debate.  For one thing, two candidates didn’t turn up.  In Group 2, Jose Valdes-Fauli was a last-minute no-show due to a medical emergency.  In Group 3, Kirk Menendez was a no-show … saying that he had an obligation with his son, which he was not able to get out of, although the moderators didn’t share this with us until right near the end; apparently they don’t check their email very often….

So the event was rebranded as an ‘informational session’ for an hour with each of the two remaining candidates (and the 120+ viewers).

The moderators, Leon Kellner & Sue Kawalerski managed to put combative questions to the candidates present, first Rhona Anderson and then Javier Baños.  The moderators clearly have their axes to grind, which meant the heat/light ratio wasn’t everything one might have hoped for.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the event was the deep resentment and hostility that the heads of the various community groups who asked questions expressed about the way they had been treated by Coral Gables staff, and their desire to have some heads roll. I have to admit that as they grew their bill of particulars against the city’s lawyers — agreeing to various zoning changes, signing off on various aspects of the Wawa gas station deal, failing to include penalty clauses that might have prevented the cutting of trees outside the site despite a promise not to, I began to wonder if they might not have a point.

As regards the candidates, there was not much effort at neutrality: I got the strong feeling that the organizers of the event support the two candidates who spoke, and really don’t want Menendez, about whom they couldn’t wait to share what they termed breaking news, but was actually a three-day-old blog post on Political Cortadito.  It accused Menendez of profiteering (the crafts homes rezoning), being sued for allegedly being tens of thousands of dollars behind on his credit card (how can we trust you with city money if you can’t manage your own?), and letting his law license lapse.

That last complaint seems odd or at least dated because when I looked it up during the non-debate, the only Kirk Menendez I could find on the Florida Bar website, was a Kirk Reagan Menendez who graduated from St. Thomas Law in 1992 — sounds like the right one, no? The Florida bar web site reports Kirk Reagan Menendez  is a “member in good standing” and “eligible to practice law”.  A smear gone wrong? Arrears suddenly paid up? I have no idea, nor exactly why I should care unless there’s some suggestion he was practicing law illegally while a candidate.

Underlining how even-handed they weren’t being,  the moderators asked Baños about a lawsuit just filed against him. with Leon Kellner emphasizing in a very bombastic fashion that allegations are not proof (no such disclaimer for the Menemdez “news” they shared, however, including the part about … a lawsuit).  Having then seen neither this explanation nor this one, I — and I suspect many other listeners — had no idea what lawsuit against Baños they were referring to. And I didn’t get to find out much from the discussion because the questioners dropped the issue as soon as Baños professed ignorance of the case and said he hadn’t been served.  Sure was a tough grilling there — on par with the audience planted softball asking how Baños’s background as a CPA would help him as a Commissioner.  (Per Baños, it would be very helpful.)

Not that I especially want Menendez, but I then I don’t especially like the Baños package either: smooth, quite well informed, and missing almost no opportunity to stick a shiv into his absent opponent by accusing him of being pro every type of development and at one point, if I followed the convoluted talk, gratuitously suggesting that Menendez had been repeatedly fired by his city employer.  (Eh?)

Indeed, Menendez has yet to offer me any reason to vote for him other than just not being the other guy. Given the blithe nature of the Menendez platform, it’s hard to know what his views actually are on development, and indeed they might be awful. But as the general tenor of the Menendez campaign is a Chip-Withers-worthy ‘keep things the same’ vibe (and, no, that is not a compliment), I don’t see the support for the Crafts development — a part of town which in my opinion was no landmark — as telling me much about his attitudes to growth in the rest of the city.  And at least the Menendez campaign, unlike the Baños campaign, hasn’t resorted to attack mailers signed by some fake political group. Although, as I may have mentioned once or twice, they have spammed me and spam-texted me which is Not Nice.

Anderson acquitted herself very well.  She had practical ideas for how to improve notice about coming development projects, and how to make staff more careful in how they testify to the Commission, but she didn’t take the bait on having a referendum on every big project, noting accurately that turnout was low and not very informed for Commission races, and would likely be worse if we had regular votes on zoning issues.  Baños, to his discredit, was more willing to pander on this one.  The moderators were pushing the idea, but it’s ridiculous.  As Anderson said, some zoning plans are 1000 pages long: they need to be broken down and discussed piece by piece in citizens’ meetings, not sent to an electorate which will never read it.

Both candidates got asked if they’d support renaming our part of South Dixie Highway for Harriet Tubman (Coral Gables, alarmingly, is the only jurisdiction here to have opposed it).  Anderson said forthrightly she was for the change.  Baños first tap danced around, saying something mushy and hard to follow about having a resident’s poll or a referendum–although if I understood him he concluded by saying that he thought it would be just, and “she should be honored.”  But from the sound of it, that was couched just as a personal view, and in no way a promise to reverse the vote of the Coral Gables Commission opposing the renaming.

Anyway, two more hours of my life I won’t get back, and other than making me feel even better about voting for Anderson, I don’t think it taught me much.

I do hope Valdes-Fauli proves to be OK.

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