Thoughts on the Coral Gables Commission Election April 11, 2023

TL/DR: I’m voting for Melissa Castro in Group 4, and Ariel Fernandez in Group 5, in the upcoming Coral Gables Commission election. Please don’t forget to vote.

Absentee ballots have dropped for the Coral Gables Commission election that is due to take place on Tuesday, April 11, 2023: Residents can vote early or drop off mail-in ballots at the Coral Gables War Memorial Youth Center, 405 University Drive, on April 1, April 2 and April 8 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. — or in person on Election Day at your assigned precinct.

Three seats on the five-person commission are up this year, but one of the seats won’t be on the ballot as Mayor Vince Lago ran unopposed, so he is automatically re-elected to another two-year term. (Ordinary Commissioners get four-year terms.)

I think that the most important issue this year is the candidates’ stand on (over)development. And, not unrelatedly, the defining feature of the two contested races is a break with the gentility that used to mark Commission elections, in that Mayor Lago’s electoral machine and the state Republican party have set up a slate of candidates, and poured money—much of it from out of town and/or developers—into the coffers of their favored pro-overdevelopment candidates. That’s two strikes against those candidates right there.

Another notable feature of the Group 5 race is that, despite signing a pledge to take the high road, one of the candidates has resorted to low-road (dare I say slime-ball?) tactics much like those we see in state and federal races. For Alex Bucelo, that makes three strikes, and you should vote for his opponent, despite his imperfections.

Let’s start with some substance. I want to be very clear: I am not one of those NIMBYs who opposes all development. If you go back deep into the archives in this blog, you will see me arguing that Coral Gables needs to allow more growth to survive, and that the height limit in the downtown district of Miracle Mile needed relaxing. I still think that was right; preserving the old small-town look of the Gables was not sustainable; the City needed and needs to be more than something most people drive through.

The problem today is that we went too far in the other direction. And rather than enforcing a more relaxed Building Code, the Commission and its staff are handing out too many variances for height and density for insufficient reasons and/or minor concessions. (A couple of trolleys donated to the City won’t fix traffic issues caused by major development.) The results include the ginormous development a few blocks south of Miracle Mile, and (less horribly) the various new buildings that crowd oppressively right up to U.S. 1 along the corridor from Red Road to Lejune. There’s more in the pipeline, as developers seek to close roads and build on them, or steamroller the city into agreeing to approve plans for new large buildings sight unseen (yes, really).

Group 4

There are four candidates in Group 4.

Two of them are not serious candidates. Jackson “Rip” Holmes seems to run for the Coral Gables Commission as a regular hobby. Freed from the need to watch his words, once in a while he drops an unvarnished truth that other candidates might not dare, but most of the time he is, well, kinda loopy. Thus, for example, at the PTA-sponsored candidates’ forum, Holmes aptly described himself as “the craziest candidate” and then went on to prove it by claiming we don’t need to worry about rising sea levels because we are going to get “free energy” via “heavy seawater”. (Yes, seawater might be a clean energy source someday, but not at zero-cost; “carbon-free” doesn’t mean “cost-free”.)

Sean Patrick McGrover is not as loopy, but there’s no reason to vote for him. His claims for your vote seem to center on not being a lawyer, and making himself available to voters 24/7.  And he’s (probably justly) mad at the permitting department for how it treated him (I’ve been there….).

The serious candidates are Ivette Arango O’Doski and Melissa Castro. Ms. O’Doski, a UM Law grad, is formidable. She speaks well (if in a rather coached fashion), is organized, has relevant experience–as a former Vice-President for the Miami-Dade Beacon Council–and likely has a political future. The problem is that while she claims to be against unbridled growth, she’s supported financially and politically by the machine that wants to continue to overdevelop Coral Gables. Vince Lago endorsed her, which is not the plus it used to be. And look at her donor lists.

Ms. O’Doski has been careful to pitch herself in a way designed not to offend those who worry the Commission has overdone the mega-developments and the variances. You have to parse what she says carefully to realize how little she’s actually promising in terms of slowing the developers. Which is hardly surprising given that she’s on the Lago team. While it seems very likely that Ms. O’Doski is ready to execute the mission, and will do so with efficiency, you have to ask what mission that will be.

Melissa Castro is not as polished (nor as rehearsed). She runs a small local business she inherited, after a previous career as a psychologist. She projects a caring and sensible persona, but not as sound-bite oriented as Ms. O’Doski. Listening to her felt more like listening to an intelligent and concerned neighbor. It was good, but since I have a bias for organized lawyers, I didn’t think this was as good as listening to Ms. O’Doski. I worry a bit that Ms. Castro might not hit the ground running as well as Ms. O’Doski. Nevertheless, I feel more confident that those of us who are concerned about the pace of development in the city will find not just an ear but, ultimately, a voice if she’s elected. So I’m going to vote for Melissa Castro in Group 4.

Group 5

Just two candidates here: Alex Bucelo and Ariel Fernandez. Both have run unsuccessful races for Commission before.

Alex Bucelo has a law degree from St. Thomas. His website promises that he will “Oppose large-scale development,” but he is endorsed by the Lago machine. A chunk of his overflowing campaign war chest comes from out of town, or from developers, financiers, and their family or companies. Together that’s reason enough to vote against him if there’s a suitable alternative (we’ll get to that in a minute).

I actually voted reluctantly for Bucelo in 2021 given the nature of the opposition. But as someone who often writes about privacy law and policy, I now have an additional reason why I’m in an almost-anyone-but-Bucelo camp: During one of the candidate debates, Bucelo was pandering to local fears about crime. That alone is so common, alas, that you can’t use it as a sorting principle. But Bucelo gave the example of automated license plate readers (ALPRs) as a great crime-fighting technology. In fact, it’s an expensive, privacy-destroying bust, that has had only a very minimal impact in solving crimes or catching criminals. I don’t know whether Bucelo knows this and doesn’t care, or doesn’t know it and is carelessly endorsing the invasive technology, but it doesn’t matter. This shows all the wrong instincts.

Ariel Fernandez is a career Republican who has run for the State legislature and for the Commission in the past. I wrote about him at some length in Ariel Fernandez – a Grass Roots Candidate With a Past, and I don’t think my views have changed much.

Since 2015 Fernandez has launched and edited Gables Insider, a very good blog on local issues; it’s the best way to keep up with what the Commission is doing short of watching the interminable meetings themselves. One way in which today’s Ariel Fernandez seems a bit different from the earlier edition is his suspicion of how the Coral Gables Commission staff are operating against the public interest (remember the secret attempt to put a Wawa and gas station across from Carver Elementary?). And incidents like this zoning-related outrage suggest he may have a point.

Whatever else, Fernandez will not be a safe vote for the Lago machine, and that’s a good thing. There’s one more reason to spurn Bucelo and vote for Fernandez. Unlike in 2021, when Bucelo was if anything the victim of dark money mailers this time the shadowy right-wing groups that pump out the mailers (and, now, ugly texts) are on Bucelo’s side. That’s pretty much always a sure sign of how to vote: do the opposite of what the sleazy mailers tell you. So vote for Ariel Fernandez in Group 5.

Incidentally, I continue to be irked by Coral Gables’s instance on holding elections out of sync with every other race on the ballot. We’d save a lot of money, and also increase turnout, if we just changed the election date to November, or even to the date of the partisan primaries. But the insiders in Coral Gables don’t want that – low turnout means there’s less risk of an unexpected result. If more people voted, you never know who might get elected!

Updated 3/19/23 to add links to candidates’ web sites and correct biographical error about Ivette Arango O’Doski.

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17 Responses to Thoughts on the Coral Gables Commission Election April 11, 2023

  1. Ana Branner says:

    Agree for your insight on voting for Melissa Castro in group 4. She is a winner in every sense of the word

  2. Berta says:

    Professor Froomkin,

    Last time Fernandez ran in 2015 you covered his race and chastised him for concealing his connection to Rivera. You even called it a dumb move. Article here:

    Yet, he is doing that very same thing AGAIN and you say nothing. See for yourself: Care to address?

    Speaking of concealing connections, in your PRIOR article in 2015 you disclosed your connection to Ariel’s wife. This time, no such disclaimer? Interesting.

    On your point about privacy and ALPRs, are you suggesting Ariel is proposing to eliminate ALPRs in Coral Gables? Has he said that to voters? Will you ask him to commit to that position here?

    I hope you will address the above comments in the spirit of honest dialogue.

    • Hello? Rather than repeating myself, I linked to the earlier blog post and said my views hadn’t changed much. So, unless we’re reduced to the standard of the anti-Fernandez attack mailer I got yesterday, I can’t see how anyone could say I’m hiding anything, including my very tenuous connection to Fernandez’s wife (a now long-time former student of mine) disclosed there, and whom I don’t think I’ve seen since 2015, by the way. Heck, I have only talked to the candidate himself maybe a couple of times since then.

      As I said in the main post, I don’t think Fernandez is my dream candidate. But everything is relative. And right now, he has two enormous things going for him: 1) he’s not Alex Bucelo, and 2) he’s not going to be a doormat for the development interests trying to buy the election.

      The fact he worked for a bad man in a very junior capacity many many many years ago is not the defining feature of a life or a career. The choice to downplay it is a choice; I thought not a very good one in 2015, and I think still debatable eight years later, but it is hardly a major issue today. Young people end up working for all kinds of folks whose true nature isn’t visible when they get hired. I don’t think a very junior staffer with constituent service duties can be tarred with guilt-by-association to the boss when the guilt only became evident later–and indeed that’s more or less what I said in 2015.

      As to ALPRs, I have no idea what Fernandez’s views are. (Good question to ask the next time I see him, though!) The police want them, and the Commission tends to give the cops what the want (e.g. facial recognition software, another sore point for me). My point was different: Anyone who publicly touts them as great thing is either terribly uninformed or is counting on us being uniformed. Not a good look.

      • Berta says:

        So then if Fernandez supports ALPRs would you retract your support of his candidacy? Seems pretty wild that you voted for Bucelo last time, and now you say you’re in the “almost-anyone-but-Bucelo camp” because of his position on ALPRs while having NO CLUE whatsoever where Fernandez stands on the issue.

        As for Ariel Fernandez being suspicious of the Commission, are you aware that he worked for Mayor Vince Lago and Commissioner Rhonda Anderson as well? He made $40,000 from “the Lago machine” just last campaign. And he would have happily touted their endorsements if provided. His job for years was to cover the issues in a way that was beneficial to his clients. They still wouldn’t support his candidacy because he demonstrated his true character to them on multiple occasions.

        No elected he has ever worked for publicly or privately is willing to endorse him.

        • I apologize if I was unclear. As I said in the initial post, I’m currently in the AABB camp primarily due to the development issue and the danger of lockstep voting by the slated, and very well funded, candidates. (“Together that’s reason enough to vote against him if there’s a suitable alternative “)

          I’d be really surprised (but pleased!) to hear that any of the serious candidates agreed with me on the importance of privacy in public places in the face of the pushback by the Police, and the danger of being tarred as soft on crime. That doesn’t mean they have to make false statements about the effectiveness of technologies.

          If you are trying to suggest Fernandez isn’t my dream candidate, and has certain opportunistic tendencies (as do many folks who are willing to make the effort to run for office), push the open door. But we choose among the alternatives we have.

  3. Berta says:


    I just reviewed the debate where the ALPR issue was discussed. Immediately following Bucelo’s response to the question that offended you so much, FERNANDEZ commended the Commission and stated “I think tag readers are a MUST!” Here is a link to that debate where you and your readers can hear it straight from Fernandez’s mouth at the 1:39 mark:

  4. Berta says:


    Because I respect your profession and assume you to be an intellectually honest person, I challenge you to listen to the answer to the question about crime below and state with a straight face that “Bucelo was pandering to local fears about crime” as compared to Ariel Fernandez. PLEASE, listen to the question posed at the 1:34:20 mark and respond and tell me WHICH candidate was fear mongering about crime. Listen to the follow up question response. We have a huge crime problem according to Fernandez. And then Bucelo highlights that he has a difference of opinion on how much crime we have and that police are doing a superb job.

    I will await your honest take after listening to these remarks.

    • Let’s grant they are equally bad on this issue. Or even that Fernandez is pandering worse on the crime issue, an all-too-common problem in Coral Gables elections. Ugly, yes. But so what? Will that result in different outcomes? Sadly, I don’t think so. Maybe I’m unduly cynical on this after years of hearing crime mongering for so many years, but there it is.

      As I’ve said all along, Fernandez is not my perfect candidate, and this may be more evidence of that reality, but on what I see as the biggest issues–the influence of developers, and the turn to over-sized and under-constrained projects–he’s preferable. You have made four comments here, and not one engages in any way on what I keep saying are the main issue(s). I invite you (and others) to do so, please.

  5. Berta says:

    So what? Your original position expressly highlighted the fear mongering on crime (which clearly Ariel is doing, while Bucelo is disagreeing and citing crime being at a record low). Then you more specifically cite to ALPR, which I now showed you Ariel said is a MUST. I think it is pretty unfair to say that none of these comments engaged in any way on what you are saying, when I have expressly addressed what you have said and even provided you video support to refute. With respect to over-development, Bucelo voted against Allen Morris’ project near Ponce Circle as a member the Planning and Zoning Board. Ariel made $40,000 to his private business as a consultant on Lago’s prior campaign, much of which money was raised from the “evil” developers he decries – but he didn’t mind putting the $40,000 in his pocket when the time came.

    • That’s a bit more like it (at least as to the example about Bucelo, we’ll ignore the other less attractive bits).

      This Allen Morris project is, I take it, the one where they want to get a variance from a 50′ height restriction and build 149 feet, plus want the city to give them a piece of public road to build over? A terrible plan indeed, amazing that anyone is for it…. Vince Lago is against it too I believe, which tells you something about the overreach of the ask, but might undermine the case that this is an example of breaking ranks …

      (Just for the record — you’re not affiliated with the Bucelo campaign, are you?)

      • Berta says:

        You keep moving the goal line. Now when I point to a concrete example of a vote precluding overdevelopment, you pivot to well but he wasn’t breaking ranks with Lago. Who cares? Say what you want about him, but there isn’t a single elected official in the Gables in a decade that has voted against more development projects than Lago. So is it development? Fear mongering on crime? ALPR? Hard to keep track. But on any of them, Bucelo is superior to Fernandez.

        No, I am not from the Bucelo campaign. I would simply support anyone who runs against Fernandez. He runs a pay for play propaganda blog filled with half truths and sensationalism for his own personal gain and to feed his own fragile self esteem. He’s an abomination of a candidate. A man who is so desperate for attention and has now found it in the form of supplying fake news to residents plagued by a void in actual media coverage and journalism that is the byproduct of budget cuts at actual news outlets. He’s a pretender. A want-to-be Gables guy who is really just a professional failure. Shall I go on?

        • You keep moving the goal line.

          Not at all. The goal is to find who is more likely to be skeptical about over-development. That Mr. Bucelo drew the line at possibly the worst major grab attempted recently is certainly better than nothing…but one is entitled to hope for much more.

          Unfortunately, we’re reduced–as is so often the case in elections–to choosing among imperfect alternatives.

          It wouldn’t help in a two-candidate race such as this one (although it might make it more likely that multiple candidates run), but Coral Gables should follow Alaska and adopt ranked choice voting; less-well-funded candidates would have a better chance, and in the long run we’d get more choices.

  6. On the online forum he hosted today (April March 3, 2023), Mr. Fernandez came out against license plate readers on privacy grounds. I don’t know if this is consistent with past statements or not, but that’s it now.

  7. Valerie says:

    Would you comment on the letter by JP Faber of Coral Gables magazine, against Ariel Fernandez?
    Is Faber’s magazine a competitor of Gables Insider?
    Thank you.

    • Honestly, I have nothing interesting to offer here. That cover picture and the timing is a de facto endorsement, but I don’t know the parties so I can’t say why.

  8. Gonzalo Sanabria says:

    Oh well here comes the good professor attempting to be a factor in Coral Gables elections…… hmmmm I love your quip in tagging “right wing” as a too. To persuade Gables voters….. yes you and I met eons ago when I was a Commsr candidate and conversed in person for over an hour
    Guess I wasn’t “charming enough” since you didn’t support me and now as I revisit your write up it’s the same “old” yadayada…… look, I’ll talk to you anytime we happen to accidentally be in the same place….. but you’re not a qualified analyst back then or now…… yes, I’m vigorously backing both Ivette and Alex and it’s well founded and justifiable why I do. You want to hear why? It’s your turn to pay for Starbucks next time. I’m glad you’re still a non-factor thinking your relevant but if I quizzed you I bet you would flunk simple Gables know-questions

    • I remember you well. You were indeed quite charming in person; perhaps less so in this latest posting.

      I don’t recall making any claims to local relevance, nor do I harbor many secret thoughts of that sort, at least as regards this election. My traffic figures would likely disabuse me of them in any case–they are much much lower than the many tens of thousands per day back when I posted daily, promoted the blog via trackbacks and emails to other bloggers, and so on. One day I decided it was too much PR work, and enjoyed being a full-time academic. I have never looked back.

      But I will claim to be a US Citizen, and a now-long-time resident of Coral Gables, and thus claim to have the same right to express my ignorant views as the next person. I’m sorry that bothers you, but that’s the First Amendment for you.

      As to Starbucks, alas I am immunocompromised due to some medical treatment, so I don’t go out much. Maybe after I recover.

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