Category Archives: Miami

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.

Posted in Coral Gables | 12 Comments

Ian Recalibrates, Aims for Tallahassee

Promoted to Ian from TD9, the soon-to-be category 3 (at least) storm has a new projected track. The current projection, still much subject to change,is significantly westward of Friday’s, now avoiding south Florida entirely, before making a now more-leisurely turn to the East, weakening a bit, and heading straight for Tallahassee.

If Ian does hit Tallahassee, don’t hold your breath for claims from local divines that Ian is divine retribution for the recent actions of Gov. Evil™ and the state legislature.


Posted in Florida, Weather With a Name | Leave a comment

TD 9 09/22/2022

It’s a cliched scene in old war movies: Sentries are looking out at the world from their fort or embankment, and saying, “It’s quiet out there. Too quiet.”

Well, that’s what it felt like to South Florida this year as we looked at the weather maps. After meteorologists predicted a bumper crop of named hurricanes this year, what storms there have been acted as if Miami were dosed in super-hurricane repellent, with every storm that even looked as it it might come here, aiming elsewhere from an early stage–and staying that course.

Seems now that the quiet might be over.

TD 9 Track as of 9/22/2022

While a five-day track is very often subject to major change, that just means that it can aim more directly at us, as well as go further away.

And the key detail is that little tiny “M” on the track for Wednesday. “M” stands for “major”. Could be a very big one…or nothing for us if it goes to sea and heads for the gulf coast. [Update: the prediction is for Class 3, which ranges from bad to quite bad, but commonly doesn’t rate as utterly disastrous to life in places where buildings are designed to survive it.]

Note: No sharpies were used in the creation of this post.

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Summary of Voters’ Guide to the August 2022 Miami-Dade Ballot, Judicial Elections

Circuit Court
Group 3: Line 91 Judge Lody Jean
Group 20: Line 93 Judge Robert Watson
Group 34: Line 95 Ariel Rodriguez
Group 52: Line 96 (former) Judge Jason Bloch

County Court
Group 5: Line 99 re-elect Judge Fred Seraphin (this one is important!)
Group 19: Line 101 Judge Jeffrey Kolokoff
Group 42: Line 103 Judge Scott Janowitz

If you’d like to know why I’m recommending these judicial candidates, see Voters’ Guide to Miami-Dade Ballot, Judicial Elections (Part 1: Circuit Court) and Voters’ Guide to the August 2022 Miami-Dade Ballot, Judicial Elections (Part 2: County Court)

FWIW, in the School Board race in District 6 I’m supporting Maria Rojas (line 134). I’m not a fan of this long-time Republican, whose voting record is at best wishy-washy (for a mask mandate at the height of the pandemic, but also for banning what I gather is a perfectly ordinary age-appropriate sex ed textbook), but her opponent is far, far worse; if you love Trumpist takeovers of school boards, you’ll probably like her opponent.

Posted in 2022 Election, Miami | Leave a comment

Local Bloggers on Renier Diaz de la Portilla (Multiple Updates)

If perchance you think I was a little shrill about why you should make an extra special special point to vote FOR Judge Seraphin (line 99) and AGAINST challenger Renier Diaz de la Portilla, take a look at what other local bloggers are saying:

Please feel free to add links to other local sources (or your own views) in the comments.

Posted in Law: Everything Else, Miami | Leave a comment

Voters’ Guide to the August 2022 Miami-Dade Ballot, Judicial Elections (Part 2: County Court)

In Part I of my Voters’ Guide to the August 2022 Miami-Dade Ballot, Judicial Elections. I provided TMI about the way I make these recommendations. I also discussed the four Circuit Court races on the ballot this August 23 (or earlier if you vote absentee or by early voting).

This post is about the three contested County Court races. Please vote. Most people don’t vote in the judicial elections, so your vote matters more than usual.

County Court

Group 5: Vote for Judge Fred Seraphin (please)

Circumstances alter cases.

Last time around I thought it was a close call, but came down against reelecting Judge Seraphin:

Judge Fred Seraphin (FSU Law) is being challenged by Milena Abreu (Loyola Law School, New Orleans). Judge Seraphim is notable for being the first Haitian-American Judge in Miami-Dade County; he’s also notable for being the judge who wouldn’t let an assistant public defender take a 15 minute break every few hours during a trial to pump breast milk. I find that pretty incredible, although in an interview with the Daily Business Review (now behind a paywall), Judge Seraphin claimed that this was simply a “miscommunication.” Ms. Abreu is a fairly credible opponent, with 15 years experience split between the PD’s office and private practice.

Despite several stories of being inconsiderate about lawyers’ lives or illnesses, Judge Seraphim’s bar poll numbers were good (42% exceptionally qualified, 47% qualified). Ms. Abreau only managed 23% and 54%, which isn’t bad either, but isn’t as good.

Judge Seraphim has a striking personal story, which he features on his web page; being the victim of injustice, he says, has helped him understand justice. It’s a powerful pitch.

A spokesman for the Caribbean Bar Association told the Daily Business Review on Dec 4, 2015 that,

“One of our purposes is to have more Caribbean judges, so it is a concern,” said Devona Reynolds-Perez, president-elect of the Caribbean Bar Association. “It impacts the current diversity on the bench, which is in a sorry state. So we’re sorry to hear that he drew opposition. His appointment to the bench was a historic landmark, so it would be very sad and disappointing to see him lose that seat.

Yet could it be that he deserves to lose? The Herald, unsurprisingly, endorsed the incumbent. I’m not so sure – if a judge who wasn’t an historic first had behaved like that, would we retain him? What does it mean to ‘understand justice’ if you are cruel or unfeeling to advocates in the courtroom?

I can see why a reasonable person would go with experience and a compelling life story, and vote to keep Judge Seraphim – and it is a close call – but I think I’m voting Milena Abreu (line 94) even though it will contribute to the narrative that ‘Hispanic names,’ and especially women with Hispanic names, win judicial elections in Miami-Dade.

This time is different. Let me explain.

Lawyers still complain that Judge Seraphin has a, um, brusque manner on the bench, although his supporters have claimed he’s learned from his mistakes and that the lawyer in the breast milk incident has forgiven him, and the courthouse now has lactation rooms. But that’s not what makes this time so different. The big difference now is the (utter lack of) quality of his opponent.

Quite simply, Renier Diaz de la Portilla has no business seeking to be a judge. Under no circumstances should you vote for him. There are so many reasons why, but I’ll try to restrain myself.

The de la Portillas are one of the big political families in South Florida; Alex Diaz de la Portilla, the candidate’s brother, is a current Miami Commissioner. And this is not Renier Diaz de la Portilla’s first rodeo. He ran for judge in 2014 and lost. (He ran for county commissioner in 2020 and lost. And he ran for state representative twice, winning to replace a seat vacated by his brother Alex, then losing it in 2002.) Along the way RDLP managed a two-year term on the School Board in 1996 and 2006.

When RDLP ran for judge in 2014 (he eventually lost), I had this to say:

I really don’t like either candidate. On one side we have Renier Diaz de la Portiilla, charmingly slimed by his detractors as the Fredo of his very political family. On the other side we have Veronica Diaz, from the Miami City Attorney’s office, who is also the subject of a slime campaign. [….]

[…] Renier Diaz de la Portiilla is a former member of the Miami-Dade School Board, where his tenure is remembered for his proposal that the public schools offer Bible study. He followed that with a plan to drug test students – that one passed. In a sign of the electorate’s good sense, he’s been an unsuccessful candidate for other political offices since then. He’s been late to file various electoral-related papers such as a campaign finance report. A somewhat debatable ethics complaint just got filed against him […]. And his current employment as a lawyer – with well less than a decade’s experience – has been notable for its very low earnings of under $40k/ year, suggesting a certain lack of free-market demand for his services.

[…] The bar poll is a sorry sight: […] RDLP’s scores were 8/29 with 62% (!!!!) saying ‘unqualified’. Yes, even worse than Diaz.

The Herald endorsed RDLP, although it admitted that he “doesn’t necessarily inspire the confidence of having deep and broad experience that voters should have in those they send to the bench.”

In retrospect, that looks too kind, or maybe things are worse now. The Political Cortadito blog has been on the RDLP story, and it’s a doozy:

I’m not going to rehash all that because it’s not pretty, and it’s pretty complicated, nor will I go into RDLP’s history as a public brawler, because there’s a simpler way to demonstrate how just horribly unfit RDLP is for the bench.

We got this mailer the other day.

This makes my blood boil for so many reasons.

First off, this is just clear race-baiting, pandering to prejudice.

Second, Judge Seraphin has never made any secret of the fact he was wrongly arrested as a college student. Indeed, he says this brush with injustice in 1982 is one of the reasons he wanted to become a lawyer and judge.

Third, the fact that a young Black male got arrested for a robbery 40 years ago and then the charges got dropped should tell you something. Like maybe it was clear he didn’t do it?

But never mind all that. Shouldn’t judicial candidates understand the presumption of innocence?

But wait, you might maybe say, how dare I attribute this evil mailer to RDLP? It’s not signed or approved by him, but by “Proven Leadership for Miami Dade County”. Well, the head of that outfit is Nancy Brown, a CPA who also happens to be the head of RDLP’s campaign committee. And don’t hold your breath for RDLP to blame a rogue campaign staffer–this is just how the “Proven Leadership” PAC rolls: they’ve done this sort of thing more than once before.

And RDLP’s brother is all in on the flyer. Here’s what Channel 10 News had to say about it:

MIAMI – A recent political flyer distributed in Miami-Dade County epitomized the meaning of a published “hit piece.” Even more embarrassingly, it included a typo. Instead of “public,” the author wrote “pubic.”

The flyer’s content is peppered with lies. The author falsely accuses Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Fred Seraphin of refusing to “release his arrest record” and of having a “criminal past.”

To support the misleading “criminal past” allegation, the author of the flyer twisted the context of an old news report and likely banked on no one actually looking it up and reading it.

What the journalist actually wrote in that report is that as a college student Seraphin was the victim of racial profiling when he was arrested and falsely accused.

Seraphin was released and prosecutors never charged him with a crime. He was innocent and he has referred to the experience in public as the impetus of his distinguished legal career.

It’s a story that former Gov. Jeb Bush knew well when he appointed Seraphin in 2001 as Miami-Dade County’s first Haitian-American judge. He is running for the County Court Group five nonpartisan race.

Seraphin’s opponent on the ballot is Renier Diaz De La Portilla, who was admitted to the Florida Bar in 2007 and served as a member of the Miami-Dade School Board and a former state representative.

De La Portilla’s well-known Cuban-American brothers are Miguel, a former Florida senator, and Alex, a Miami commissioner who admitted to being behind the information on the flyer.

The Proven Leadership for Miami-Dade, a Political Action Committee based in the south Dadeland area, funded the deceitful propaganda. It’s the sort of behavior the Florida Supreme Court’s Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee frowns upon.

And, oh yes, RDLP is endorsed by Hialiah Mayor Esteban Bovo. Yes, the very Estaban Bovo who not only continues to insist on the ‘big lie’ that Joe Biden is not the President, but also recently tweeted a genuinely disgusting image insulting large swaths of Democrats, Blacks, Trans persons, and others. No way I’m republishing it, but the morbidly curious will find it here.

I apologize if I’ve gone on too long about this, but I think it would be a terrible travesty if RDLP became a judge. I could have said more. It seems, for example, there’s another mailer. But enough.

If you cast just one vote for judge, vote line 99 to re-elect Judge Fred Seraphin.

Group 19: Elect Judge Kolokoff

Group 19 finds two-year veteran Jeffrey Kolokoff facing challenger Lisette De La Rosa. (Another woman with a Hispanic name challenging an appointed Judge…see a pattern?). Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Judge Kolokoff after 14 years of experience in a combination of practice as an Assistant State Attorney and a private law firm.

From what I’ve read, Judge Kolokoff is doing a decent job. While the challenger has experience — 20 years of it — and seems well-intentioned, I don’t see any reason to think she’d do a better job. The Herald endorsed Kolokoff.

Group 42: A Good Choice to Have

This one is hard, but in a good way. Both candidates look good. Judge Scott Janowitz (a UM Law grad) is an energetic judge who has already contributed meaningfully to streamlining court administration. He may not be modest, but he’s energetic, and his appointments to various administrative jobs suggests that his fellow judges have confidence in him.

On the other hand, Alicia Privolos has a lot going for her too. More than any of the challengers on the ballot (other maybe than former Judge Bloch in group 52), Privolos has a background that suggests she could hit the ground running. She’s been a prosecutor for 17 years, and was given top jobs at the State Attorney’s office, most recently as head of the Human Trafficking Unit. She’s tried a lot of cases. And she has some presence that will translate well to the bench.

In a recent judicial forum someone asked Judge Janowitz what we should make of his membership in the Federalist Society. In an answer that gets a point for honesty and loses one for being an apparatchik, Janowitz admitted sheepishly that he’d only joined because that is what it takes to get appointed as a Florida judge these days. Make of it what you will.

The Miami-Dade League of Prosecutors endorsed prosecutor Priovolos over former prosecutor Janowitz. So did the Herald.

I am going to vote for Janowitz on my keep-competent-incumbents principle, but I understand why not everyone will agree, since on some metrics Priovolos is more impressive. Whichever one of these candidates win, we win. Given the general state of the judicial elections this year, that’s a very strange feeling.

Posted in Law: Everything Else, Miami | 15 Comments