An occasionally lively crowd cheered, jeered and heard the platforms of the eight candidates for Coral Gables commission at a candidate forum Tuesday night.
The city’s April 11 election is for mayor and two commission seats, and the field had a chance to share thoughts on development, how to address traffic, improving city services and public safety.
Topics like the city’s handling of the Miracle Mile/Giralda Avenue streetscape project, the Paseo de la Riviera development, vacancies in the police department and handling current and future development were all addressed.
The forum was moderated by Tom Hudson, WLRN’s vice president of news, at the Watsco Center Fieldhouse and hosted by the city’s chamber of commerce.
And while things were mostly civil with a few rounds of applause or occasional groans from detractors of various candidates, at least one attendee was asked to leave, after a warning from the hosts, after she spoke out from the crowd during the mayoral forum.
The attendee’s comments came after discussion of the Paseo de la Riviera project and a general discussion of development in the city. Commissioner Jeannett Slesnick said that she felt too many changes to the zoning code were being allowed for large developments and said she was “sick” over the approval of the Paseo project.
“The amount of development that is coming along US-1 is astronomical,” said Slesnick, who is running for mayor. “We gave up our zoning code, we turned our city over to developers on the Paseo project.”
Her opponent, former mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli, countered that Slesnick voted in favor of the project.
The Paseo project required four separate votes and two items passed unanimously: the planned area development ordinance, which included specific regulations and restrictions for the project, and a mixed-use site plan resolution, which created a mixed-use district. Slesnick was the only no vote against the land-use map change, from low-rise intensity to mixed-use development, and a zoning amendment removing site-specific regulations only for the Paseo project.
Valdés-Fauli said the city should not be anti-development but development has to reasonably fit within the city’s zoning code.
“I would advocate changes in order to preserve the stability of our residential neighborhoods, preserve the sanctity of our residential neighborhoods and yet encourage development in our commercial zones — in our downtown zones — within the strictures we want to impose in Coral Gables,” Valdés-Fauli said.
The mayoral candidates also differed on the quality and speed of service in the city’s building department. While they both admitted that it could be easier for residents to get minor work done, Slesnick argued that staff has made some improvements. She pointed to the city’s mobile permitting process, where a staff member drives to a resident’s home to help them complete a permit, as a recent example.
Valdés-Fauli described the department as broken and the permitting process as horrible and said the department needs a streamlined process.
“If elected, I will do something to change that even if it takes changing the city manager in order to make the city more responsive to the residents,” Valdés-Fauli said.
The two did agree on several issues including pushing ahead with work on the Miracle Mile project, which is behind schedule. Both said the contract should have included penalties for late work by the contractor.
In the Group 3 forum, between incumbent Commissioner Patricia Keon and former Commissioner Wayne “Chip” Withers, the topics were similar and the candidates differed on how they think the City Commission should approach changes to the zoning code.
Keon described the code as a “living document” and said that as times change the city should adjust to things like transit-oriented development, particularly on corridors like US-1, to get cars off the roads.
“Life is changing, we’re beginning to look at what is good for our environment, how do cars affect our environment, how does how we build affect our environment,” Keon said.
Withers said he would focus on the process for zoning and land-use changes and encourage more public input.
“Maybe extend the time between a first and second reading on an ordinance from 30 to 60 days,” Withers said. “Maybe you make the development review process more open.”
The development discussion also touched on how city leaders can balance a developer’s rights to make money on big projects versus the the community’s interest in limiting the size or density of projects.
Withers said he doesn’t accept the argument from developers that they can’t make money if they have to reduce the height or density of a building.
“They buy the property and they come to the commission and say, ‘Gosh I can’t make money on this property.’ I think there’s something very wrong with that,” Withers said. “Did you buy it anticipating that you could figure out a way to wiggle your way into getting more that what you think you can get?”
Keon said that developers do have a right to make money. Even with concessions or reductions, he said, it’s difficult to reach a consensus on most projects.
“Every project that is going to come before [the commission] is not going to be to the liking of every resident in the city but that’s why we are a representative democracy,” Keon said.
The forum began with the most crowded contest, the race for the Group 5 seat. Former police union vice president Randy Hoff, retired teacher Marlin Ebbert, attorney Michael Mena and engineer Serafin Sousa are all competing to complete the two years left in the term that Slesnick vacated to run for mayor.
The group focused on traffic improvements and public safety. Candidates said they also want to see more involvement from residents.
Hoff noted that the city has 24 vacancies for sworn, full-time police officers and said his goal would be to improve recruitment and make a significant dent in that number. Mena also stressed that if the problem lingers and more officers retire, it will exacerbate the problem.
Sousa and Ebbert agreed that the streets could use better lighting and that residents have to be more proactive.
“We need to update and modernize our neighborhood crime watch program,” Ebbert said. “We also have to be smart, guys. We have to lock our cars, we have to keep our garage doors down.”
On reducing traffic, the candidates agreed that the city has to step up traffic enforcement . Ebbert said residents need education on maneuvering the city’s traffic circles, Hoff said the city should fight for more control of smaller residential streets and traffic engineering, while Mena said Coral Gables should pursue new technology through Google or Waze and partner with neighboring municipalities.
“We need to use technology to combat some of the impact that technology’s having on our residential traffic,” Mena said.
Residents have until Monday to register for the election. If a runoff election is needed, it will take place April 25.