Six candidates are hoping to fill the city commission seat of Coral Gables commissioner Bill Kerdyk, who is terming out after 20 years of service to the City Beautiful.
Running for the Group V seat are: Ariel Fernandez, 34, a PR executive; Jackson Rip Holmes, 63, property manager; P.J. Mitchell, 41, attorney; Sandra Murado, 45, immigration attorney; Tony Newell, 32, a general contractor; and Jeannett Slesnick, 67, real estate agent.
Kerdyk’s absence on the dais come Tuesday will end a seven-decade tradition of having a Kerdyk on the commission. Kerdyk’s uncle, Frank E. Kerdyk, served as commissioner from 1957 until 1961. Kerdyk’s father, William Kerdyk Sr., served as commissioner from 1967 to 1995. Kerdyk, has been serving Coral Gables since 1995.
Three seats are being contested in Tuesday’s election: Two commission seats (Group V and VI) and the mayoral spot, with 10 candidates vying for the three seats.
Many of the Group V candidates hold similar views, including:
▪ Officers need to patrol the streets more, and the police department needs to make speedy hires to fill open officer positions.
▪ Pensions need to be tweaked, although the candidates haven’t suggested a solution.
▪ The quality of life in Coral Gables needs to be preserved.
▪ Interim Police Chief Ed Hudak should be made permanent.
Some other hot topics that have surfaced during the election cycle have included: the Mediterranean Village project, crime, Controlled Choice (a School Board policy that lets parents rank their preferences for schools, although parents don’t learn of the school until right before the school year begins), the $18 million redo of Miracle Mile and Giralda known as Streetscape, the trolley garage and garbage fees.
The Mediterranean Village project, developed by Agave Ponce LLC, is a $500-million project that would rise on the former Old Spanish Village site on Ponce Circle, just a few blocks south of Miracle Mile. It would encompass almost seven acres and would include a high-end hotel with 184 rooms, about 300,000 square feet of office space, restaurants, stores and a gym. The project would also include residential towers with 214 condo units and 15 townhouses. The commission recently passed it on first reading.
Many of the candidates are split on whether this would be a good move for the city. Some said it would bring Coral Gables up to par with other cities, while others worried it would take attention away from Miracle Mile and cause congestion in a residential area.
Ariel Fernandez was the first candidate to begin campaigning for the April 2015 elections. Fernandez is the president of the American Strategies Group in Coral Gables, a PR firm.
So far, Fernandez has been vocal about eliminating garbage fees.
“Every year, our garbage fee rises, placing a huge burden on so many young families and seniors in our community,” he said. “This fee is not tax deductible and an unnecessary double taxation of residents. I will work with our city manager and budget director to eliminate the garbage fee for residences in the City of Coral Gables, without raising our property taxes.”
Fernandez has explained that he is in favor of making Coral Gables more “pedestrian and bicycle friendly.”
“Walking and riding bicycles are among the common activities many of us enjoy,” he said. “We need to ensure that our city is more pedestrian and bicycle friendly.’’
He added that he will strive to preserve the city’s history and reduce crime.
Fernandez has been called out by other candidates for working for U.S. Rep David Rivera from 2011 to 2013. He was Rivera’s district director.
Rivera, a Miami Republican who was elected to Congress in 2010 but lost in 2012, is under federal criminal investigation as the suspected mastermind of a federal campaign-finance scheme. He has twice been identified by a federal prosecutor in open court as a “co-conspirator’’ in the case, but has not been indicted.
“The truth is that I do not have any ties that would affect my ability to do my job as commissioner of the City of Coral Gables,” he said.
JACKSON RIP HOLMES
Holmes, 61, believes the "soul of Coral Gables" is at stake in the current election, and why, once again, the community activist and real estate broker has run for a commission seat.
He believes a stronger downtown, with tax revenue from an anchor mall store, could shore up the pension problem.
“I've been trying to get this city to have a department store on Miracle Mile. Had we done that, we wouldn't have these unfunded liabilities,” he said. “We need to have a retail anchor so when you make a shopping decision, instead of going to Dadeland, you go to Miracle Mile.''
The city, however, has two major department stores anchors at The Village of Merrick Park: Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom.
In 1988, Holmes was convicted of threatening Jeb Bush, who was under the protection of the U.S. Secret Service at the time his father, George H.W. Bush, was vice president. Holmes served three years in federal prison and was released in 1991. Today he says the issue was a family misunderstanding and that he is an ardent supporter of Bush.
Twenty years later, in 2008, Holmes was arrested in Coral Gables on a domestic battery charge related to his ex-wife but the case was dismissed.
Some issues Holmes has been vocal about include: lowering property taxes and prioritizing the city budget.
“So far as I have been able to determine, voters budget priorities are: police, fire and oddly enough, trash pickup,” he said.
Newell, the youngest of the candidates, also isn’t new to city hall. Newell ran in 2013 but lost to commissioner Patricia Keon.
Newell, who ran track and field at Miami Southridge High, is vice president for operations at his family’s business, Hammer Construction Corp., which focuses on insurance restoration, both small and large.
Newell eyed the Olympic trials for the Beijing Games in 2008 and though he didn't make the cut, the lessons learned from training as an athlete helped him through his first campaign for public office.
He believes that development should be controlled, the commission should work to reduce crime and that the city should protect its quality of life.
He also wants to reduce traffic by implementing a traffic improvement plan that would decrease the cars that use city streets as alternatives to county roads.
He also believes that “cracking down on texting and driving will ease traffic and make our roadways safer.”
Newell has been at the forefront of supporting the Mediterranean Village Project, albeit on a smaller scale.
“Developments that cause additional traffic issues, impede on our green space, or otherwise threaten our quality of life must be opposed.”
Murado, an immigration attorney with her own firm in the Gables, represents clients before the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Department of Labor, and U.S. embassies and consulates abroad.
Murado said she wants to help reform the city’s pension plan, build up city reserves, and lower taxes, user and permit fees. She also wants to preserve the Gables’ charm.
“Quality of life is a hallmark for living in Coral Gables,” Murado said. “This includes neighborhood improvements like repaired sidewalks and increased lighting; parks that provide the activities and respites that all our citizens are seeking; and diligent preservation of our historical landmarks.
She added that she would “recommend a thorough review of the parking meter fees and hours for evenings and Sundays.”
Murado said she wants to see the creation of a burglary task force.
“The top priority for police is to reduce crime in Coral Gables,” she said.
Slesnick, the former first lady of Coral Gables, is a longtime real estate agent in the Gables. She is married to Don Slesnick II, who was mayor before losing to current mayor Jim Cason in 2011.
Slesnick has been avidly against the Mediterranean Village project, saying she will only support development that is “proven to be good for the vibrant future of our downtown business and cultural district while serving as an important foundation for the City’s tax base.”
“But let me be clear, developers should not control our future for purposes of profit; they must operate within our carefully constructed zoning codes and existing master plan which will help protect us from over-development and traffic gridlock,” she said. “I will not support projects that seek to exceed our height and density limits, or fail to provide adequate parking spaces.”
Slesnick was referring to the Mediterranean Village project, the city’s largest plan ever on the drawing board. Initially, the developer had proposed a project that exceeded the city’s height and size restrictions. When commissioners balked, the developer changed the project to comply with the city’s zoning.
Slesnick said she supports Hudak’s efforts to put more police patrols in the neighborhoods, adding that she wants to see the police department “increase traffic enforcement on our residential streets now abused by pass-through traffic,” she said.
She promises voters to answer all “letters, phone calls and e-mails.”
“I will never forget that to be an elected official means to be a public servant,” she said. “I will reach out to neighborhood groups and seek the opinions of my fellow citizens on matters coming before the Commission.”
Mitchell, an attorney in the Gables, has stated that his main goals, if he were elected, would be : to lower taxes, transform the city’s pensions, encourage transparency in government and fight for neighborhood schools.
“I’m not a politician, I’m gonna vote my conscience,” he said. “I’m going to do the best job that I can, I believe that at the end of the day, I’m the right person for this job.”
At past debates, Mitchell has stood against the Mediterranean Village project. However, due to its transformation at first reading, he would support it come second reading.
Initially, the developers had proposed building a 218-foot hotel tower that would have exceeded the city’s habitable height limitation of 190 feet. But the commissioners balked and the developer modified the project to meet the 190-foot restriction.
“The commission is on the right track,” he said.
Mitchell has also been vocal about Controlled Choice, a hot topic in the Gables over the past few months.
The policyallows parents to choose their children’s schools by ranking their preferences. There are no guarantees — they might actually get their third choice. But, the district doesn’t let parents know which school their child will attend until right before the school year starts, which upsets many parents.
The city has been fighting the school board to remove the program. Mitchell’s stance is that the program destroys the sense of community.
ABOUT THE CANDIDATES
Occupation: PR executive
Education: Bachelor’s in political science, Florida International University
Years lived in Coral Gables: Five
Public Service: Communications director of the Spanish American League Against Discrimination; vice chairman of the board of RAMZ Academy; board of Life Alliance Organ Recovery Agency (LAORA).
JACKSON RIP HOLMES
Occupation: Property manager and commercial real estate agent
Education: Law degree from the University of Florida
Years lived in Coral Gables: About 32 years
Public Service: None.
Occupation: Litigation attorney
Education: Juris Doctor, Florida Coastal School of Law
Years lived in Coral Gables: 15
Public Service: Coral Gables Economic Development Board; Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce Business and Government Affairs committee; pro bono court attorney Ad Litem for children in need
Occupation: Immigration attorney
Education: Law degree, Florida State University College of Law
Years lived in Coral Gables: 12
Public Service: Coral Gables Parks and Recreation Board (2011 to 2013)
Occupation: General contractor
Education: Bachelor’s in political science, University of Florida
Years lived in Coral Gables: seven
Public Service: Coral Gables Historic Preservation Board
Occupation: real estate agent
Education: Bachelor’s in geography and cartography, University of Florida
Years lived in Coral Gables: 43
Public Service: Former member of the Coral Gables Historic Preservation Board; former member of the Economic Development Board; former chair of the Coral Gables Cultural Affairs Board; Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce board (1984-87); chairman of the Coral Gables Community Foundation (2008-2009).