Tension filled the Coral Gables Congregational Church Monday night as Coral Gables Mayor Jim Cason debated his election rival, former Commissioner Ralph Cabrera.
Under a dimmed light and before a giant crowd, Cason and Cabrera took questions from city residents during a forum leading up to the April 14 mayoral rematch. Eliott Rodriguez of CBS4 moderated.
Smart comments and snide remarks set the tone during the debate; each candidate directly challenged the other. Crime, streetlights, police and development were the main topics discussed.
At one point, Cason told the audience that crime “was down across the board.”
“I’m enlightened that you’re finally talking about crime,” Cabrera said, disagreeing with Cason.
In the past, he called Cason the “mute mayor” who never attends critical community events.
Cason later compared Cabrera’s “crime campaign” to “Pinocchio’s nose” and called it a “scare tactic.”
Cason and Cabrera aren’t strangers. In 2011 they both served on the commission. Two years later, they battled it out for the mayor’s seat. Cason won.
During the debate, each candidate got two minutes to answer each question. Crime was the topic the candidates hung on to the most, among discussions about hiring more police officers, making Interim Police Chief Ed Hudak permanent, city pensions and quality of life.
The Mediterranean Village project was a hot topic, too, with Cason supporting the vision. If passed by the commission in the coming months, it would be built on the former Old Spanish Village site on Ponce Circle.
The project would include a high-end hotel with 184 rooms; 314,000 square-feet of office space; restaurants, retail establishments, a gym and a multiplex cinema. Plans also include three residential towers with 214 condo units and 15 townhouses.
“If it’s done well, it’s going to bring in people from all over the world into Coral Gables,” Cason said, adding that he wants to attract young people “so that they don’t just come into the city to eat and get married.”
The crowd laughed.
Cabrera said he has concerns the project would affect the neighboring residents’ quality of life.
“I don’t want it to look like Brickell,” he said.
Cabrera followed-up by calling Cason out for accepting thousands of dollars in contributions from companies affiliated to Agave, the developer overseeing the Mediterranean Village project. He called the move a conflict of interest.
Cason defended himself saying he has no problem being impartial.
“I’m a person of integrity,” he said. “All kinds of people donate because they want me to win. They want me to carry out the good works in our city.”
Cabrera: “Sure they like you because this is an opportunity for them to get your support on a project.”
Cason says that Cabrera isn’t perfect, either. Campaign reports show he pays Elaine de Valle, a blogger and former Miami Herald journalist, a monthly consulting fee of $1,500.
The candidates also debated about trees.
Cabrera said his opponent only cares about planting trees, rather than participating in important events in the community.
Cason defended his trees.
“I believe in trees, they are what make Coral Gables the city beautiful,” he said.
Cabrera closed by telling the crowd that it was time for change
Cason encouraged the audience to take hold of the nearly 100 projects under way in the Gables.
On Tuesday morning, the city commission voted to invest $3 million for about 3,000 trees to be planted in the City Beautiful this year.
Coral Gables voters will also select a commissioner in Group IV on April 14. A forum featuring the candidates in that race — incumbent Frank Quesada and Enrique Lopez — will be held at Coral Gables Congregational Church, 3010 DeSoto Blvd, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Monday. Doors open at 6:45 p.m. to allow residents to submit questions. For details, email firstname.lastname@example.org.