Dozens of residents and supporters filed into the Coral Gables Congregational Church Thursday night to hear from a familiar field of candidates for mayor and the City Commission Group 3 seat in the April 11 election.
As with previous forums and debates, there were occasionally testy exchanges and plenty of lines that drew loud applause and groans from the crowd. The audience was at capacity and most engaged during the debate between the mayoral candidates, Commissioner Jeannett Slesnick and former mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli.
As the candidates discussed the city’s finances, Slesnick was asked about the decisions made during her husband Don’s time as mayor when, by the end of his 10-year stint in office, the city faced a shortfall in the pension fund of more than $200 million.
Slesnick suggested that perhaps her husband should be on the stage.
“Why don’t you call him up here and have him debate, Raul?” Slesnick said to loud applause.
She blamed the shortfall on the recession of the late 2000s and placed some of the blame on the commission during Valdés-Fauli’s tenure for investing in dot-com stocks.
“Now the economy is good and now we have money flowing in because the assessment on our houses has gone up. The city made great strides in negotiating with police and fire and the general employees to have new systems and to cut back on the amount of pensionable plans that they can be charged for,” Slesnick said.
Valdés-Fauli countered and gave credit to outgoing Mayor Jim Cason, who was elected after Don Slesnick and has endorsed Valdés-Fauli, for addressing the pension issues. He said that the city did not plan well and was too generous with employee contracts even before the recession started.
“I’ll remind you that eight years of those years, 2001 to 2007 or 2008, they were boom times. The toppling of the economy, which happened in [2008, 2009 and 2010] is not an excuse for that irresponsibility,” Valdés-Fauli said.
Valdés-Fauli also criticized Slesnick for saying that she’s sought advice from her husband given the city’s past financial issues.
A mailer sent by Leadership for Florida’s Future, a Jensen Beach political action committee, also made a similar link between Slesnick’s comments and the pension issue.
Slesnick said that she takes pride in seeking her husband’s advice, pointing to his decade on the dais and 12 years as a planning board member.
“That’s 22 years of experience that is already sourced for me to ask what happened when,” Slesnick said, adding that she also seeks the advice of the city attorney and local historians like Arva Moore Parks.
Political mailers from the same PAC also came up during discussion of the Paseo de la Riviera project, the mixed-use project planned for the Holiday Inn site on U.S. 1. The mailer repeats a claim brought up by Valdés-Fauli 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 resolution that created a mixed-use district.
Slesnick cast the only dissenting 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.
An audience question also touched on Valdés-Fauli’s exit from office more than 15 years ago. Residents voiced concerns about over-development near City Hall when he and two other commissioners were voted out of office in 2001.
An activist group called the Coral Gables Citizens Political Committee opposed both the commission’s $16 million plan to build a 60,000-square-foot annex for City Hall and to make Biltmore Way a pedestrian-only street in an effort to create a “Plaza Mayor.”
Valdés-Fauli said he stands by that plan and argues that all of the city’s departments are now not located next to each other because the annex wasn’t built.
“In order to get a permit in Coral Gables you have to go to four different buildings,” Valdés-Fauli said, although he said that he would not pursue the plan again if he’s elected.
The two also discussed affordable housing. Slesnick said that while she understands young professionals wanting to live and work in the city, she considers it a “privilege” to live in Coral Gables. The best places for cheaper housing are the North Gables and North Ponce areas, she said.
“We’re encouraging development to go up there for affordable housing and we’re also talking about having live-work areas,” Slesnick said.
Valdes-Fauli said he supports affordable housing and thinks that the city should encourage the development of more small apartment units. He said that young lawyers working at firms in the city shouldn’t have to live in Kendall or Homestead.
Earlier in the evening, Commissioner Patricia Keon and former commissioner Wayne “Chip” Withers also debated, touching on the Paseo project, the meaning of “smart development” and how recent large developments were approved.
Keon said that smart development is marked by energy efficiency and may consider factors like transit centers and the environment. Withers didn’t define ideal smart development and instead argued that the city should strictly follow the zoning code. He said that projects like Paseo and Gables Station, which he opposes, were granted variances that went beyond the previous zoning regulations for those sites.
“These buildings were built above the code and the commission, not the whole commission, but the commission voted for these changes,” Withers said.
Keon argued that those projects were not variances but were either planned-area developments or mixed-use projects and worked within the zoning code.
“I think it is difficult to convey these issues to the public because you don’t work with the zoning code, you don’t know the different elements in the zoning code,” Keon said, receiving some groans from audience members.
The two were also asked about what issue they would address first if elected. Keon said she would focus on early planning for next year’s budget. Withers said he would propose changing the processes for development projects at the board of adjustment and planning board levels.
“I also feel that since development is pushing into residential neighborhoods, maybe some of the larger developments that impact our neighborhoods should require a 4-1 vote,” Withers said.
Election day in the Gables is April 11. If any runoff elections are needed, they will be held April 25.