Not business as usual with new council members

With two new council members sitting on the dais in Pinecrest, the politics and relationships on the council in the affluent, sleepy southern Miami-Dade suburb are getting tense.

Deeply fiscally conservative Bob Ross has been a reliable nay vote on the council. But up until last December, when council members Cheri Ball and Doug Kraft took over for Jeff Cutler and Joseph Corradino, he was usually in the minority, with the balance of power usually tipped in Mayor Cindy Lerner’s direction.

Now, with Kraft nearly always and Ball sometimes voting in his direction, the winds have shifted — and a slew of village projects in progress for months, if not years, are now up for debate. At a village council meeting in January, the council scrapped longstanding plans to hire consultants for a transportation study, and came within one vote — Ball’s — of not authorizing the $6 million bond it has already raised taxes to fund.

That trend continued Tuesday, when Kraft and Ross pulled an item approving two traffic circles out of the consent agenda for discussion during the council’s February meeting.

The item was ultimately deferred, on Lerner’s suggestion, so that the planner who had suggested the traffic circles could brief the new council.

But before deferring, the council spent nearly an hour on the item, with Kraft, Ross and Ball wondering whether or not traffic circles were appropriate for the area and whether to go ahead with both at once.

Council member James McDonald, visibly frustrated, insisted on approving the circles and moving on.

“None of us here are experts. But we did rely on experts to say what would be the best for this street depending on traffic. It wasn’t like the traffic engineer just said, ‘Circle!’ and that’s it. We talked about this,” he said, noting the series of meetings — with public input — that had been held on the matter, along with a $40,000 study.

“To just throw money away just because you weren’t here when the transportation committee dealt with it and the council, I think that’s wasting our resources,” he said, turning to Kraft.

Likely anticipating another fight, Lerner introduced the next item — a second and final vote on the $6 million bond that will fund expansions to the community center and renovations to Coral Pine Park — by describing the months of public deliberations on the project.

“This is now the final link in that chain,” Lerner said.

Ross reiterated that he was fine with the project but wanted to wait until the village had retired some of its other debts, and said renovating Cypress Hall at Pinecrest Gardens should be a higher priority.

McDonald this time struck a conciliatory tone. “Bob, ... you’ve been a leader on this council. And you’ve always been fiscally sound. I agree with you on a lot of stuff. And I think that you need to continue showing leadership here,” he said. “When we get into our budget sessions this year, Cypress Hall, absolutely. But we need to close out last year and move forward.”

Kraft insisted he couldn’t vote for the project, saying voters had told him not to when he was running for council.

“Nobody when I walked around this community was opposed to fixing up that community center; 85 percent are adamantly opposed to putting in $5 million,” he said, adding that “80 percent” had told him they wanted to see the village put large-scale projects up for a referendum.

Kraft won his seat by about 10 percentage points over his opponent, Jeffrey Solomon, and the community center was an election issue — but the move by the village to expand the center and raise taxes itself saw no significant, direct opposition.

“Doug, with all due respect, I walked, too, and we’re all elected by everybody, and the fact that you walked and talked to people doesn’t somehow elevate you as the oracle of the village of Pinecrest,” McDonald countered.

The matter ultimately passed, with Ross and Kraft in the minority.

In other action, the council:

▪ Honored Nat DeLeon, who died last month. DeLeon was the lead horticulturalist at Parrot Jungle (now Pinecrest Gardens) for 35 years.

▪ Heard a presentation on proposed Safe Routes to school improvements.

▪ Changed the date of the 2016 runoff election, if needed, from Nov. 15 to Nov. 22 to accommodate the Miami-Dade Elections Department.

▪ Changed its meeting dates in May and July to May 5 and July 7.

▪ Instructed staff to inquire with Coral Gables about its level of interest in a joint fire department.