Candidates assemble at Coral Gables public forum

The 2015 candidates came together for a public forum at the University of Miami’s Fieldhouse Tuesday. // Photo via Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce Facebook page.
The 2015 candidates came together for a public forum at the University of Miami’s Fieldhouse Tuesday. // Photo via Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce Facebook page.

In two weeks, Coral Gables residents will go to the polls to vote for a new mayor and two new commissioners.

On Tuesday night, the candidates came together for the last time to vie for votes at a public forum hosted by the Coral Gables Chamber of Commerce at the University of Miami’s Fieldhouse.

Rudy Fernandez, chief of staff to UM President Donna E. Shalala and vice president for government and community relations at UM, opened the forum by explaining the university’s desire to have an educated electorate at the university and in the community through such forums.

Moderator Juan Mendieta of Miami-Dade College raised issues that were shared through questions that were emailed in or submitted via index cards. Public safety, commercial development, government pensions and traffic were focused on. 

Group V commission candidates Ariel Fernandez, Jackson “Rip” Holmes, Philip “P.J.” Mitchell, Sandra Murado, Norman Anthony Newell and Jeannette Slesnick all took questions together in the first portion of the forum. They are vying for the seat left empty when Bill Kyrdek reached his term limit.

Incumbent commissioner Frank Quesada fielded questions with his challenger for Group IV, Enrique Lopez. Mayor Jim Cason and his challenger, former commissioner Ralph Cabrera, took the stage last.

All of the candidates mentioned a desire to increase staffing for the police and fire departments due to fears surrounding home and car burglaries. However, Mayor Cason told the crowd that crime rates have been dropping and the city is as safe as any in the country.

The proposed Mediterranean Village Project at Ponce Circle was brought up in all three parts of the forum, as all of the candidates spoke about their desire to keep Coral Gables as a suburban area without high rises. The proposed $500 million project would be a mixed-use development much like Merrick Park, and would be around 7 acres in space.

The development debate was tied into concerns about traffic, as all the candidates agreed that biking safety must be improved and that speeding should be discouraged. Both mayoral candidates laid out their support for the Underline project as part of the solution for traffic and biking safety.

The current pension system for government employees, one of the oldest in Florida, was also debated, as many residents blame it for the city’s debt problems. The pension system is seen as a large contributor towards the city’s current debt.

UM was brought up in both commissioner forums, but not the mayoral. UM, being a part of Coral Gables for most of the city’s existence, was praised by all of the candidates.

“God bless you, Donna Shalala,” Holmes said. “We must we do everything we can to keep UM spectacular.”

Murado also praised Shalala and the university, while Newell acknowledged that he still “bleeds orange and blue” for the University of Florida but thinks UM is a great think tank for the city to lean on.

Slesnick said she was proud to have the university in her community. Quesada called UM a “gem for Coral Gables,” and Lopez said it’s a cornerstone of the city.