When residents of nearby South Miami vote for a new mayor this week, there is a 60 percent chance that the winner will be a Hurricane.
Of the five candidates seeking the city’s top elected office, two are former University of Miami students and one is a retired UM administrator.
Mark Lago, 37, received his undergraduate degree in sociology from the U in 2007, and Lina Sierra, 50, graduated in 1991 with a degree in psychology and public relations. Sally B. Philips, 76, retired in 2007 as director of the university’s Employee Assistance Program, a position she held for 10 years.
The three candidates avow that UM was an important time in their lives that contributed to their pursuit of public office. Furthermore, both Lago and Sierra, whose mothers were UM employees at the time they attended, benefited from tuition remission programs.
Lago’s mother, Alma Lago, held a position in the Student Accounts office while he pursued an undergraduate degree in sociology and a minor in business administration. Lago was a brother of Sigma Alpha Mu at UM. He later became involved in appraising commercial real estate.
Lago, who also received an MBA from Nova Southeastern University, said his mother’s job at the university gave him a chance to have the education he might not otherwise would have had.
Sierra’s mother, Lina Navarro, was the director of the Latin American training programs at UM’s medical school. Sierra also worked part time at the medical school while attending UM.
Sierra said her years at UM helped her to express herself better with a stronger ability to do public speaking. It also was a time, she said, when the football program was ruling the nation.
“Not to rain on your parade, but we won three championships,” Sierra said in an interview in late January with Miami Hurricane reporters.
After graduating from UM in 1991, Sierra received a master’s in education from FIU in 1995. She then was employed by Miami-Dade County Public Schools for about 14 years and then moved on to work for numerous companies in the private sector.
Philips, who earned a bachelor’s as an English major at Cornell University, received her undergraduate degree in 1967 and earned a doctorate in counseling psychology and counselor education from Boston University in 1982.
At UM, she also taught courses as an adjunct faculty and had roles in several university behavioral health programs.
Philips moved to Miami in 1982 while working for Met Life insurance. At UM, Philips ran the Employee Assistance Program. She said she made a difference for employees at the U.
“When I came in, the program was kind of a sleepy program and not very well utilized, and since then, it has become very well utilized and very important to the employees here,” Philips said.
While the South Miami election pits three Canes against each other, it is also in some ways a rivalry among three South Florida academic institutions, involving two other mayoral candidates.
Bruce B. Baldwin, an active community member, graduated from University of Florida School of Law, and Horace G. Feliu, who previously served as the mayor of South Miami for four years, received his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and biological sciences at Florida International University.
Many of South Florida’s mayors received their education at Florida schools, particularly Florida International University, Florida State and the University of Florida. Several also matriculated from the area’s community colleges.
Alma maters aside, South Miami’s mayoral candidates say they bring various levels of experience and ideas to their goal of becoming the city’s next leader. Their issues range from improving downtown’s commercial district, tackling parking, traffic and crime to figuring out how the city’s population can grow responsibly.
“I know how the government of South Miami works,” said Philips.
“I do not think that any one of the other candidates has served the length of time nor gained the depth of experience in the governance of the City of South Miami as I have.”
Philips, who has had various roles in South Miami’s government over the past eight years, said the downtown area needs to be more walkable to improve foot traffic.
“Our downtown is failing. There’s a lot of openings and quick closures,” said Philips. “To get people to walk, we need to build apartments and residences downtown. But I want to keep residential and single-family homes at a low height.”
Philips experience in local government of South Miami includes working with the Budget & Finance Committee and chair of the Planning and Zoning Board. She lost a commissioner race against incumbent Josh Liebman in 2018.
Lago is a certified general real estate appraiser currently working at BBG, a nationwide real estate valuation firm. He is a special magistrate for Miami-Dade County’s value adjustment board, and he served on the South Miami Planning Board in 2018 when he lost a commissioner race by 25 votes against incumbent Walter Harris. National politics attracted him to running on the local level, he said.
“What’s going on today at the federal level is really what got me involved in just wanting to do something,” said Lago.
Lago said he hopes to create a business improvement district in South Miami to draw in customers. Lago said he felt his background in real estate appraisal, business administration and finance would be very helpful in solving such issues.
Parking problems have also contributed to the decline of Sunset Place, located in the heart of the city, he said.
“One of the store owners from downtown suggested to me that the city should get rid of parking fees. But how do we make up the $1.2 million it generates?” Lago said. “Those are the kind of problems we have to resolve.”
He said 63 percent of South Miami revenue depends on its downtown. “It was a huge draw,” Lago said.
Sierra, chief operating officer at Academica Virtual Education and a lifelong educator, got her master’s in education from FIU in 1995.
“Why am I running?” said Sierra “I love my city; it’s a small town, and I want to give back to my city.”
Sierra has been working with Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Honey Shine and a project in the Dominican Republic where English learning labs were set up for impoverished children.
She said that with her experience with helping others, she wants to bring it back to where she lives.
She cites the closure of several stores as a reason to bring more office buildings to the downtown area.
“Not skyscrapers but something that works for our city,” Sierra said. “The office people will go to lunch in the area, and it will help our vendors.”
The South Miami mayor position is a two-year term, with a $14,000 yearly salary and a limit of five reelection cycles, up to ten years. It’s a non-partisan race.
Voting will be from 7 a.m.- 7 p.m. on Feb. 11 at South Miami’s City Hall, located at 6130 Sunset Dr. The candidate with the most votes wins the election. In case of a tie, a runoff election is scheduled for Feb. 25.
Katherine Begg, Emmalyse Brownstein, Alison Ferris, Haley Lanzoni, Massiel Leyva, Sebastian Morales, Ciana Quintero, Jacob Stotzky and Treasure Wilson contributed to this report
Canes in office: Current South Florida mayors who attended the U
If either of the two University of Miami alumni, Mark Lago and Lina Sierra, are successful in their bid to become the next mayor of South Miami, they would join eight other Canes who currently are running South Florida cities.
Half of them graduated from UM’s law school. Six UM alumni are running Miami Dade County cities; one in Broward and one in Palm Beach.
If Sally B. Philips wins the South Miami mayoral election, she will join the Rev. Anna Price as a former UM administrator at the helm of the city’s leadership. Price, elected the city’s first African American mayor in 1997, was an assistant provost and director of the Student Support Services Program in the late ‘90s. She also received a master’s degree in liberal studies and a Ph.D. in higher education administration from the U.
The Miami Hurricane checked a total of 114 local municipalities in four South Florida counties – Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach and Monroe – and found the following Canes in local office.
Mayor Juan Carlos Bermudez, Bachelor of Arts, public affairs, 1984
Mayor Otis T. Wallace, UM School of Law, 1977
Mayor Yioset De La Cruz, UM School of Law, 2004
Mayor Bernard Klepach, attended UM as a business administration major
Mayor Oliver G. Gilbert III, UM School of Law, 2001
Mayor Daniel Dietch, Master’s in management, Herbert Business School, 2002
Mayor Scott Brook, UM School of Law, 1992
PALM BEACH COUNTY
Lake Clarke Shores:
Mayor Valentin Rodriguez Jr., UM School of Law, 1994