Candidates for Coral Gables commission discuss, and occasionally debate, key issues

Although it was advertised as a debate among the four candidates for the Group 5 seat on the Coral Gables commission, the Coral Gables Forum’s event was more conversational than confrontational and touched on familiar topics.

The candidates — Marlin Ebbert, a retired teacher; Randy Hoff, a retired police officer; Michael Mena, and attorney; and Serafin Sousa, a civil engineer — are running to fill the remaining time in Commissioner Jeannett Slesnick’s term as she runs for mayor. The candidates had another opportunity to state their platforms and respond to questions about controlling and planning future development, reducing traffic and prioritizing public safety Tuesday at the Coral Gables Congregational Church.

CBS 4 news anchor Eliot Rodriguez moderated the discussion and asked questions about much-debated issues including the Paseo de la Riviera project and construction on Miracle Mile. Ebbert and Sousa said that those projects, respectively, were reasons they chose to run. The candidates all essentially agreed that since the decisions have already been made, the next commission should try to learn from the public’s reaction to the Paseo project.

“The residents were up in arms. We had multiple meetings with the commission, and it just fell on deaf ears,” Ebbert said.

Hoff said that the Miracle Mile streetscape contract should have had a set deadline and stronger penalties for the contractor if those deadlines weren’t met. Sousa questioned the building strategy.

“It should have been block by block. You don’t start the next block until you finish the one preceding it. That way you don’t have all the merchants going through one year, or a year and a half, of suffering,” Sousa said.

The candidates also touched on filling vacancies in the police and fire departments. Police union members and some residents have expressed concerns about the lack of officers they see not just in residential areas but also working on assignments like traffic enforcement.

Hoff, the former vice president of the police union, said he believes there are 24 vacancies in the department (the city puts that number closer to 17) and thinks the problem was caused by inconsistent hiring practices.

“We need to address the overall quality of life and the safety that our residents feel,” Hoff said.

Mena had a more personal take on public safety as his wife’s purse was stolen a few weeks ago as she parked her car. He said that no matter what past mistakes led to the vacancies or fewer officers patrolling the streets, the city has to make safety a priority.

“We need to stop accepting the same explanations and excuses for this problem. We need to stop accepting that the [crime] stats are down and things are improved,” Mena said.

The candidates also discussed some recent decisions by the City Commission including initial approval of a plastic bag ban and a reduction in speed limits in residential areas from 30 to 25 mph.

The candidates seemed to think the goal of reducing the amount of bags in the environment was a good idea but they had varied opinions on whether a ban was the best strategy. Sousa and Hoff argued that bags are not necessarily the issue but that residents need to recycle the bags and dispose of them properly.

“Plastic bags are not a problem if people will use them properly,” Sousa said. “The problem is the way we use it and what we do with it after we use it.”

Hoff also said he thinks that businesses will struggle to adjust and could end up leaving because of the regulation. Mena said he doesn’t think the impact will be that severe and that merchants and business owners will find ways to adjust. He and Ebbert agreed that the potential environmental benefits were more important.

“We all have to share in the issues facing our environment,” Mena said. “I think people will adjust to it as they do to anything else.”

On the speed limit decision, the candidates agreed that increased enforcement has to go along with the reduction of the speed limits or it will be ineffective.

Mena and Sousa said the city needs actual impediments like more speed bumps or traffic circles to slow traffic. Mena added that the city should consider partnerships with apps like Waze, which gives real-time traffic information and provides alternate routes, to help prevent drivers from being rerouted through residential streets.

Hoff and Ebbert said it ties back into the issue of police staffing.

“If you don’t have the people to enforce it you could make the speed limit 15 mph and it’s not going to have any impact,” Hoff said.

The Coral Gables Forum is also hosting debates for Group 3 candidates Commissioner Patricia Keon and former commissioner Wayne “Chip” Withers and the mayoral candidates Slesnick and former mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli at 7:30 p.m. March 30 at the church, 3010 De Soto Blvd.

Election day is April 11 and runoff elections, if needed, will take place April 25.