Gables mayoral debate gets testy over traffic, development and animosity of candidates

A candidate forum between longtime political rivals vying for Coral Gables’ mayoral seat turned testy on Thursday as Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli was accused of not listening to his constituents, and he compared his female opponent to a nagging wife.

Amid thoughtful discussions about high-density development, irksome traffic issues and the proposed annexation of lands abutting the Gables, a bitter back and forth took place between the mayor and Jeannett Slesnick, a former commissioner whose husband, Don, defeated Valdes-Fauli in the 2001 mayoral race.

The two disagreed about the causes of traffic, high-density development’s role in it, and even who voted and when to lower the speed limit in the Gables from 30 to 25 mph. When Slesnick, who lost in a tight race against Valdes-Fauli in 2017, proposed a new type of leadership in city hall, she blasted the mayor for allegedly not listening to constituents and telling some to “shut up” during meetings.

“That reminds me of my wife at home,” he said, adding that he felt accusations that he was arrogant were a “low blow.” “I do listen to people. I listen to the people.”

Slesnick shot back: “I did not call you arrogant. Other people may, but I did not.”

The candidates running in Coral Gables’ non-partisan elections on April 9 presented their cases before a gathered audience at the Coco Plum Woman’s Club, 1375 Sunset Drive. The mayoral seat is a 2-year term, and the commission seat is a 4-year term. The deadline to request vote-by-mail ballots from the Miami Dade County elections office is no later than 5 p.m. on April 3. Vote-by-mail ballots can be picked up at the supervisor of election’s office, 2700 NW 87th Ave., until and including Election Day.

Running for the Group IV commission seat are former Gables assistant city manager and interim city manager Carmen Olazabal, commercial Realtor Jackson Rip Holmes, attorney Jorge L. Fors, Jr., and former longtime commissioner Ralph Cabrera. The seat is currently held by Frank Quesada, who is stepping down from the commission.

Commissioner Michael Mena, who holds the Group V seat, will be unopposed as he seeks reelection.

Fors, a first-time candidate, and Cabrera sparred on proposal to annex the areas of Little Gables and High Pines/Ponce Davis. The city commission approved an annexation application in recent years and sent the application to Miami Dade County for further analysis. Olazabal said she would vote against it if given the chance, arguing that city functions would become strained. Both Slesnick and Valdes-Fauli said they supported it.

“It’s not a good deal any way you slice it,” Fors said, pointing to costs the city will incur to bring these previously unincorporated areas into the fold.

Cabrera, who touted his previous experience as a commissioner and as a key force in the city’s zoning and building sectors, spoke of a multimillion-dollar windfall the city stands to gain, especially with the luxury properties of Ponce Davis.

The candidates stressed the importance of rational and “smart” development, and abiding by the Gables’ famously stringent zoning codes and master plan.

“I assure you I will ask the difficult questions. I will make sure that we grow the right way,” Cabrera said. “I will make sure that development doesn’t encroach on our quality of life.”

Fors said he would listen to the voters and weigh each development with their input in mind.

“I intend to do exactly what the majority of residents want me to do,” he said. “The single most important function of an elected official should be to carry out the will of the majority of the people.”

Slesnick said traffic in Coral Gables, already a major problem in the downtown area, would get worse if new development continues unabated. Valdes-Fauli argued business development and affordable housing could improve commute times and make cross-county traffic better.

“You can’t add 10,000 people to a community and expect them to take the trolley,” Slesnick said. “It’s not going to get any better. If we keep approving all these new projects…we’re going to keep adding new traffic.”

She said developers were trying to turn the City Beautiful into “Brickell 2.0.”

Valdes-Fauli added: “I think it is very good to have rational sane development because that will reduce traffic. I am for measured rational smart development.”

Holmes, the long-shot commission candidate who at one point spoke in Spanish and stood above his opponents to address the crowd, seemed to enjoy the politicking taking place Thursday.

“It’s great to see these two people facing off,” he remarked. “Isn’t it fun?”