Coral Gables Commission candidates provide first glimpse at PTA forum

The six Coral Gables Commission candidates in the upcoming April election answered questions from both adult residents and students Thursday at the first forum of the 2023 election, hosted by the Coral Gables PTA on Zoom.

The next forum is from 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, March 8, hosted by the Coral Gables Chamber at the UM Newman Alumni Center, 6200 San Amaro Drive.

There were no big surprises or surprise announcements Thursday as the candidates mostly agreed on the common denominator issues: safety, education, development, resiliency and the city’s long beleaguered permitting system. Everybody just loves Coral Gables, of course. Nobody made a real impression.

In Group 4, there are four candidates:

  • Melissa Castro, a permit expediter, said she inherited her home from her mother, who died two years ago. She has two kids — one goes to St. Theresa and the other to Florida International University.
  • Ivette Arango O’Doski moved to the Gables from Miami’s Design District when she was pregnant with her second child, she said. “I’m raising my family in the community,” said the mom of two. “This is a city that I love and I want my children to love the city as much as I do.”
  • Sean Patrick McGrover, a financial XX, seems to hope that him not being an attorney will help. “I’ve been watching the city over the past few terms and I noticed every term I start to see one career grab those seats. It’s always been taken by an attorney,” McGrover said. “My background is business and investing. It’s a good time right now to add more diversity. With my background, I think I can provide an enormous amount of ideas.”
  • Jackson “Rip” Holmes, who runs for something in every city election, asked the participants to “forgive me my amateurishness,” but he is making more sense each and every time he runs. The 71-year-old downtown property owner celebrated Gables schools, where he was the Vice President of student government in 1975. “You are what all the voters live for,” he said to the students, and it looked like he was near tears. “We need to continue to put you, the students, first.”

In Group 5, there are two candidates, both of whom have run before.

  • Alex Bucelo, who ran two years ago and lost to Commissioner Kirk Menendez, likes to say he was born and raised in Coral Gables and sits on a number of city boards. “My priority is putting the residents first, from ensuring that our character of the city of Coral Gables remains the same… to making Coral Gables more resilient.”
  • Ariel Fernandez, publisher of the Gables Insider and former chairman of the City School Community Relations Committee, ran for commission in 2015. He has a 7-year-old who goes to St. Theresa. “My mission as a candidate is to make sure that Coral Gables residents are the priority and not an afterthought,” Fernandez said. “For too long, the developers have been controlling…” the commission. He said he has knocked on more than 3,000 doors. “The message is very clear. They are looking for change.”

On making the city safer for children:

Bucelo said that he would put more police enforcement in the ingress and outgress of schools and to make sure that school speed limits are enforced.

McGrover says there needs to be more outreach for mental issues with adolescents. “If we can keep our students safe, healthy and happy, our community can grow very nicely.”

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For Castro, the most important thing, “as a parent and as a professional,” is safety. She would like to see more police at school entrances and exits and work with the schools to come up with strategies to better handle pick up and drop off traffic. She also believes there should a lot of communication between the schools, the school system and the city.

Arango said she would work with Miami-Dade Police and Miami-Dade Public Schools to do safety assessments not just on the locks and alarms, but also on lighting.

On improving or expanding parks and green spaces:

Fernandez said that he had proposed buying properties to create six new neighborhood parks when he was on the property board. His wife is chair of the parks board. “Parks are very important to us. We go on weekends and send notes to Fred and Catalina,” Fernandez said, referring to Parks Director Fred Couceyro and probably an assistant. Some parks are “tired,” he said. “Salvadore Park is used by a lot of people in our city, and it’s staring to show wear and tear.” He also wants to expand the freebie so it takes residents not only to the downtown but to their neighborhood parks.

Bucelo sits on the War Memorial Youth Center Board. “My godson, they live in North Gables and they actively use these pocket parks. They are essential to the community. They make Coral Gables, Coral Gables.”

Said Arango: “I am a big fan of getting kids away from screens and into parks.”

Castro said she was impressed with how much the city was already doing, particularly with Pickleball courts and Philips Park.

McGrover also applauded the city’s recent focus on parks. “The city is working heavily to take green space and convert parks so I am very optimistic about the future,” he said.

Holmes wants to bring ducks to Gables parks.

On the never-ending traffic:

Holmes draws a direct line between traffic and development. “Part of the issues that are being decided in this election is how many people are you going to have living here? How much traffic is there going to be? And I’m trying to keep it low. There are, unfortunately, some developers that want to move in, add people, add traffic.”

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Fernandez said the city needs a more comprehensive and long term plan for traffic calming. “On Minorca, we have one block that has it and one that doesn’t have it… drivers are trying to make up the time on the second block,” he said,” adding that the Gables needs more police and more enforcement. “In the city of Pinecrest, everybody knows you don’t speed because one mile over the speed limit and you get a ticket.”

Castro said lighting and speed bumps would also help. “Traffic is something that affects everyone, not just schools, especially neighborhoods near schools.”

Arango says the that traffic calming devices are only part of the solution. “At the same time, the city can start upping the marketing for not being distracted. I do see a lot of distracted driving out there especially in school zones.” She wants to work with police and fire to “get the message out.”

Bucelo wants to see more enforcement as well. “Children’s safety is of the utmost importance,” he said. “Once you ticket unruly drivers or drivers not focused on the road but texting, I think that sends a message: If you break the rules you’re going to pay for it.”

Said McGrover: “If we could create like a new group of traffic officers that are allowed to hand out speeding tickets in the high traffic areas…” And, um, don’t we have that already?

On improving the schools in Coral Gables, even though that is really outside their purview:

McGrover said he wants to see more “after school type activities to teach the younger generation the importance of preparing thing for themselves.

Bucelo said he would expand field trips to include not just historic places but also City Hall, so that students could watch and participate in the governmental process. Does he hate kids?

Fernandez said he would like to see new programs.

On the lack of a proper school crossing on U.S. 1 where Ponce Middle is:

“I will be the first one talking to the chief, Ed Hudak, about the crosswalk and go to the county,” Arango said. “I have experience dealing with different levels of government. This is something we need to be proactive about.”

McGrover said that short term, police should monitor before and after school and that adding “some really bright colors” might make drivers more aware. “In the long term, we work with the county for a bridge.”

Said Castro: “We need to make sure that all of our crosswalks are property marked for safety reasons.” She said that additional enforcement would also help.

On the annexation of Little Gables:

Fernandez said there is only one answer. “It’s simple. Let the people vote.”

Holmes said he used to live in Little Gables. He also wants it to go to a vote. “It would be fun if they join.”

Arango said it might be a good idea. “But at the same time we have to make sure that our police and fire are supporting and have enough resources for the addition.”

McGrover supports annexation and thinks that people should be allowed to vote. “That’s fair.”

Bucelo is also pro annexation for safety reasons. “We close off our borders,” he said. “We have traffic readers and license plate readers making us more safe.”

Read related: Coral Gables Mayor Vince Lago may have conflict of interest in Little Gables

Castro said she, too, was in favor of letting the people vote, but only after the city has ensured that there are enough firefighters and spaces in the public schools to accommodate more people. “The residents are the ones who decide.”

On the city’s long-suffering permit department:

Castro, the permit expediter, says residents have no idea about what it takes to obtain a building permit. She wants to make video clips of how permitting works. “There should be a lot of changes, but from the foundation,” Castro said, keeping consumer preferences in mind. “Right now, we have very long times in reviews for structural and for the board of architects, who are all volunteers, they don’t get paid, so we have to be thankful to them.”

“Our board of architects and permitting, those two departments frustrate me,” McGrover said. “We don’t know the process. If we submit a permit, don’t continue to turn us down and give us the information we don’t understand. Walk us through it. In my business, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get things done. The city, for some reason, they hold us up. I will definitely put some more emphasis on that.” McGrover lives the fact that Mayor Vince Lago has an open door policy on Fridays. “We should do the same thing in permitting. I strongly believe in redesigning that permitting office.”

Bucelo said this is a common issue among voters. “I’ve seen it time and time again when knocking on doors. There has been improvement. We went from paper to digital,” he said, adding that he’s gotten good feedback from residents. “But there’s always room for improvement… we have to make it user friendly.” He also told McGrover that there is an open house in permitting and it’s called Tuesdays with Tony. “Any resident that has issues, they can go see Tony who will walk them through.”

Fernandez said the excuse is always that this is the way it’s always been done. “We need to stop saying that,” he said. “The process is a disappointment. The fact that developers can come in and have their permits approved on the spot while residents can take years is something that really bothers me. And it is why I am running.”

Arango said the city was “working out the kinks” in the new permitting software and while showing patience, “it’s incumbent upon us to hold their feet to the fire.” She also had a prediction: “I’d say that Tony is going to get a lot busier on Tuesdays.”

On development, which is always a Gables issue:

Holmes wants to have a referendum putting future development in the hands of voters, sort of like what they are doing in Pinecrest. “Are we going to develop and add to the problems? That’s what this whole election is about. I think we need to keep Coral Gables and not this massive overdevelopment.”

Coral Gables

Arango said she would follow the city code. “I don’t believe in setting precedent from the dais.”

Castro said her high school was so crowded,, there was two shifts, one in the morning and another in the afternoon. “It was not a normal high school experience,” she said. “I am not for overdevelopment. We need to make sure that we have enough space in our schools. Coral Gables is a beautiful city to live in and let’s not jeopardize our quality of life rom overcrowding our schools.”

Read related: Pinecrest referendum would put zoning, land use changes in the hands of voters

Fernandez said some schools are already at over 100% capacity. “That is a problem for me.” He says that, unlike his opponent, he has not received any campaign contribution from developers. “I don’t want to be beholden. I don’t want them to call me asking for favors.”

On the special needs community and seniors:

Arango said seniors are getting priced out of the city. “They’ve been living in the Gables all their lives and as they get older, affordability is an issue,” she said. She also thinks the Freebie service can be used to get seniors to their doctors’ offices and other appointments.

Holmes said his daughter has a reading disability. “She needs extra time on her SAT.” She goes to a private school, he said. “They don’t have disability programs there.” Then he turned the topic into vouchers. “Vouchers have taken a huge chunk out of the public school budget.”

Bucelo said the city needs to engage more with the schools and the school system to seek funding and expand programs for special needs. He also wants to review Americans with Disability Act accessibility in public buildings.

Fernandez said that the school committee created a special needs room at Ponce Middle last year. The city has to take care of the sidewalks “to make sure a person on a wheelchair can traverse the city,” he said. “Our sidewalks are in huge disrepair. We have sidewalks that go nowhere.

On resiliency and sustainability:

“The craziest candidate in the group, that’s me,” Holmes said, and it is the truest thing of the whole forum. “Why am I the craziest candidate? Because I think that there is a technology for what they say is free energy. It gets complex but basically you get sea water from Biscayne Bay run electricity through it.” He says it can help mitigate sea level rise.

Castro says it might sound old-fashioned, but “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” is still a good rule. “Good habits of recycling start at home,” she added. She is definitely concerned with the septic tank issue. “Our septic tanks are leaking and they are contaminating the water. A little more than month ago, I went to Tallahassee. Commissioner Anderson and the city was advocating for funds for this… I would help obtain state and federal funds. I’m absolutely opposed to raising property taxes to make this happen.”

Bucelo sits on the mayor’s advisory board and says that the city has reduced its carbon footprint at city buildings over the course of 10 years and wants to get to zero. “This is an issue that hits close to home,” Bucelo said. “It’s a group effort. It’s a community effort.” He said the septic-to-sewer issue was approaching quickly. “I would lean heavily on state and federal funding. That will be the biggest issue. Once that gets resolved, the issue is where do we start,” Bucelo said, adding that low lying areas should be tackled first.

Arango said the city has to work with the state. “I know the legislature is currently considering resilience districts,” she said, adding that the state can help with funding sources. “That’s the bottom line.” She also wants to seek funding for help with septic to sewer conversion. “We need to explore all the possibilities to where we can dial down dollars.”

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Fernandez, who drives an electrical golf cart, says the city has always been “a leader when it comes to sustainability.” Because it is a coastal city, the Gables needs to make this a priority, he said. He said the septic-to-sewer effort “is going to be one of the largest issues facing the city of Coral Gables over the next 30 years,” and that the city should look for federal assistance, with which he has experience. “Most taxpayers are not going to be able to afford the changes that have to come. A lot of our city is on septic now,” he said, adding that he has the experience to get federal assistance.

McGrover said the septic-to-sewer conversion should be funded through a bond referendum. “That is something that must be done.

On opening the track at Gables High to the public:

McGrover: “I would love to use that track in the evening. It’s a great way to meet our community.”

“That merits a broader discussion,” Arango said, adding that she would need to know if it would overburden the facilities.

Castro said she would pursue it if enough residents wanted. “I’m for what the residents want. Their opinion is the one that counts.

Bucelo said the city and the school administration should join forces “and seek the neighbors to see how it can be used by everyone.”