For independence in Coral Gables, vote Melissa Castro and Ariel Fernandez

This Coral Gables election is not just a contest between like-minded candidates who want to protect and improve the City Beautiful. It’s a referendum on Mayor Vince Lago, who ran unopposed and has campaigned for his two handpicked pocket votes.

If Lago gets his way, and Ivette Arango O’Doski and Alex Bucelo are elected, he will have the three votes to do anything he wants for the next two years. No doubt about it, they will be rubber stampers. Not that he needs them. Commissioners Rhonda Anderson and Kirk Menendez have been very amenable. There is nobody to challenge the mayor on the dais.

This is not a good idea, and if for only that reason, Ladra is not supporting either Bucelo or Arango O’Doski. I like both. They seem nice. Bucelo is very young. He already lost once (to Menendez) so he’ll get over it and try again, because Papi really wants him to. Arango O’Doski can always run again without Lago’s wind beneath her wings. But she should quit lobbying first.

Read related: Coral Gables Vince Lago is running slate of candidates in April election

Yes, that’s right. Arango O’Doski is a lobbyist. Sure, she keeps telling people she is a designer but that’s her mom.Arango O’Doski is a lobbyist that at least once got a slap on the wrist (read: letter of instruction) from the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust for failing to register as a lobbyist.

And her husband is a lobbyist, too. So she can keep all her business in the family after she’s elected.

It’s interesting that both these novices have political action committees, which shows a sort of expertise in dark money campaign operations. Both also have a lot of money from real estate and development interests.

That leaves Ladra with just Ariel Fernandez in the Group 5 race. I like Ariel. He’s been active for years. He knows the issues and can hit the ground running. I do think, however, that it could present a conflict of interest that he publishes the Gables Insider site — he has his own campaign ad on the home page — and he needs to make serious amends with a bunch of city employees. Because he can be harsh. And there has been friction.

“Moral is at an all time low,” Fernandez told Ladra, adding that Hudak has been unresponsive to residents. “Some South Gables residents said they hadn’t seen patrols and his response was to hire off duty police officers,” Fernandez said. “That should not be the response of the police chief.”

While he was one of the residents who fought for the appointment of Police Chief Ed Hudak and he still supports him, even though he does have some issues with his recent leadership.

Other residents agree, saying Hudak has become a police chief for the rich and famous. But just wait. The anti police attack ads are coming.

Fernandez says he also plans to hold the city manager’s feet to the fire on the issues where he doesn’t believe Peter Iglesias is up to the job. “Development being the first issue,” Fernandez said. He says the manager is too pro development and points to the administration’s push to double the height on a project that will be using two city parking lots in its assemblage.

The project, by the way, was approved by the planning an zoning board, where the only dissenting vote was Claudia Miro, who lost a commission race two years ago against Anderson. She should have run this year.

Fernandez has the grassroots support. That’s why Bucelo and his finances are attacking him with dark money funded texts that say he worked for former Congressman David Rivera and then lists all of Rivera’s sins.

Fernandez did work for Rivera, ten years ago, building his constituent services division. A couple of years later, he endorsed Rivera challenger Carlos Curbelo in the Republican primary. Where are all the text messages about that?

But the best thing about Fernandez is that he is independent. He is not Lago’s boy. He has been Lago’s fan sometimes and has criticized him when needed. He will not make nice if he thinks the residents are getting screwed. And he is, indeed, all for the residents. I am not sure I can say that about Bucelo, who only got involved two years ago after he lost the commission race so he could have something under his belt for his second try.

Another bonus is that Ariel already knows how the city runs. Lago won’t be able to spin him. In fact, Fernandez knows where the bodies are buried. Lago is probably nervous about serving with him on the dais. Bonus three!

In Group 4, we have three other candidates after Arango O’Doski is eliminated. But let’s face it, we really only have two. Jackson “Rip” Holmes is a non starter.

I like Rip. Always have. He has the right idea about Citizens United, Little Gables and concepts for bringing downtown to life. He’s interesting and has great stories, even though one is never sure they are true. Like, Ladra is not sure that Fidel Castro — as odious as he was — was an extraterrestrial with vertical eye pupils. Even though the drug money laundering in the development surge in Coral Gables could be real. Sounds possible.

The two others in Group 5 that are not Lago lackeys are Melissa Castro, a permit expediter with experience in mental health care, and investment planner Sean Patrick McGrover.

Read related: Coral Gables commission candidates on traffic, development, resiliency, mobility

McGrover is a doomsday prophet who wants to cut services for an eventual recession, which might resonate with some voters. But he doesn’t believe in global warming and that’s makes alarms go off in Ladra’s head. The biggest thing he’s got going for him is his last name because, in the City Beautiful, there are still those who vote along ethnic lines.

Castro is a Colombian-American mom who has been involved in Gables civic life for a few years. She volunteers with the Coral Gables Foundation, the Women’s Club and the Chamber of Commerce, joining the latter’s delegation to Tallahassee last month to advocate for the chamber’s priorities. She plans on joining them on their D.C. trip also. And she is a finalist for businesswoman of the year.

“This is not a career move for me. I’m already successful,” she told Ladra. “I don’t have an agenda. I just really love Coral Gables.”

And her experience with mental health can help her deal with Lago, who may have stopped taking his meds.

Castro knows she’s got an uphill battle. Every Gables commissioner has endorsed the other lady and she’s woefully underfunded in comparison. She says she has turned down PAC money. She’s not a great public speaker, but do we really need another fantastic orator who will pull the wool over the publics’ eyes?

The Coral Gables election is April 11 but absentee ballots are already landing in homes. Deputy Elections Supervisor Suzy Trutie said 6,806 vote-by-mail or absentee ballots were mailed out on March 14. That’s less than half of what went out for the 2021 election before the new law that forces the purging of names from the automatic VBM list every two years.

As of Friday, 15 had been returned to the elections department.

Early voting is limited to Saturday and Sunday, April 1 and 2, and Saturday, April 8, but that’s still one day more than they had planned.