In a city where three votes are required to green light projects and legislation, the election of two new Coral Gables commissioners on Tuesday will not only bring different perspectives to the dais, but help set a tone for the city’s priorities and goals.
During the April 27 runoff, voters will choose between a defense attorney and a retired banker in one race, and a government lawyer-turned-youth sports advocate and a CPA in the other.
Albeit in different ways, all four candidates say their election to a four-year term on the commission would bring fresh priorities to City Hall, whether it’s more fiscal oversight, more resident input on development or simply more community building.
Tuesday’s runoff election was required because no candidates received more than 50% of the votes cast in the Group Two and Group Three commission races on April 13. The top two vote-getters in each race will compete Tuesday to fill seats left vacant by Mayor-elect Vince Lago and his losing opponent, commissioner Patricia Keon.
The high turnout for the Coral Gables election on April 13 broke a 20-year record, and while turnout generally drops off in a runoff election, high numbers are expected for the April 27 election.
About 13,000 mail ballots were requested (compared to 12,000 in the first round), and advertisements continue to stuff mailboxes.
A critical eye on development
In the Group Two race, the top vote-getter was defense attorney and neighborhood activist Rhonda Anderson, who netted 42% of the vote in what was a six-way race.
Anderson, one of the founders of the LeJeune Segovia Neighborhood Association, formed the group in 2005 to tackle the increased traffic in the neighborhood from construction in the surrounding area. She says her experience working to protect her community from development would help her demystify for residents the process of how projects are approved.
If elected, she has promised to expand the process of notifying residents when a new development is proposed and forgo what are known as “as-of-right” projects, which comply with zoning regulations and therefore do not require special actions for approval. That would mean every project must go before the commission.
She also gave the example of the controversial Wawa gas station project on the northeast corner of Grand Avenue and U.S. 1, which she and other residents found out about 10 months after it was approved via a special settlement agreement. The agreement enabled the city to waive fees, skip public hearings and allow the city attorney and city manager to finalize plans.
The Wawa is strongly opposed by the parents of children who attend nearby Carver Elementary and Carver Middle School, who fear the gas station will bring dangerous traffic and worry about the sale of alcohol and tobacco products near the school.
During a debate hosted by the Coral Gables Neighbors’ Association, Anderson said she would support hiring an inspector general to be a watchdog over city officials and staff, noting vaguely that “we don’t need to go back to an era where there were improper influences.”
Her opponent, José Valdés-Fauli did not attend the debate.
Anderson, 61, is known for her mild demeanor, and says she is “not the type to go off yelling and screaming,” but will vote “no” when she needs to.
“I am not reactive to things because it sends the wrong information,” she said. “But there are projects that I don’t think benefit us.”
In addition to the neighborhood organization, Anderson has also served on the Coral Gables Public Safety Commission, the Sustainability Advisory Board and, most recently, the Planning and Zoning Board.
Crunching the numbers
Some of the candidates running say they would prioritize and scrutinize the city’s financials.
Valdés-Fauli, who came in second to Anderson on April 13 with 26.27% of the vote, is a retired banker and the brother of the outgoing mayor. He says he has what no other candidate can bring to the commission: a 35-year career in banking.
Valdés-Fauli, who was the president and CEO of four banks before he retired in 2009, says his presence on the commission would bring what he says is much-needed fiscal wisdom to City Hall.
In a post-pandemic world, he says the commission will have to work to address its budget deficit, a task Valdés-Fauli says he is ready to tackle.
“I am a businessman and I am a financial guy and I always chase the numbers,” said Valdés-Fauli, 69. “Everyone else is an attorney. I’m a business guy.”
In the Group Three race, CPA Javier Baños, who captured about 32% of the vote on April 13 to lead what was a four-way contest to replace Keon, has taken a similar tack, though his focus on accessible government has also been at the forefront of his campaign.
Baños, 39, served for two years on the city’s pension board as well as the South Miami pension board, and has promised voters that his skills as a CPA will help the city avoid overspending habits that can set local governments back. He has raised the most campaign cash of any candidate in the runoff.
In an early interview with the Herald, he called the Coral Gables Retirement System — which cost the city about $29.2 million last year — one of the “worst funded plans in Florida,” and said if elected, he would propose changing how much the city contributes to the plan and switching new employees outside of public safety positions to a defined contribution retirement plan, such as a 401(k).
Like Valdés-Fauli, Baños says his skill set is missing on the commission.
“I would come to budget with a more streamlined process,” he said. “Fiscal responsibility is something that is really important to me.”
Running against Baños in the Group Three race is Kirk Menendez, a former Miami assistant city attorney and youth sports advocate.
Menendez, 58, says he is the “grassroots Gables kid” who will bring more residents into decision-making and discussions, as he has a wide network he can reach to bring in to City Hall.
He is a lifelong Gables resident who is well-known in the community due to his involvement at the Coral Gables Youth Center — which he credits for helping raise him when his father died at a young age — and the Church of the Little Flower.
He says his experience working in Miami made him understand how government works and how, in some cases, “fails to serve” the best interest of residents.
“I want to bring down the wall between government and the community,” he said. “We need to work together in a civilized way so we can move forward. ... I hope to bring everyone to an even playing field.”
The Coral Gables runoff election is Tuesday, April 27. Early voting is Saturday and Sunday.