Volsky on Coral Gables Mayoral Debate

GEORGE VOLSKY

SLESNICK DEFENSIVE, SHELLACKED IN DEBATE

Mayor Don Slesnick was shellacked at Tuesday night’s mayoral debate in which he confronted two serious, well qualified opponents: former diplomat James Cason and attorney Tom Korge.

It was a shame that the Coral Gables TV station did not broadcast live the Congregational Church debate – the city has purchased expensive equipment for it – because it could be the only one before the April 12 election.

About 150 people watched the exchange of views about Coral Gables’ past and present problems and its future travails. At the outset, it appeared that the majority of them were supporting  the mayor. But as the debate progressed and became more animated, the volume of applause indicated a decisive change in favor of his opponents. Significantly, a proposal that Coral Gables rescind charging parking fees until midnight – for which Slesnick is principally responsible – was received by shouts of approval and thunderous applause, the biggest of the night.

In the verbal match, the mayor was constantly on the defensive and thus repeatedly bruised. No knockout punches were scored, none were expected. Cason and Korge  could have seriously blooded the mayor, who until quite recently assured everybody and his uncle that after 10 years in office he would not run again, but they were rather gentle with him. In their opening statements and comments later, both pointed out to the financial morass that originated and deepened under Slesnick’s leadership, without mentioning that of his 10 years in City Hall eight were the nefarious David Brown administration, called by many in City Hall “the Slesnick-Brown mess.”

Only Carson referred to Brown once, saying that the disgraced former city manager had brought “disrepute and shame to Coral Gables.” Pointedly, Slesnick did not defend his erstwhile close ally who left the city unscathed with a golden parachute.

The debate did nor generate groundbreaking news items, except perhaps Cason’s statement that the current debt in the city’s pension fund – close to $200 million – is per population the second worst in Florida, after the impecunious city of Medley.

Slesnick’s opponents, while looking more “mayoral,” certainly more knowledgeable and decisive, suggested a different concept of leadership. Reading  his opening statement, Cason was polished and intellectual. He bemoaned the lack of transparency in the city and said that as a relatively recent resident he would look at issues with “new eyes and ears” and be a full-time mayor.  Korge spoke often extemporaneously at the opening, trying to convey to the audience the idea that he was like one of them, locally experienced to mend the Slesnick-authored mismanagement,  especially the finance-killing pension shortfall.

Both accused Slesnick of sweeping serious city problems under the rug. Cason pointed out that a 2004 study which detailed serious dysfunction in the Building and Zoning department, copy of which Slesnick presumably had received, was hidden from residents by Brown.  Korge reminded the audience that during the Slesnick mayoralty residents had four property tax increases.

Accusation of these and other administrative and financial failures that took place under the Slesnick leadership were  not disputed by Slesnick. Time and again, without expressing a single “mea culpa,” he attributed those problems to failings in the nation’s economy. He said that administratively and economically things are improving. He did not say the improvements were due his or the city commission’s actions, but rather to measures undertaken by the “new city manager.”

(This struck some observers as odd. Most people in City Hall aver that Slesnick and City Manger Patrick Salerno are not always on the same page. The most serious and dividing issue was Salerno’s openly critical opinion of the professionalism of the former city attorney, the mayor’s favorite.)

But during the 60-minute debate (originally scheduled for 30 minutes more which the moderator Elliott Rodriguez cut without explanation) Slesnick was Slesnick. He made a number of misstatements that need to be corrected:

1.  Social Security, he said, is underfunded like the Coral Gables pension fund. Not true: S.S., according to government data, will have a surplus until about 2040, if not longer. (Our fund was current in 2001 when Slesnick became mayor.)

2.   “We picked the new operator for the Country Club.” Not true. Nick Di Donato, President and CEO of the Liberty Entertainment Group of Toronto, chose Coral Gables. His company was the only one that wanted to invest in our previously mismanaged club.  Yet he was treated with discourtesy by the mayor during a commission’s meeting.)

3.   The function of the city attorney is to “coordinate” actions by outside lawyers. Not true. According to the job’s description,  that  official has to perform all legal functions in the city.

4.  The city attorney’s office in recent years spent less on outside lawyers than appropriated. Not true. Between 2006 and 2009, these expenses were over-budgeted by  $1,055,000.

5.  In the last several years, Slesnick said, city employees have not had salary increases. Most of them had. His own, $34,123 in 2009, increased to $35,778 in 2010.

Most important, what indisputably emerged from the debate, is that Coral Gables has a series of difficult problems that originated and were exacerbated during the last 10 years – the decade of the  Slesnick leadership.

The central question, therefore, is whether the city can afford to continue under the same leader, or whether on April 12 the residents should chose a new mayor.

About Stephen E. McGaughey
International consultant in economic development programs and projects

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