Founder & Editor
On December 13th, the City Commission will be deciding who will represent residents when they fill the vacancy left by former Commissioner Jorge L. Fors, Jr. who resigned effective November 22nd in order to run for the Miami-Dade County Commission. The incumbent will serve until the end of the term, following the April 2023 Coral Gables election.
The Charter provides the remaining members of the Commission with the duty of filling the vacancy within 30 days of the vacancy being created. However, it does not provide for a process.
Lack Of Formal Process
Unlike the City of Miami Commission that has had two vacancies in the last two years and followed a formal application and interview process, or the City of Miami Beach which held a special election to fill its vacancy, Coral Gables has had no formal process to fill this vacancy.
In fact, it was the instance of resident Maria Cruz who forced the question at several Commission meetings, that a discussion finally took place and the suggestion for interested members of the community submit a resume, proof of residence and personal statement to the Clerk. However, it did come with a clear statement from Mayor Vince Lago, that the Commission could choose to appoint anyone, even if they had not submitted any paperwork.
In the end, seven individuals submitted their names for consideration prior to the arbitrary November 29th deadline: Angelique Ortega-Fridman, Christina Otero Geeza, James Cason, Joseph M. Palmar, Sam Joseph, Sean McGrover and William Silver. There was also an email from a resident recommending Maria C. Cruz to fill the vacancy, prior to the deadline and numerous after the deadline. She has since submitted the required documents.
Angelique Ortega-Fridman: Ortega-Fridman explains that she has been a resident of the City since 1999. She is currently the Associate Dean for Student Services at the Florida International University College of Law. She served on the 2016 Coral Gables Charter Review Commission. In her statement she explains that, “In almost a quarter century in Coral Gables, I have experienced almost every aspect of life in the City: from pulling countless permits for home improvement to lobbying our elected officials for street and landscaping improvements; from tree lightings to trick-or-treating on the Mile; from playdates at Salvadore Park to fundraisers for Coral Gables High School. I have profoundly loved my life in Coral Gables. It would be the honor of a lifetime to serve my city as a Commissioner.”
Christina Otero Geeza: Otero Geeza, an attorney, moved back to Coral Gables in 2017 after moving to Chicago in 2005. She is an alumnus of Coral Gables High School. In her statement she explains. “If appointed, I will work hard to listen to the residents, shape policies to continue to make the City a place where families and businesses can be proud to call home, and collaborate with residents and the City Commissioner to design solutions and initiate change where needed.”
James Cason: Cason is retired from the United States Department of State. He was Mayor of Coral Gables from 2011 to 2017. During his term, the City saw the largest growth in density in recent history. He voted to approve controversial development projects such as Agave (The Plaza) and Paseo de la Riviera. Cason did not submit a personal statement on why he should be chosen.
Joseph M. Palmar: Palmar is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and Certified Fraud Examiner. He moved to Coral Gables in 2019. In his statement, he explains that “I try to be honest and fair and come to the Commission with no agenda, just interested in serving the community and assisting the Commission in making Coral Gables the best community in South Florida.”
Maria C. Cruz: Cruz is a retired educator and has lived in the City since 1976. She currently serves on the Mayor’s Council and the City’s Code Enforcement Board. She is the past chair of the City’s Anti-Crime Committee and has served on the Senior Citizen Advisory Board. In her statement, Cruz stated, “I understand this position is temporary and will be dissolved after the April 2023 election when a permanent replacement is chosen. I have no interest in running for the permanent position. My interest comes after I was nominated by resident Ted Rickle and then contacted by numerous residents encouraging me to apply. I never formally applied because I did not realize I would have the backing of so many residents. So, after careful reflection, I think I could be of great service to the city as a temporary commissioner.”
Sam Joseph: Joseph is a government affairs consultant who has lived in Coral Gables for over 22 years. He has served as Chair and Vice Chair of the Coral Gables School Community Relations Committee. In his statement, Joseph states, “Over two decades of experience in community building and public service, with an emphasis on advocacy, communications, education, and public affairs for a variety of non-profit, membership, cultural and governmental bodies.”
Sean McGrover: McGrover is a lender and realtor. He did not submit a statement.
William Silver: Silver is Deputy Chief of Forensic Odontology at the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office who has lived in the City since 1962. He served on the City’s Planning and Zoning Board from 1977 to 1983. He was a candidate for the City Commission in 1978. He served on the Code Enforcement Board and the Board of Adjustment. He explained in his statement that, “I moved to Coral Gables from Boston in 1962 when my wife and I and our hree sons purchased a home in the Sunrise Harbor area of Coral Gables. We loved the area so much that after ten years we moved into another home along the shore in Sunrise Harbor where I served as President of the Sunrise Harbor Homeowners Association. It was about 35 years later that we moved again to the Gables Club Condominium – still in Sunrise Harbor . And we are still living happily at the Gables Club, enjoying the view of Biscayne Bay and Sunrise Harbor.”
The City has stated that the Commission will select a Commissioner on Tuesday, but the new Commissioner will not be seated on the dais until the January 10th City Commission meeting. Gables Insider has been told by a City official, that the swearing in will take place at some point after the Commission and before the December 21st deadline, in a private ceremony in the Clerk’s office.
Although each candidate brings different and unique tools to the table which qualify them for the position, the incumbent will have to jump in with both feet and numerous key issues in the City. This would require a candidate with immediate knowledge of the issues currently being discussed by the Commission.
A search of Commission videos and zoom data shows that only Maria Cruz has been at every Commission meeting in the past year, mostly for the entire duration of each. Sam Joseph has been present at some meetings and via zoom at others. Joseph M. Palmar was recently at the solid waste sunshine meeting. Cason has only participated in the memorial service for a former Mayor in the past year, but has not been present for any Commission discussion. Commission attendance or participation by the remaining candidates could not be confirmed.
Residents or Public Interests
The decision to be made by the Commission on Tuesday will be a signal to residents about who has the power in the City of Coral Gables, residents or public interests.
Over the last few months, Cason has been telling residents and staff that he will soon be back on the dais, implying that he has already secured the votes to appoint him to fill the vacancy. This calls to question whether Cason himself has been lobbying the Commission for the appointment. Cason’s campaigns for Mayor were heavily funded by public interests who sought to secure variances and waivers from Cason.
On the other hand, Cruz’s candidacy has been supported by the City’s largest Homeowner’s Association, Coral Gables Neighbors Association. The association sent out an email stating, “We can think of no better person to fill this vacant position than Coral Gables resident and people’s advocate MARIA CRUZ. Maria shows up for every commission meeting and fearlessly stands up for residents.” Cruz, who is the best versed in the current issues on the Commission has stated that she would serve out the remainder of the term without seeking re-election.
A Historic Appointment?
The Commission will also have the opportunity to make history with this appointment. In the City’s history, there has never been a black member of the community, serving on the City Commission.
Sam Joseph, the former Chair of the Coral Gables School Community Relations Committee is Haitian-American. Joseph led the charge of creating the Coral Gables Literacy Festival and has been involved with Friends of Gables High on ensuring a complete renovation to the Coral Gables Senior High School campus.
What’s At Stake
Over the next four months, the appointed Commissioner will play a key role in decisions on development, zoning changes, the potential sale of City assets, and the City’s finances. The decisions will have long-term effects and consequences for residents.
As no formal process was put in place by the City, Gables Insider sent a candidate questionnaire to each of the candidates, in order for residents to learn more about the individuals seeking appointment prior to the Commission meeting. Four candidates submitted their responses. See their responses below.
Will you be commit to not seek re-election if chosen to fill the vacancy?
Maria C. Cruz, Sam Joseph and William Silver – Yes
Joseph M. Palmar – Undecided
What do you believe makes you the best candidate to fill this vacancy?
Joseph M. Palmar: I may not be. But I am willing to be honest, fair, transparent, and willing to serve the communities best interest without any hidden agendas or related nefarious intentions
Maria C. Cruz: My commitment to continue working for what the residents want.
Sam Joseph: I believe I will leave our “City Beautiful” better than I found it.
William Silver: Long time resident with activity in many different Coral Gables boards as well as strong community participation. Sitting on the Board, I will be a place holder and a supporter of the values and traditions of Coral Gables.
How long have you resided in the City?
Joseph M. Palmar: Since 2019; but in South Florida (Miami) since 1964.
Maria C. Cruz: 46 years.
Sam Joseph: 22 years.
William Silver: Since 1962 in Sunrise Harbour.
What is your stance on development in Coral Gables?
Joseph M. Palmar: Sensible development maybe, but this is an historic city, and I would like to see it stay that way if that is what the majority of the residents desire.
Maria C. Cruz: Coral Gables has already fallen victim to excessive development. Zoning code should be upheld at all times; no more bonuses, exceptions, variances should be granted to allow taller, larger buildings should be granted. Miracle Mile should be what it was meant to be.
Sam Joseph:Our “City Beautiful” needs to adopt a “Smart & Sustainable Growth and Development Plan” that assures we are thoughtful to our historical roots while planning for 100 more years of excellence.
William Silver: All development should be contained within the existing rules and traditions of our city. Only the passage of time and the serious concerns of the citizens of Coral Gables will overcome the ambitions of the developers.
What is your vision for Miracle Mile?
Joseph M. Palmar: Sensible development for the benefit of the residents of the city and those nearby consistent with the historic charm of the City.
Maria C. Cruz: Miracle Mile should be a boutique and specialty shops area.
Sam Joseph: Reactivate the Miracle Mile and Ponce de Leon Boulevard (north) business districts (Pop-up Business expansion project) • Public/Private work mentoring program partnership to highlight talents of future workforce (local high school academy attendees at Coral Gables Senior High School and the International Studies Preparatory Academy (ISPA)) • Pilot Projects/Partnerships with international firms, particularly from our consular corps communities.
William Silver: I am pleased with the present development of Miracle Mile. Further encroachment upon the size and placement of building should be limited. Character and product, as well as display, might be a consideration.
Traffic is a large issue in the City. What would you do to address the gridlock?
Joseph M. Palmar: That is a tough question. The timing of traffic lights, traffic patterns, as well as future development all need to be looked at very carefully, studied with the input of professionals, and most importantly input from the community to reach a cost effective and efficient solution.
Maria C. Cruz: I would stop issuing construction permits until real traffic studies are done to decide what areas of the City are already impacted negatively by the overdevelopment.
Sam Joseph: * Activate the business districts (urban core) to have more enticing options for engaging commuters * Use our “Smart City” technology to promote new merchants (i.e. push notifications on events, specials, and “stop by” local options during rush hour traffic hours * Work with traffic app companies to assist in the promotion of push notifications * Expand traffic calming measures in the residential areas to slow down and/or discourage “cut-thru” traffic.
William Silver: Very difficult problem. Traffic engineers and architects must be consulted. The most attention is always paid to the most attractive – people and places!
How would you address cut-through traffic on residential streets?
Joseph M. Palmar: where they make sense maybe. Not a big fan and would like to look at ways we can make improvements with the input of professionals as well as residents.
Maria C. Cruz: More traffic calming devices would discourage cut-through traffic!
Sam Joseph: * Expand traffic calming measures in the residential areas to slow down and/or discourage “cut-thru” traffic * Increased enforcement of traffic regulations.
William Silver: Limit cut-throughs to specific hours and/or days – with law enforcement!
What is your opinion on the City’s trash pits?
Joseph M. Palmar: I see both sides of the argument. While they maybe unsightly and lead to illegal dumping they serve a purpose. To be fair I think the residents should decide what is best for the community.
Maria C. Cruz: The taxpayers should be able to decide whether to have trash pits or not! The City should enforce the rules to keep the pits from becoming eyesores.
Sam Joseph: Our trash pits are a luxury that sets our city apart from others and an amenity that drew some residents to our “City Beautiful”. Although some modifications in their usage needs to be considered, they should not be eliminated with a majority of the residents consent (referendum). In the meantime, I am for allowing individual homeowners making the decision to convert their trash pits, as long as they are not shared.
William Silver: Post specific time , place and date for pick-up. Also use of city supplied trash containers only (similar to other neighboring cities).
What is your opinion of the City’s approach of selling assets to cover financial shortfalls?
Joseph M. Palmar: I would need to understand the underlying reasons for the shortfalls and or root causes, and specific situations as well as how the assets are being valued if they truly need to be sold
Maria C. Cruz: This practice is extremely shortsighted, Its time for the City to stop selling our assets and learn to live and govern within our means.
Sam Joseph: Too often this effort is shortsighted and misses out on an opportunity to get a better return on the investment. We can an should do better with the “people’s” assets.
William Silver: Consult the professional financial advisors.
What is your view on the role of residents in the Legislative process in the City?
Joseph M. Palmar: I think those that want a voice or have an opinion need to step up and get involved.
Maria C. Cruz: Unlike the present practice of the staff telling the elected officials what is best for our City the stake holders, ie, the taxpayers’ opinions must be taken into account.
Sam Joseph: As the city’s organizational chart points out the “people” (residents) are the boss and at the top of the chart. The commission and city staff must seek out to involve residents in the legislative process and make real the wants of the majority of their bosses. They work for us!
William Silver: All residents have a role by voice and vote in the legislative process in the city which may be described as sacred!
How often have you participated in City Commission meetings?
Joseph M. Palmar: As frequently as the issues have warranted by attention. Not every issue that is raised do I have an opinion on or feel as though I have to get involved, but selectively I evaluate the situations and comment and or assist or serve where and when I can.
Maria C. Cruz: I attend and participate in almost ALL City Commission meetings.
Sam Joseph: I attend every meeting I can either in person or lately predominately through Zoom. I also believe it is our responsibility as residents to stay up to date on happenings in our city’s boards and committees. Too often the work is done behind closed doors with minimal public participation.
William Silver: Multiple times ,in the past, when the subject was within my particular sphere of interest.
What will your top 5 priorities be if elected to the Commission?
Joseph M. Palmar: That is very personal, but my biggest desire is to serve the needs and wants of the majority of the community, which may or may not be in line with my own concerns. However, if asked about things that concern me in no specific order I would same: crime, property values, traffic, development, and milage rates. This is the City Beautiful and whether ask to serve or not I want it to be the best place to live in South Fla!
Maria C. Cruz: 1. Curb development 2. have more traffic calming devices; 3,stop selling our assets 4.put a cap on amount of money that staff can transfer without Commission approval 5.protect our historical buildings.
Sam Joseph: * Foster Competent, Thoughtful, Transparent & Empathetic Governing. Our goal as a city government will be to aspire for perfection but settle for nothing less than excellence in all our efforts, practices and services.
William Silver: 1) Follow the rules 2) give voice to the citizen 3)examine the history 4)determine the motivation and 5)listen carefully.
How would you rate the work of the City Manager and his administration of the City?
Joseph M. Palmar: I think he would benefit from the Commission as well as input from the residents.
Maria C. Cruz: Arrogant and non-transparent;; non responsive to the opinions of the residents.
Sam Joseph: Average with room for improvement. Our goal as a city should be to foster competent, thoughtful, transparent and empathetic governance.
William Silver: To be determined.
We live in Tree City USA, what is your stance on our tree canopy and its preservation?
Joseph M. Palmar: It makes the city what it is. Its historic and took a long time to make it look the way it does. I would want to preserve it; however, I believe that more unsightly than the trash pits are the overhead powerlines. Not only are the ugly but also are problematic for residents during hurricane season. So that creates a bit of a conflict. But other than that, I like the look.
Maria C. Cruz: Last few years not having enough employees has affected our tree canopy.
Sam Joseph: We need to preserve and where it’s feasible enhance the tree canopy while at the same time take more seriously maintaining it so that it’s not a liability.
William Silver: Maintain at all cost!
What is your stance on climate change and what role do you believe the City can play in curbing it?
Joseph M. Palmar: Not one of my highest concerns or priorities. Maybe not the answer some are looking for, but I want to be honest and transparent.
Maria C. Cruz: City administration needs to plan ahead to keep our City safe for our future generations.
Sam Joseph: Make Coral Gables an international leader in climate change and resiliency issues. • Create local incubator for new business/industry recruitment • Sponsor Climate Change/Resiliency X-Prize competitions for local educational institutions, business and industry • Highlight Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden and other local assets and their award-winning work in the field.
William Silver: Climate change is prevalent and critical within and surrounding our city boundaries.We must be constantly aware of the changes that occur every day and the City of Coral Gables must act speedily , on its own, to address the problems and work together with our neighbors to solve these problems.
What is your vision for the City’s historic preservation?
Joseph M. Palmar: Its charm and history are unique. I designated our home as an historic property and would like to preserve it. Once gone its gone and that would be a shame.
Maria C. Cruz: Historic preservation is no longer important in our City. There are lots of properties that years ago would have been considered valuable that have now become targets for development.
Sam Joseph: We need to bolster the assets that can help us in our preservation efforts, that starts with ensuring the Coral Gables Museum’s focus is preservation, and working with our historic preservation department the preservation team has the time, talent and resources necessary to undertake this important work.
William Silver: I have always been in favor of historic preservation from the Merrick House to the Biltmore Hotel – including several parks and monuments throughout the city.
What can be done to improve the state of our City’s pension system?
Joseph M. Palmar: I don’t know enough about the issues or situations to opine on it at this time. However, as a CPA, CFE, and CFF I can appreciate and likely understand the issues and well as the numbers and budgetary impact of any decisions that may need to be made.
Maria C. Cruz: Continue building it back to completely funded.
Sam Joseph: Keep the promises that have been made. Make more realistic and attainable commitments in the future.
William Silver: Again, into the hands of the professionals.