The race for Miami-Dade County’s next mayor is among the contests that voters will decide as Election Day approaches on Aug. 18.
On Friday, WLRN and the Miami Herald hosted a mayoral forum organized by the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce – called Driving Dade County’s Future. We heard from four of the candidates: Miami-Dade Commissioners Esteban Bovo, Jr., Daniella Levine Cava and Xavier Suarez, along with Alex Penelas, a former Miami-Dade County mayor.
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These candidates met the two criteria set out by the Miami Chamber to participate. They qualified to run for the office and raised at least $100,000 by the end of July for their campaigns.
Two candidates on the ballot – Monique Nicole Barley and Ludmilla Domond – have raised less than $6,000 each, so they did not qualify for this forum.
WLRN’s Tom Hudson and the Miami Herald’s county government reporter Douglas Hanks co-moderated the forum during a special edition of the South Florida Roundup.
Here’s an excerpt of the forum:
THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMOC
WLRN/MIAMI HERALD: What are your top two priorities that you will take to address the pandemic?
ESTEBAN BOVO: The first priority is to make sure that we have better communication with all our cities and our county, that has been lacking. The problem with communication has impacted many of our residents. This has led to a lot of confusion. Obviously, we need to continue to do testing and tracing. But how do we open our economy? How do we get businesses back up in a safe manner and trust that they could do it in a way that they could protect not only their employees, but also their customers and build that confidence?
And so how do you do that as mayor to reopen safely?
BOVO: I think they had already started opening safely and they became the victims of perhaps some irresponsible behaviors by others, not the businesses. The ones that I walked into had taken all the steps necessary to create the social distancing, the sanitation and cleaning efforts to make sure that customers and their employees were safe. And it seemed to me that they were unjustly punished. We started closing them after they’ve expended all this money. Perhaps the irresponsible behavior of those that were out demonstrating, and those that were going out to the beaches and pretending like they were immune, set us up into a critical situation.
DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA: We need to be driven by the data. We need to have medical advice. And I will be appointing a chief medical officer to guide a return to some kind of normalcy. We need to have the testing, the tracing, the isolation. I’ve been calling for this since November, and we are still behind on all of those three things. As we recover, we are going to have a new economy. Many of the businesses so sadly have shuttered or have been very diminished, and many of our workforce need to be retrained for a new economy. So while we have a few programs now with loans and some assistance to our small businesses, we need to be looking into the future. I will have an economic development czar who will be the person working with the business community to determine how we can come out of this.
SOCIAL JUSTICE AND POLICING
The largest portion of county spending goes toward police departments and jails. Forty-five cents of every dollar in property taxes paid. No property tax dollars are spent on homeless or domestic abuse shelters. Those are paid by the restaurant tax. And that tax is in a freefall, down 40 percent in June alone. Commissioner Suarez, do you think the county is spending enough on homeless and domestic abuse shelters? And if not, do you support the county shifting property tax money to those needs?
XAVIER SUAREZ: Not defund the police, but maybe reallocate, reorganize and see if other departments can help with those things. I’ve always felt, for example, that our EMT people in the fire department should be more involved in accidents and in other kinds of things. The police seem to take over. In the city of Miami, they have public service aides. There’s many ways to skin the cat, and we can do it more efficiently. That doesn’t mean defunding the police in any way.
ALEX PENELAS: We have a serious mental health issue in this county that’s been neglected. I’ve been talking about this for for a year-and-a half, based primarily, on a very personal experience in our family and the knowledge that I’ve gained through the system. It was at a crisis mode before the pandemic and it’s a crisis proportion even more so now as a result of the pandemic. That’s one area where I think we need greater attention.
LEVINE CAVA: We have some mental health services, but we rely increasingly on outside agencies to provide those services. We have a domestic violence and homeless program, but we don’t have much in the way of of a job training. We have our Career Source but we need to supplement it. We also can work with the school system on the pipeline to careers and apprenticeships. So there’s a whole host of things that we could do in partnership with the other agencies. I’m responsible, along with [Miami-Dade] Commissioner [Barbara] Jordan in creating the Alliance for Human Services. That created a master plan. It laid out all of the social service needs in the county, and I would like to bring that back. That allows us to make intelligent decisions.
BOVO: When government tries to be everything to everybody, that’s when you begin to strain and you begin to feel the pinch. So the more you invest in certain programs, the less you’re going to be able to invest in the programs that many of us as taxpayers want. We need to prioritize first what we want our county government to be, and then we could entertain other items where I believe the state and the federal government should be active partners in these spaces.
Inefficient buildings are blamed for 30 percent of greenhouse gases. Last year, New York City passed legislation to force buildings to cut emissions by 40 percent by 2030. Miami-Dade has a voluntary plan. Former Mayor Penelas, would you make it mandatory?
PENELAS: I think under circumstances, yes. I think we have to have us a data-based set of objectives to reduce carbon emissions, not just for our buildings, our fleet, based on reliable and accountable standards. And I would hope that every one of our county departments across the board is committed to that. And the mayor should hold those departments accountable.
Mr. Suarez, would you support a mandatory cut to building emissions?
SUAREZ: The county has buildings and they consume energy. And we have way too many buildings. We have to consolidate. We’re not about to build any more buildings. We’re not about to try to retrofit buildings. What we should be doing is selling them. We don’t need 18 administration buildings. We don’t need 4,500 properties.
We have a question here for Commissioner Cava from Felix in Miami Lakes. He asks, “Will you support the elimination of all septic systems in Miami-Dade County?”
LEVINE CAVA: We need to definitely move away from septic. There has been a study of the septic systems that are the most vulnerable, that have the most risk of putting nutrients into our canal system and therefore into our [Biscayne] Bay, killing off our seagrass, our fish, etc. I’ve called for monitoring of the bay, which has increased, as well as we need to cut off nutrients from fertilizer. So septic and fertilizers both.
Should there be a county subsidy for putting those homes that are on septic into county sewer?
LEVINE CAVA: One of the challenges we have is that the water and sewer department is based on the users. And so there’s only a certain amount of money that’s for future development. But I am going to push through this item.
The South Dade Rapid Transit Bus Project is going to cost about $300 million. They already got bids into the county to build it. Washington and Florida have already agreed to pay for two-thirds of it, and it would quicken bus times on one of the most popular bus routes in the county. Mayor Penelas, you’ve said you would cancel that project. Why would you want to cancel it? What do you say to someone who who could get on that bus and get to work quicker?
PENELAS: What I would tell them is that they don’t want more buses on South Dade Busway. I inaugurated that system in 1997. Part of the People’s Transportation Plan was to bring rail to the people of South Dade. And if there’s one corridor where we should have already laid out a clear plan for rail is the south corridor. It’s also been demonstrated that rail provides much greater capacity than buses. And the economic development that comes as a result of a rail project is much greater.
But why cancel the project?
PENELAS: Cancel it but immediately convert into rail. Those are discussions I’m having to the extent that I can. It’s not just cancel and do nothing. It’s canceling it and converting it immediately to light rail.
This transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
WLRN’s Denise Royal is this episode’s video producer. Michael Anderson, WLRN’s television program director, is the video technical director. You can watch it here.