The Oct. 3 forum featured seven candidates vying for three seats on the Miami Lakes town council. They touched on many local and national issues in their discussions.
Miguel Comesana III is challenging incumbent Councilman Josh Dieguez for Seat 4, while Seat 6 Councilman Carlos O. Alvarez is running against Angelo Garcia Cuadra.
Competitors for Seat 2 are Ian Anthony Medina, Ray Garcia and William Perez. They hope to replace Vice Mayor Jeff Rodriguez who is not seeking reelection in November.
Moderator Alex Penelas, a former mayor of Miami-Dade County and a town resident, divided the candidates into two sets and grilled each panel for about an hour.
Candidates were asked different questions and so not all of them explained their positions on the same topics during the event that was organized by Miami Lakes Town Clerk Gina Inguanzo.
Among the issues: The $19.5 million municipal bond offering to fund improvements to Optimist Park, which voters will decide on Nov. 8; taxes; traffic; public safety and the candidates’ personal voting records.
The Presidential election in 2020
Penelas asked candidates whether the election that put President Joe Biden in the White House was legitimate: Comesana, 29, a case manager at a personal injury law firm and Dieguez, 33, an attorney, said yes.
Alvarez, 45, a municipal charter high school principal, said no. Garcia Cuadra, 61, a safety technician, said he didn’t have an opinion.
Roe vs. Wade and the Supreme Court
Penelas asked candidates whether the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade was the correct one. Medina, 28, a lawyer, Ray Garcia, 50, a health insurance licensed agent and Perez, 57, an attorney and retired U.S. Marine colonel, all said yes. Garcia also said the state should make the decision but that there should be exceptions for the life of the mother or child.
A future mayoral candidate in Miami Lakes?
Dieguez is rumored to want to run for mayor in 2024. That night he said he could not commit to serving a full four-year term if he is reelected in November.
“I am all about transparency Alex and the truth is no, I cannot say that I would not take a look at resigning to run for the mayor’s position,” Dieguez said.
Casting their ballots
When Penelas asked Garcia Cuadra why he didn’t vote in the Aug. 23 primary election when important races for senate and gubernatorial primaries, judgeships and the local school board were on the ballot, he said he was caring for his sick, elderly mother.
When Comesana was asked why he didn’t find time to vote, he replied, “For what year?” and said, “If I would have known I really would have voted.”
Penelas asked Perez why he didn’t register to vote until Jan. 2020 or participate in prior elections. Perez said he chose to emulate the late Gen. George Marshall, who rebuilt Europe after World War II and who Perez said didn’t vote until he retired from service.
“When you’re a senior officer you’re asked all the time by your Marines, ‘Who’d you vote for?’” Perez said. “It’s better for folks not to know if I’m partisan this way or partisan that way.”
The proposed $19.5 million, 30-year bond offering has prompted organized residents' campaigns on social media both for and against future taxes for improvements in Optimist Park. The green space is managed by a joint use agreement with the Miami Dade County School District that lasts until 2062, with two 10-year extensions.
“It’s not good idea to raise taxes right now,” said Perez, citing the rising cost of living for residents. He suggested the town apply for grants and get government funds to improve drainage in the park. He also didn’t like the town being a tenant of the school board for much of the park space.
“We’re willing to spend bling bling money on fixing a park that doesn’t belong to us,” Garcia Cuadra said. “We don’t need [$19.5] million dollars to fix drainage.”
He suggested funding repairs by exchanging naming rights from corporations that would make financial contributions.
Comesana said it wasn’t the right time during an inflationary economy for the projects and that the cost “was a bit too much.”
Penelas pointed out that Dieguez had flipped his vote for the project, first voting no and then yes, after the council made cuts that reduced the cost by several million, to $19.5 million.
Dieguez said on Election Day, he will be voting against the bonds because he doesn’t have kids and isn’t planning to have any soon.
Supporters were Alvarez, who said the park is a quality-of-life issue, that he would recommend a yes vote and was in favor of letting voters decide. Ray Garcia and Medina also want the bond issue to happen.
Garcia said he has heard positive feedback from residents and business owners and called Optimist Park the town’s Central Park, but said, “it’s rotting and rusting from the inside.”
He said renovations should have happened sooner to save money, and predicted inflation will ease in a few years. He said a new park will bring people into town and business owners would see more customers because of it.
Medina said the park hasn’t been renovated since he was a child. He proposed increasing the town’s tax base by annexing parts of unincorporated Miami-Dade County and the Country Club and Palm Springs North areas.
Asked if it was fair for town property owners to pay the debt for 30 years or whether the county or school board should contribute to the costs, Medina said the costs should be shared. He said it was “an honor to share our safe haven and our heaven” with people from out of town who may use the park.
“We don’t want to shut the door on little kids playing,” Medina said.
Like Medina, Dieguez has previously proposed annexation, but limited to areas around Northwest 170th Street, Penelas said.
Ray Garcia said not annexing land west of Interstate 75 that became part of Hialeah was a mistake and said he supported Dieguez’s idea.
“Hialeah came in and built thousands of homes and businesses and now we’re suffering because of that,” Garcia said. “If we would have annexed that area over there … we would have increased our tax base. And we wouldn’t be talking about asking for a bond for stormwater or asking for a bond for the parks.”
Perez said he would be in favor of Dieguez’s suggestion.
Bridges that divide
Penelas asked Alvarez to explain why he didn’t vote on whether to open the Northwest 170th Street bridge that crosses Interstate 75 between Miami Lakes and Hialeah and Miami Dade County, which motorists began using Aug. 16.
Alvarez explained that as principal at the City of Hialeah Educational Academy, whose board is comprised of Hialeah city councilmembers, he had a conflict and abstained, per a recommendation by the Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics and Public Trust.
Penelas asked Dieguez if Mayor Manny Cid overstepped his boundaries when he appeared, without other councilmembers, at a press conference on the bridge with elected officials from Hialeah and the county before an agreement was signed.
“There was a little bit of a surprise, in terms of the announcement of a deal without informing us, where they had that initial radio interview on the bridge,” Dieguez said. “I think that created a lot of confusion and even amongst his colleagues such as myself, I think there was a little bit of disappointment that prior to going ahead and announcing that on live radio, that he did not at least schedule some kind of meeting with us to let us know that the City of Hialeah had accepted in principle and also letting us know how they were going to do the rollout of this announcement.”
Dieguez said Hialeah “absolutely” got the better end of the deal when it came to the opening of the span but said it was the only agreement, after months of negotiations, the town could make at the time.
The Northwest 154th Street bridge is closed for 10 years but could open sooner if access ramps to I-75 or other transportation enhancements are built.
Both Garcia Cuadra and Comesana said they would have voted against opening the northern span. Garcia Cuadra vowed if elected to do what he could to keep the Northwest 154th Street bridge closed.
Garcia said he didn’t want either bridge open, and that the town was “bullied” but ultimately “I would have voted for the compromise [to open the northern span].”
Perez said he would not have wanted either bridge to open and that the agreement only offers going to court as a remedy, the most expensive option for the town. He said Cid “blindsided the town council.”
Medina agreed with Dieguez that Hialeah got the better deal. He suggested Sun Pass tolls be installed at town entrances to charge out-of-towners $2 to bring revenue to the town and state.
Imagine Miami Lakes 2025
Penelas asked if the plan that describes long-term infrastructure goals is adequate.
“We’ve got $57 million stormwater drainage projects to get done and we have about $28 million funded,” Perez said.
Garcia said it’s important to set goals but basic needs of residents have to be addressed first and listed flooding, sidewalks and streets as immediate concerns.
“You have to set a bar, you have to set a goal and think we’re going to do better as a town, but you have to be pragmatic,” Garcia said.
Medina addressed traffic, and said, “In addition to the tolls that the Town of Miami Lakes residents would be excluded from, I would work with Miami-Dade County to help us establish a higher standard of residential zones … so people from out of town are dissuaded from coming into Miami Lakes and causing traffic for us.”
Taxes and raises for town staff
Penelas asked Dieguez about his campaign promise to lower taxes versus his vote for a millage rate that is lower historically but would still raise taxes.
“I am looking at different ways to not be reliant on property taxes,” Dieguez said. “Whether it’s pushing on the census to increase our share of state revenue sharing that we get which is population based, whether it’s looking at leasing out town facilities … I’m always looking for different, innovative ways to be less reliant on property taxes.
“We have the fifth lowest tax rate out of 34 municipalities,” Dieguez said. “Also it’s the first tax reduction in five years that we’ve done. In the next about two or three years … if we get 59th Ave done is done, a bunch of money currently allocated in the form of People Transportation Plan money will be freed up and will give us an opportunity of reducing it further.
“This community is one that is very heavy on making sure that we support our police and making sure our neighborhoods are safe,” Dieguez said. “The biggest driver of our budget is the police budget. And the increase that we’re seeing this year is approximately about that 7 percent that we left on the table and that we’re needing to rely on. Most residents do not want to defund the police.”
Alvarez said he was proud of the millage rate the council had adopted, which was lower than the past four years, while also funding police overtime.
“I think this council we worked through a tough budget through the last four years,” Alvarez said. “A priority for me was increase policing. … We left it better than we found it four years ago.”
Garcia Cuadra said he had not “specialized with the millage” but agreed with Penelas when asked if he was okay with a 2 percent decrease in the millage.
Comesana said he believes the budget should be balanced but it shouldn’t be cut so deep that it would reduce funding of police and fire services.
Medina said that the millage rate could have been lowered a little more but, “I think right now what we have to focus on for inflation is to work with state and federal partners and even the private sector to raise wages, so people have more money to spend and they don’t feel the brunt of inflation,” Medina said. “[Inflation] has been a burden on our economy.”
Penelas then shifted to the proposed bonuses for town staff that the council vetoed.
Comesana said there should have been bonuses for town employees, who will receive 5 percent cost of living increases.
Medina would have given bonuses and said it would reflect on the quality of employees’ work while serving the town.
“I feel that government has a position in society to better people’s lives and living conditions,” Medina said.
Dieguez said the 5 percent cost of living increases and contributions to employee retirement accounts “were sufficient for now” and that merit bonuses could be considered next year.
Garcia Cuadra said he’d like to see raises given to individuals that perform but said he wasn’t an expert on the topic.
Alvarez said he would have been interested in seeing rewards based on a “pay for performance rating system” to motivate “highly effective” staff.
While Ray Garcia said he believed that “residents deserve relief,” and favored giving employees a two percent raise. He said a vote to rollback millage would have negatively affected the police budget.
Perez said he would have voted against the approved millage rate but would not have approved millage at the rollback rate. He said the town staff should not have raises higher than federal government employees, and he would have recommended a 3.64 percent raise.
Safety and security
During the Sept. 27 budget hearing, the council approved funding additional overtime hours for police to enforce traffic and investigate car burglaries which will cost $100,000.
Comesana said LED lights could help deter thefts.
Alvarez said that with more people coming to town – in recently built housing on Main Street and planned rental apartments to be built at the golf course and opening the Northwest 170th Street bridge -- he was content with the increase to police funding but would have preferred more officers were hired.
Dieguez said he supported Miami-Dade Police Maj. Javier Ruiz’s request to have future overtime funded for car burglary prevention and speeding, rather than paying for new hires.
“It would have been $160,000 per officer, just in salary,” Dieguez said. “This is the balance the majority of the council chose at this time.”
“I would definitely sit down with our police major and take his advice,” Garcia Cuadra said.
Perez said he was open to speaking with police about surveillance and reconnaissance technology.
“I was surprised to find out there was no motion sensors or lighting or cameras in any of the park areas,” Perez said.
Garcia agreed with relying more on technology and said the town should use video from Ring doorbells and ask residents to report vandalism and other things they see to the Miami Lakes Connect cell phone app.
“Residents are the eyes and ears of the police,” Garcia said.
Medina suggested a citizen's crime watch and using devices with cameras that are raised over busy parking lots.
“It works after hours, you set a time when it’s supposed to be monitoring and it alerts law enforcement in seconds so they can respond,” Medina said.
The Town Manager’s contract
Penelas described critical statements by Mayor Manny Cid about Town Manager Ed Pidermann, and Cid’s opposition to extending Pidermann’s contract, which the council recently voted to extend by four years. The contract is currently being negotiated.
Asked if he agreed with Cid, Alvarez said, “I think competition is good. I think we should open the doors and see what the competition is and what other applicants may come in. I have a working relationship with the manager but I have my opinions on the relationships that he has built with the council and the mayor in the last four years. I do have some concerns with extended leave time.”
Dieguez, who represents the town on the Miami-Dade County League of Cities, said during a previous town meeting that “discord” on the dais was permeating the political world outside the town and it was adverse to its interests.
“The longer that we let this question linger, the problem becomes even if we wanted to go in a different direction and find somebody else nobody is going to want to work here …” Dieguez said. “The reality is, whatever the problems are with the mayor and the manager, at least with myself and clearly three other colleagues of mine, we all felt he has delivered on the council priorities …So really it’s up to us to be able to set the direction and find somebody who is capable of executing and I think Ed Pidermann is that person. Which is why I decided to go ahead and ask for a longer-term extension because I think he earned it. And clearly a majority of the council felt that he did too.”
Comesana said he did not enough about Pidermann’s performance to have an opinion on it. Garcia Cuadra said he “didn’t know the topic to the fullest” and reserved comment.
Perez said measurable goals should be implemented in employee evaluations. He said without measurements of performance, he couldn’t weigh in how Pidermann’s been doing.
Ray Garcia said, “there is some room for improvement” and that his experience as a former Hialeah Gardens director of parks and recreation made him qualified to review Pidermann’s performance.
Medina said everyone deserves a second chance.
“I feel that if there are some issues with performance the town council, which is a strong town council right now… is in a good position to do a report and recommendation
for the town manager to change either some patterns or work habits and if it doesn’t work out, we can take further action then. We’re running a really good town here … it’s kind of enviable to live in.”
Garcia is on the Blasting Committee and said data about blast levels was now available and that seismographs are measuring explosion levels.
Penelas said it took 20 years to get it and that residents want action, and they want it now.
Garcia said a database and radius map are available to show how many residents are affected. He said state representatives can take that information to a state committee and the information will allow residents to sue.
Perez said efforts to halt blasting should be focused on its effects upon children to force lower levels of explosions. Asked about why it wasn’t under local control, Perez said state agencies wouldn’t be willing to give up power.
Medina said he was completely against rock mining or blasting.
“It’s harmful to the ecosystem and it’s not sustainable to any global resilience and it’s detrimental,” Medina said. “… They’ve already excavated enough, for a long time.”
Miami-Dade County Public School Board Secure Our Future referendum
Voters will be asked to approve 1 mill of taxes to pay teacher salaries and security including charter schools. The referendum is a renewal of the .75 mill that voters approved in 2018 and is set to expire in June 2023. The school board says it will cost taxpayers about $20 per month. If it fails, it said about $300 million will not be available for payroll.
“It’s been a challenge to recruit and retain high quality teachers,” Alvarez said. “I can imagine if this referendum does not pass that teachers will continue leaving the profession. I recommend a yes vote,” said Alvarez, as did Garcia Cuadra, Comesana and Medina. Dieguez, Garcia and Perez said they were against the referendum.
Non-partisan elected offices - Should Miami Lakes council offices become partisan? Alvarez said yes, Dieguez, Medina, Garcia and Perez replied no.
Is it important for voters to know your party? Penelas asked.
Garcia Cuadra said he was a Republican, but Penelas said he was registered as a Democrat and switched parties in 2016. Garcia Cuadra disputed that.
“I was born a Republican,” Garcia Cuadra said.
Comesana said he is a Democrat, though, “I started leaning more toward Independent.”
Should Miami Lakes have a strong mayor form of government?
Garcia Cuadra, Comesana, Dieguez, Medina, Garcia and Perez were against it, Alvarez was for the change, “with accountability.”
Rating the mayor’s performance
Perez gave Mayor Manny Cid a 5, while Medina and Garcia each gave him a 9.
Should the mayor and council members get raises?
Garcia and Perez said no, Medina said yes.
Does Miami Lakes need affordable or workforce housing?
Penelas asked if The Graham Companies, which during the past 60 years has built the town from its dairy farm and is planning to develop rental apartments at the golf course and along Commerce Way, had a responsibility to build affordable or workforce housing, or whether affordable housing was an issue in town.
Garcia Cuadra said there should have been a traffic study for the golf course project, and Comesana agreed. Alvarez said affordable housing was a problem throughout the county, including Miami Lakes.
Penelas asked him if the Grahams were exempt from providing workforce housing.
“This is a perfect opportunity [for the new council] to work with The Graham Companies and seek alternatives to lower [income] housing and other plots of land that they have here,” Alvarez said. “We’ve seen what they did with the Baptist Emergency Room [planned for Northwest 149th Street in Business Park West], we’re seeing what they’re doing with the mixed usage on Commerce [Way, where a project called South Pointe, with retail and rental apartments, is planned], so I think there is an opportunity to engage the Grahams and see if we can incorporate an element of affordable housing to the Town of Miami Lakes, in addition to that gateway golf course and rental space that is going to be built.”
Dieguez said traffic studies don’t factor into anything other than what The Graham Companies would have to pay for in mobility fees and would not have shut down the golf course project.
“The traffic study is a security blanket that would have done nothing,” Dieguez said. “We already know we’re going to have more traffic.
“I think what you are seeing in that project and in others that have been approved by prior councils is an increase of supply,” Dieguez said. “One of the biggest drivers in the market right now… is we don’t have enough inventory out there. [With] that project, 59% are one-bedroom units, therefore targeting younger people. That actually is in its own way going to lower rents or stabilize them for young professionals.”
Garcia and Perez said The Graham Companies has a responsibility to provide workforce housing. Medina disagreed.
“I don’t think The Graham Companies is in the position to do that,” Medina said. “The federal or the state government should deal with the issue of affordable housing.”
Medina’s open criminal case
Penelas asked Medina about his July 2 arrest. Medina is accused of committing the felony offenses of practicing law without a license, organized scheme to defraud, grand theft and making false statements.
“Around April 2017, while during law school I started hearing voices, particularly the federal government and the voice of God,” Medina said. “I went to a psychiatrist, and I started taking medication. When I’m on the medication I don’t hear voices. The voice of God tells me I’m the second Jesus Christ. … I don’t know whether to believe it or not either. I honestly just wanted a regular life. Due to that psychiatric history, I was denied character and fitness from the state Bar of Georgia and the Florida Bar. My stance is it violates the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.”
“I felt that they discriminated against me and oppressed me because of my disability,” Medina said. “I’m just trying to make a living. I was forced into politics … and I feel like I’m giving people with disabilities a good name.
“My lawyer just advised me that we’re going to do a pretrial intervention, maybe. … If I don’t earn this seat, I plan on figuring out what to do. But I definitely want to stay in the political arena,” he said.
To watch the full-length video of the forum, click on this link: https://bit.ly/3fZpIoR.