Former Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas tested four candidates for town council with pointed questions during a debate held at Miami Dade College North Campus.
Two of the hopefuls – business executives Tony Fernandez, 35, for Seat 1 and Ray Garcia, 48, for Seat 3, who is challenging incumbent Councilwoman Marilyn Ruano – were endorsed by Mayor Manny Cid.
Cid appointed Ruano, 43, an accountant, to the town council in 2017 when then-Vice Mayor Tony Lama moved to the west coast.
"That is confusing to a lot of voters," said Penelas, who lives in town with his family and moderated the Oct. 16 debate. He called Cid’s move “extraordinary.”
Cid’s decision to back Ruano’s rival may have come after she said in March she was considering a run for mayor.
"Residents want a change in Miami Lakes,” Ruano said. “They were not happy with the direction the town was going in, and they saw me as that solution."
She did not elaborate on what residents were unhappy about.
Ruano said Cid appointed her three years ago because of “leadership that I had proven as a resident…. But he chooses to endorse my opponent who I have the utmost respect for but quite frankly, has not earned his stripes in a way that I have, in being involved in the community for 15 years.”
Ruano called herself “a strong and independent voice” who disagrees with Cid on some issues.
“The mayor is looking to replace me because I'm an inconvenience for him on the town council," she said.
Garcia said it was a misconception that he was picked by Cid to run for office and that he was motivated by his desire to serve the community.
Also participating in the debate, hosted by the Miami Lakes Economic Development Committee and Miami Lakes Bar Association was Nayib Hassan, who is also campaigning for Seat 1.
Fernandez, former chair of the Miami Lakes Youth Activities Task Force and Hassan, former chair of the town's Veterans Committee, are seeking to replace outgoing Vice Mayor Nelson Rodriguez.
Rodriguez was term-limited this year and lost a state house primary.
Garcia, who served on the Miami Lakes Neighborhood Improvement Committee, said he ran for Ruano's seat earlier in the year when he thought she wanted the mayor’s job.
"I got the impression she was running for mayor and that's why I selected Seat 3 because I thought it was open," Garcia said.
Garcia said Ruano didn't mislead the voters by flirting with a mayoral campaign.
"She had a tough decision and she decided not to run for mayor," Garcia said. “However, I thought she was, that’s why I selected Seat 3.”
Hassan, 43, is not on the mayor's slate but Penelas said a campaign mailer suggested Cid was endorsing his bid and that it was misleading.
"Why should voters trust you with their vote if you are sending out mailers suggesting that the mayor and others trust you when they are not endorsing you?" Penelas said.
"Mayor Cid criticized you in [a recent newspaper] article when he said that that mailer was misleading."
"I frankly disagree with the mayor," Hassan said. "All the people on the mailer supported what I did for the Veterans Committee. And some of them have endorsed my campaign."
Hassan said one side of the ad says Cid supports him for his work on the Veterans Committee but doesn't endorse his candidacy.
The other side of the mailer says former councilmembers Ceasar Mestre and Frank Mingo endorsed him, Hassan said.
Hassan, a criminal defense attorney, first ran for town council in 2016 and lost to Councilman Luis Collazo.
"I became chair of the Veterans Committee [though I] didn't serve in the military," Hassan said.
The committee hung banners along Miami Lakes Drive to honor service members and veterans and staged the Jingle Bell Jog, a 5K run/walk event that raises money for veterans who are unwell.
"The Jingle Bell Jog is one of the only events in town which doesn't take taxpayer dollars,” Hassan said.
Penelas asked the candidates endorsed by Cid if they would be his puppets, and to name issues where they disagree with Cid.
Fernandez faulted the town's slow pace of infrastructure repair.
"I lot of times I think we get caught up in small accomplishments," said Fernandez, who runs a technology services firm. "But we have broken sidewalks and we have poor drainage…”
Penelas said Cid advocated for bonds and spending.
“I don’t think infrastructure has been a priority," Fernandez said.
Garcia said he also disagreed with the pace of infrastructure repair and renovation of Optimist Park.
Hassan agreed with Penelas’s characterization that the candidacies of Fernandez and Garcia were a referendum on the mayor.
Ruano was the only councilmember this year to vote against the town property tax rate of 2.3127 and citing residents’ struggles during the pandemic, favored the rollback rate that would generate the same amount of tax revenues as last year.
She also cast the lone no during the council’s recent vote of confidence for Town Manager Edward Pidermann.
"I disagreed with him on some budget issues," Ruano said.
Garcia praised Pidermann’s management of the town during the pandemic and the pressures it brought against town services.
The strategic plan called Imagine Miami Lakes 2025 -- which lists active and future goals for transportation, parks, economic development, safe routes to school, sustainability, transparency and innovation and safety -- was also discussed.
Penelas called the plan ambitious, but said, "I was disappointed in not seeing a total price tag. So it's hard for me to determine, what is this going to cost us? And the other disappointment was, how are we going to pay for it?"
Ruano said some of the projects are not a priority for Miami Lakes and the only way to cover the costs would be with a loan or bond.
"It’s a moving target. …There really is no price tag," Ruano said. "Every year, the number changes."
Fernandez said some of the projects in Imagine Miami Lakes 2025 are necessary but will not get resolved if the town is beholden to the rollback rate every year.
"We cannot expect our government to produce the same level of service with less money," he said.
Penelas reminded Fernandez that his political platform includes keeping taxes low and that by keeping the millage rate flat, residents' taxes will increase because their property values went up this year.
"I'm increasing taxes, yes," Fernandez said. "But increasing taxes in this case would be rising property values."
Fernandez said some projects warrant a tax increase to mediate floods after tropical rains, to repair sidewalks and issues with the tree canopy.
"It's difficult for me to tell a homeowner that they will continue to get water intrusion and waves of water into their house but also proudly say I saved them $4 a year by rolling back the millage rate," Fernandez said. “I can’t do that knowing there are critical infrastructure needs in the town.”
Hassan said because of the pandemic, he wouldn't raise taxes.
"In a year like this year in 2020, people lost their jobs," Hassan said. "My family has a small business and I own a family-owned law practice and I know the hardships those individuals are going through."
The bridges are another hot button issue. Hialeah on the west side of Interstate 75 wants the closed spans at Northwest 154th Street and Northwest 170th Street to be opened to traffic.
Penelas asked candidates to say if one bridge has to be opened, which should it be?
They all chose Northwest 170th Street at the town’s northern border, except for Garcia.
"Hialeah's lack of planning shouldn't be our emergency,” Garcia said. “None of the residents want these bridges opened. But I guess it will be 170, but they are two bad choices. The only way I would consider it is if [the Florida Department of Transportation] opens I-75."