These questions were sent to all Key Biscayne Village Council candidates on Monday, Oct. 5th.
As If the candidates reply, The Tropical Rag will publish the responses. The replies are as they were received with some minor edits for spelling and grammar.
Interview with Matt Bramson
Official filing: PDF
I’ve heard that on the Key the best way to get elected is to know a lot of people and not go into much detail about policy. What do you think?
I think that’s always sound political advice. Unfortunately for me, it’s not my style. I tend to be willing, and even eager, to discuss policy with anyone willing. To me, that’s the point: I’m honestly more concerned with the best decisions being made than whether I am elected. I ran out of a concern that, unless I was elected, the best decisions may have been in jeopardy—otherwise I wouldn’t have run.
How long have you lived in Key Biscayne?
My family and I moved to Key Biscayne in 2008—so about 12 years.
And you think that’s enough time to be on the council?
Yes. But only because I haven’t just lived on Key Biscayne for a dozen years, I’ve been actively involved in the community for a dozen years. Since arriving on the Key I have served in church leadership, yacht club leadership, condo association leadership, and on two Village Council-appointed committees including the 2040 Strategic Vision Board.
Alright, let’s get to it.
Property rights & development
The entrance block property is back up for sale. How do you feel about how the council handled the fight with Commodore Realty (CR) over building a Walgreens at the entrance block? You would be hard pressed to find a resident who was happy with the proposal, and yet there were also property rights at play. After many delays, the Village Council approved the project but cited traffic studies to close access to the property, thus making it infeasible. CR eventually sold the property at a profit, but not nearly as much as the value of the Walgreens deal, and not before running ads in the paper comparing the Council to Venezuela and Cuba.
Do you feel the spirit of property rights was violated using legal technicalities or is this just the name of the game when it comes to large development?
I think government, and in this case the Village of Key Biscayne, has two reasonable paths it can follow with respect to private property: 1) it can spell out a clear strategic vision for a community and especially the strategic properties therein and create incentives and obstacles to support that vision—including zoning restrictions, tax benefits and the like; or 2) it can be laissez-faire and allow property owners to realize their own private vision. I grew up in Florida (Tampa) in the 70s and 80s and so I have seen the result of the second approach play out repeatedly. I also spent summers in a community in Eastern Long Island in which preserving the character of the community was a shared value and property rights were not absolute. My conclusion is that a compromise can be established, within a long-term vision plan framework, that affords property owners plenty of latitude and opportunity for enrichment without enabling an unplanned mess that degrades value for all.
With the CR/Walgreens kerfuffle the Village took a third approach that I think was unfair to all concerned. Because a long-term strategic vision plan for the community didn’t exist and it was clear that the property in question was strategic, the Village unreasonably thwarted the vision of the owner. This was proof of the adage that a failure to plan is a plan to fail. It seemed to me that the Village lacked a strategic vision for that property, yet it seemed clear to them that a Walgreens wasn’t it. That’s not a fair approach.
This is one reason why I am so passionate about the need for a strategic vision plan for the Village. We need to have a fully hashed out, consensus-based, expert-informed, long-term strategic vision in place so that every time an opportunity arises (a house goes up for sale, a business location becomes available), the Village and the property owner have shared expectations for what can occur, especially properties deemed strategic because they are on Crandon or adjacent to the school or have access to the Bay.
A few years ago the Silver Sands Hotel tried to develop their site into a hotel/condo. The village had just passed a new zoning rule only allowing for hotels, and the owners of the Silver Sands were contesting that they were being unfairly targeted as the last property to not redevelop. Eventually their redevelopment deal fell through and they quit pursuing the development of the property and its legal implications, but still claimed the right to build apartments. Do you feel the Silver Sands property should be grandfathered into the old zoning rules; would you give them a variance?
As with my answer above, I think that a strategic vision plan for our Village—that balances long-term community considerations with the autonomy and ROI of private property owners—could play a role in this instance. If the Silver Sands property is deemed strategic—which I expect it would be as the last/only oceanfront redevelopment opportunity—then that plan would provide guidance. It would be less about past and present fairness and more about long-term future benefit for the community. Because I know only just enough about strategic vision planning for a community like Key Biscayne to be dangerous (which is why I advocated successfully before the Council for engaging true expertise), I know that I don’t yet have a position on how that specific property would fit into a proper plan. Maybe it should be a beach park, maybe homes, maybe something else more inventive and valuable for our community than I can devise on my own.
The topic of an assisted living facility was raised briefly at a council meeting recently. While most voters might be ambivalent to the general idea, it was proposed for the Crossbridge Church property with a developer expressing interest. How do you feel about an assisted living facility being built specifically at the church property? Would you vote to put the referendum to voters (as I think would be legally required as it increases density) to up-zone that specific property?
At the risk of being a broken record, this is yet another instance that reinforces the need for a long-term strategic vision plan for the Village. In general, I do think that an assisted living facility would be an asset for our community. I do think that the Crossbridge property could be an ideal location. I am a supporter of community-wide involvement in the creation of and commitment to a long-term strategic vision for our community. I would also support a referendum as required to approve specific projects—but I think that having a clear, cohesive plan for the entire community would make individual decisions, by voters and the Council, easier and less contentious.
There’s no doubt the budget has increased quite a bit in the last ten years. I’m looking at the 2010 budget at ~$24m and the 2020 at ~$36m. Still, the tax rate has remained mostly the same. I can think of some reasons for this (more people, new buildings online, new schools, new parks, etc) but what do you make of it?
I believe that the explanations listed are largely responsible for the budget increases. I also know that the budgets of organizations like villages and condo associations steadily increase as a natural process. Employees want steady raises and the same or better bonuses as last year. The cost of insurance, especially for healthcare, steadily increases. Vendors want to increase their prices every year. And improvement and expansion of services requires more people and more costs. It is also human nature for managers and employees to always want to do less and earn more year over year. A volunteer, part-time Council (or condo board) is outmatched by professional, full-time managers and employees. A professional, full-time Village Manager (or condo general manager) is supposed to be the counterweight. But that too is problematic. It’s often wiser for a general manager to be loyal to “their people” and try to manage down the expectations of elected leaders with respect to feasible savings. You can generally discourage all but the most determined elected leaders by asserting that any cuts past a certain point will be disastrous. And, of course, to some extent that’s absolutely true. The best approach is to regularly investigate outsourcing where possible (not necessarily to do it in all cases but to have a comparison) and maintain pressure on management to find cuts—often by providing them with financial incentives. One tool that can be helpful in this is bringing in expert consultants to identify and help realize the best savings opportunities.
I’m sure you’ve read every line of the current budget, as all of us have. How do you feel about it? Are there any concrete changes you would make?
A bit of context first: the millage rate that funds the Village of Key Biscayne is the lowest of any community in Miami-Dade, we enjoy first-rate public safety and community services, and we are not deficit spending. So we are not in a financial crisis. That being said, financial efficiency is an unqualified good. In business I tell my clients that “margin is destiny”—meaning that if you maintain high margins (gross profits), your future is bright while if you don’t, you are doomed. A corollary for a public organization is “efficiency is destiny”. As far as concrete changes, my answer is “I don’t know yet”. I haven’t fully assessed the budget. However, my business experience has taught me a few places to look for accessible savings: it’s almost always in the people—the more expensive they are the more carefully their necessity needs to be established.
I can’t help but think that if you really want to make any dent in the budget you’ve gotta cut staff, including Fire and Police. This is politically very unpopular right now. Thoughts?
Yes. Significant budget cuts nearly always involve staff. Anyone who says that they are determined to cut spending but are committed to not cutting staff is nearly always fooling themselves (and perhaps attempting to fool others). I am not prepared to assert at this point that we have unneeded staff. Given my comments on the natural expansion of budgets above, it would be reasonable to believe that savings—from targeted staff reductions—may be possible. But the who, where, and when are the keys and the responsibility for that primarily rests with the professional manager based on budgetary guidance from the Council. I would push the manager to implement KPIs for every department and raise the level of the dialog around savings and staffing to incorporate availability, quality, and consistency of services.
There was lots of talk during this year’s budget sessions about the funding of community groups, a relatively minor part of the budget. Why do you think that happened, and what are your thoughts?
I think this happened for three reasons:
The big budget items are complicated and somewhat sacred (like police and fire).
The small items are easier to grandstand with…“$100,000 for an iguana eating contest is outrageous” (made up event) is a low-risk, subjective declaration—it sounds reasonable to many and, whether you’re right or wrong, doesn’t really matter. We can live without an iguana eating contest. On the other hand, “$3,800 per ambulance dispatch is outrageous” (made up stat) is a high-risk, objectively-challengeable declaration—and if you’re wrong it really could matter a lot.
There is an insider-outsider narrative that some are trying to sell. There is a fair bit of talk, mostly on chats and other less-public venues, about community programs and associated nonprofits being shady and rife with conflict and the like. Organizations, like ASK and KBCF, are, the narrative goes, insider organizations that the outsiders need to undermine “for the greater good”.
My thoughts are that community groups and programs should be evaluated and funded based on a simple, three-part criteria:
Are the publicly-funded (fully or partially) programs organized by these groups well-attended?
Do the programs enhance our knowledge, health, and/or connectedness within our community and neighboring communities?
Do the programs increase the appeal of Key Biscayne for those who would consider living here (and paying top dollar to do so)?
Currently the council gives money to the Education Advisory Board which disperses it to fund initiatives at local public schools. What role should the council play in education?
I believe that the EAB is a good compromise. We have the option of taking over the funding and running of our public schools—and for several good reasons and several not so good reasons this is not widely supported (as of the last time it was raised as an issue perhaps a decade ago). We also have the option to play no role as a Village in our public schools—just let the county handle everything. I think that would be a missed opportunity and a mistake. My perspective on the EAB is that it has had a positive impact. I will note that my children never attended public schools on Key Biscayne. They went to St. Chistopher’s for a few years, public magnet schools (for music and dance respectively), and Gulliver Prep for middle and high school—so I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the impact of the EAB.
Should we have made the addition to MAST bigger?
Yes. In general, I think that going bigger, when demographic trends indicate a growing need, is smart. The community center should have been bigger from the beginning and MAST should have too. It’s human nature to resist change and want to minimize it. The problem with this is that the change happens anyway and then buildings are expanded later and are never as optimal as they could have been. Ever been to an older hospital? They are cobbled-together messes of buildings and wings and expansions—because no one had the courage or foresight to think a decade or two into the future—and it’s too expensive and disruptive to tear the whole thing down and start again.
General obligation bond and associated projects
General obligation bond: yes or no?
Yes. I wouldn’t have rolled it out this way but no leader ever inherits perfection. You always need to try to make the best of the hand that’s been dealt. Complaining about it or using it as an excuse not to move forward isn’t leadership. On balance it will be better for our Village if the bond passes and worse if it doesn’t. I trust our process and I believe that the major capital improvements our Village has undertaken, the Village Green, the Community Center, MAST expansion, have been successful. Cynicism without overwhelming facts is not my style.
By the time you’re elected the bond issue will have been decided. What do you do if it doesn’t go your way?
Either way we need a long-term strategic vision plan and a higher degree of confidence in our Village, our Council, and our processes. I think that the work of creating a long-term strategic vision plan could be an opportunity to kill many birds with one stone. If elected to Council, getting this strategic vision plan, guided by DPZ (the firm recommended by the 2040 Strategic Vision Board), will be one of my top priorities. This is especially true if the GOB fails.
And if it does go your way?
If the GOB passes then we will be in a better position, armed with both the best financial tool and a voter mandate, to move forward on realizing the long-term strategic vision plan, especially with respect to designed infrastructure initiatives.
The former plan to bury the power lines involved an assessment where property owners would pay according to the perceived individual benefit to their property, to be decided by a company that specializes in deciding these things. Do you prefer this to a general obligation bond?
I wrote an article on this: https://www.keynews.org/2019/04/01/op-ed-a-condo-owners-view-of-one-island/
Do you think such an assessment method could work for the other resiliency projects outlined by the Village (complete streets, beach rehab)?
I think that this is a potential divisive approach as I wrote about in 2019. The millage formula isn’t wonderfully fair in all respects but it is consistent and based on something objective. The assessment methods are complex and will be the source of endless debates each time they are used. Let’s be smart and avoid that.
The causeway is the only way in and out of Key Biscayne, and yet we have no jurisdiction over the area. With Miami-Dade County seemingly waiting to act until it’s absolutely necessary (eg. the bear cut bridge maintenance), do we have any hand to play? Please consider the little we’ve accomplished in this fight in the past.
I think we need to both not give up and improve our approach. It seems to me that we are largely reactive in our dealings with the City and County. It’s tough when we are so much smaller and led by part-time volunteers. So I would be open to putting some organization in place that would be able to apply constant pressure (and constructive coercion—we want to be effective, not just vocal) on seeing that our needs are addressed. We don’t have a lot of electoral leverage. What we mostly have is money. We should formulate a long-term strategy to leverage our assets to get what we want and need.
Do you have an ideal outcome for the causeway?
It’s tough because there are many things to balance. Traffic-flow-wise, it would be great to have an upper deck of lanes from the Powell Bridge to Bear Cut so that cars going to the parks or marina or Seaquarium could use the lower level and cars going to Key Biscayne could take the express lanes on top—but that’s a lot of unsightly concrete on a small island with a beautiful beach. It would also be great to safely accommodate cyclists better somehow. I think that unless someone can come up with an inspired plan, the ideal outcome is that the causeway be safe, strong (especially Bear Cut Bridge), and that traffic disruptions from events continue to be as well-managed as most have been.
Hindsight is 20/20
In hindsight, considering its location, its usage, and its price:
As I have made repeatedly clear, I would greatly prefer that we invest the time and energy in developing a long-term strategic vision plan for the entire community. Had we done that years ago, these individual decisions would likely have been less contentious and incrementally contributed to the realization of a shared vision—or not, in which case they would have been rejected. But that didn’t happen (yet) and so I will answer as best I can…
would you have voted for the dog park?
Yes, I think it is a valued community hub.
would you have voted for Hampton park?
Maybe—I would definitely have seen to it that it was well-maintained. But I also would have advocated for a “bigger move” and perhaps kept our funding powder dry and gone for a waterfront lot.
would you have voted for the park on Harbor Drive?
Doubtful—I would have advocated for a “bigger move” and perhaps kept our funding powder dry and gone for a waterfront lot.
What’s your favorite infrastructure/building/parks project the Village has done?
Community Center—the youth sports alone are a massive benefit for our community. Plus it has other significant benefits for everyone in our community.
Hampton Park—love the idea but the execution—and especially maintenance—is frustrating.
How do you feel about the cultural center / library the council is exploring? What is your ideal location for the cultural center?
I’m for it. I think that enhancing the strength of our community has major value for our lifestyles and property values. [Insert long-range strategic vision plan preamble here] I think the best place might be 530 Crandon or between the “Government Center” and the school if the lots can be acquired. I think the current library site in front of Key Colony could become a passive park and that might be a trade-off that would be well-received by many. I would miss having the library so close to my home but if the plan is to do something great, that location may not be suitable given the small lot size.
There’s been some talk about leaving the Miami-Dade Public Library System and funding the library ourselves directly. Knowing what you know today, would you make the switch?
I’m open to it because the upside is potentially significant: a better library and maybe at a lower cost. The downsides could be too though: a) leaving the County system would make it harder for our residents to use other County libraries — not sure that’s a big deal for many though, b) we would have to invest quite a bit on people, technology, etc., c) we’d need to commit, as a community, to maintaining an adequate or even excellent library or we would lose in the end. There would be pressure to cut the library budget every year, I expect. Bottom line: I would need to see the whole plan — but better for less is hard to oppose.
One final thought on this is that Key Biscayne is currently a “donor community” with respect to the library taxes we pay versus what we receive back in library services from the County. There is an argument that this is proper and good as well as an argument that it is neither. An important question to ask is whether the County would or could increase our taxes in other ways to recoup the lost income to the library system? If that is likely, then it should be factored into our decision since it could reduce or eliminate any savings we could realize.
A few months ago, the mayor had a private talk with the manager and asked for it to be in confidence. Hours later political allies of the manager were calling council members, including the mayor, referencing said conversation. Any thoughts on this situation, and how would you react if it happened to a fellow councilmember or to yourself?
I take commitments to keep conversations in confidence seriously. This is especially true if the conversation is intended to benefit me (even if this intention is unmet in my view). I always want communication to be open and direct between people who work together. The relationship between a Village Manager and a Mayor, in our system, is delicate and I would be very careful how I navigated it. I think a Manager in our system is wise to try very hard to stay above politics. In my view, disclosing the conversation and seeking to undermine the Mayor was a misstep. When someone reacts to attempts to help them improve their performance by playing politics, they create an adversarial dynamic. They are implicitly persuading the advice-giver that merely talking with them is not going to have a positive impact—they are going to need to push much harder than that. That’s not generally the best working relationship between people.
During the 2018 election traffic concerns on Crandon were high on the list of priorities, as polling in a village survey had reflected. A kid had been hit by a motorcycle and sent to the hospital at one of the crandon crosswalks which really kicked it off. Yet since then, I couldn’t list one thing that has been done in response. The crosswalks work the same way today, and annoyingly-strict enforcement of traffic laws never happened. Are we good to go on pedestrian safety?
No. I would like to see stricter enforcement of traffic laws. And I would note that that kid is the daughter of close friends.
Does anyone really care that fishing is banned at Mashta bridge?
Yes, I care—in an intellectual sense more so than practical. I think that we should be very reluctant to curtail legitimate use of public spaces. If there are issues with how those spaces are being used (like littering) then we should enforce associated laws and perform frequent maintenance rather than banning the use of those spaces. I think that we need more, not fewer, public spaces for kids, families, and adults to be outside, active, and interacting.
Does anyone really care that there isn’t public access to the bay, even just a small spot to drop a paddle board?
Yes, I care. My principal frustration with the pocket parks is that we didn’t focus on a bayfront lot. I wasn’t on the committee and there may be good reasons why they didn’t or couldn’t get a bayfront lot.
Does anyone really care that there’s only one public cold water fountain on the whole island?
Yes, I care. This is easy to fix. All it takes is money (which we have) and will (which I think we also have). With our climate, we should have cold water for drinking available in more public places.
I can’t believe this has to be asked but it’s come up enough times in public comments: should renters be allowed to vote in KB? How about non-citizen owners?
The eligibility to vote is a matter of federal and state law. I agree with the status quo on both questions: renters should be allowed to vote and non-citizens should not. Renters are citizens and they essentially pay property taxes by proxy anyway. Non-citizens are not citizens and don’t enjoy certain rights reserved for citizens. Allowing non-citizens to vote essentially destroys the notion of citizenship—which has many positive and practical benefits. It would also seem to me that you wouldn’t want to unilaterally degrade the value of your citizenship. If I could buy and own property in Mexico, for example, and have a vote in the local elections, that might be a fair trade. But today this is not the case—and it is unlikely to ever be so.
That’s it. Anything you think is important that I didn’t touch on?
I think there’s a paradox at the heart of the approach that is being taken by some on the Council and vying to be on at least two crucial issues: Village operations and Village infrastructure investments.
We have volunteer, amateur, unpaid, part-time elected officials (amateur in the sense that none—as far as I know—are educated and trained public administrators) and we have professionals running and working within our public departments. But…some, on the Council and vying to be, seemingly don’t trust the employees we’ve hired—because they are conflicted and self-interested—and don’t want to bring in experienced consultants—because they are wasteful and “don’t actually do anything”. So distrust is driving us to exclusively trust perhaps the least qualified voices in our community? That’s paradoxical and I would be interested in hearing all the candidates pressed on how they would make decisions on managing—and perhaps making cuts to—our Village operations and on evaluating—and perhaps rejecting—investments in our Village infrastructure. Why should we trust their judgement on, for example, the most efficient way to provide fire and police services? Why should their opinions on infrastructure projects determine the fate of our homes? Would they really reject the perspective and opinions of experienced and proven experts if elected? I think the voters deserve to know.
Let me be clear: I am no less an amateur than many of those serving our Village today as elected officials. But I do not reject the value of our professional staff nor qualified outside consultants. Decisions about our emergency services and our infrastructure should be based on the best and most thoughtful perspectives we can get. Good advice is expensive, but mistakes and missed opportunities cost far more.
One other issue I think should be raised: several candidates are, it seems to me, largely the creation of contentious social media chats. In those chats, over the last year or so, these candidates have made some outrageous statements—about the value of incorporation, funding of police and fire, and supporting community groups and programs. Several candidates have even vociferously peddled various harmful and corrosive conspiracy theories. These statements are documented—some have been quoted in a letter to the Islander and a recent mass email. Given that these chats are such a significant contributor to the apparent viability of certain candidates, will this elephant in the room remain unaddressed by independent voices for the remainder of this campaign? Accountability for documented past statements by several candidates and what they portend seems like a central issue that the voters need information on to make the best choice for our community. That seems like something that you and others looking to help illuminate the choice in this election should take on.
(That concludes the Tropical Rag interview.)
Island politics depot
Links to information about the upcoming KB election. This section will be updated as new information comes along.
Tropical Rag interviews
Franklin H. Caplan
Candidate forum 2020-09-21
Anti-Social podcast w/Allison McCormick
General obligation bond referendum
Tropical Rag bond FAQ
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