Baños is the Editor of Gables Insider
As the Coral Gables Budget Hearing unfolded on September 13, 2023, one issue emerged as the lightning rod for controversy – commission compensation. The proposed ordinance, unveiled to the public, ignited a fiery debate within the community.
The proposed ordinance, in its current form, states: “WHEREAS, for the fiscal year beginning October 1, 2023, the annual compensation (inclusive of the annual CPI adjustment) of the five members of the City Commission shall be $69,000 for the mayor, $67,000 for the vice-mayor, and $65,000 for each of the three commissioners; the monthly local expense allowance shall be adjusted to $800 monthly for each member of the City Commission); and a monthly car allowance shall be provided for each member of the City Commission in the amount of $703.84.”
What’s causing a stir is the substantial increase in commission salaries, compared to an average of $38,000 for the prior fiscal year. The controversy reached its zenith during the meeting when Mayor Lago and Vice Mayor Anderson publicly criticized the increase as an underhanded, secretive, and self-serving benefit for the remaining commissioners. Their main point of contention was the lack of prior discussion or input on the matter since the proposed budget was unveiled back in July of 2023.
Admittedly, the salary increase was part of the published budget item for discussion, prominently displayed within the ordinance on the agenda. However, it was not separately identified as a standalone topic for debate, nor was it publicly discussed during the previous two commission meetings held since the budget’s publication in July of 2023. While it was acknowledged that salary increases were generally discussed within the budget advisory board, they were not specifically debated concerning the Commission.
Critics, including Mayor Lago, various members of the public, and other publications, have questioned the wisdom of such a significant pay raise. Commissioner Fernandez offered his own justification for the increase in a publication known as Commissioner Digest, focusing on the many hours dedicated to meetings and preparations for Commission work, evolving into an almost full-time position.
In the grand scheme of public service, the debate over commission compensation invariably entangles itself in the delicate balance between offering fair remuneration for public servants’ time and avoiding the perception of creating a class of privileged officials. It is the age-old struggle between duty and personal enrichment, where politicians often find themselves criticized for using their positions for personal gain, whether through corruption or self-interest. Our American ethos, after all, champions the notion of public servants over monarchs.
To delve into the matter further, I, the undersigned, a Certified Public Accountant and former member of the Budget Advisory Board, requested various budget items to inform the debate. Upon checking with the City, it became apparent that significant increases in commission compensation had not occurred in decades, aside from yearly cost-of-living adjustments, many of which were foregone during lean budget years. Interestingly, Mayor Lago enjoys the exclusive services of two full-time staffers with combined salaries exceeding $100,000, in addition to various interns. In contrast, the Commission must share one executive assistant and a part-time assistant. Furthermore, the Mayor’s office expenditures have surged, including the construction of a secure key-access dividing wall leading to his office, with actual costs still pending disclosure from the city. Since the fiscal year 2020-2021, expenses under Mayor Lago’s purview have nearly doubled.
It’s worth noting that Mayor Lago, who vehemently opposed salary increases for his colleagues, has seen his personal wealth grow substantially during his ten years on the Commission. He openly boasts of his involvement in over six businesses and dismisses inquiries regarding real estate commissions he may have received from politically connected friends and associates. While there have been allegations of possible corruption in other publications, this publication, has no concrete evidence of any proven acts of corruption by the Mayor. Nevertheless, it is hard to ignore the political implications behind his efforts to control the salaries of the Commission.
Mayor Lago appears to aspire to outwork his fellow commissioners, treating the Commission as if it were a full-time job, while simultaneously advocating for meager salaries. This formula may inadvertently create opportunities for special interests to exploit the situation and find ways to compensate the Commissioners to gain favor. Perhaps it is time for residents to consider compensating the Commission with a living wage, a practice already established in neighboring municipalities like the City of Doral and the City of Miami. Recent events have shown that there are no guarantees against corruption, but adequate compensation ensures that those working in our best interest are not forced to seek supplementary income elsewhere.