Commission Meeting Surpasses Expectations Through Collegiality, With a Few Notable Exceptions

Javier Baños

Baños is the Editor of Gables Insider

In an unexpected turn of events, the Commission Meeting held on September 26, 2023, managed to defy expectations that it would degenerate into a cauldron of contentious debates and lackluster outcomes. While moments of tension and occasional grandstanding punctuated the proceedings, the meeting ultimately transformed into a rather mundane session of ratifying routine government actions, interspersed with notable achievements by the emerging citizen activist faction within the Commission.

This marked the Commission’s second budget hearing, representing the final annual adjustment to the fiscal plan spanning from October 1, 2023, to September 30, 2024. While the budget will inevitably undergo further changes throughout the year, this moment presented a critical opportunity for the Commission to shape policies that would dictate the city’s priorities in the upcoming years and set the tone for capital improvement plans.

The stakes were high, as funding for several projects held deep significance for various Commission members and the residents of Coral Gables. The situation seemed like a zero-sum game, with resources allocated for some projects vying against vital historic restorations. However, with facts and expectations laid bare, wise minds found room for compromise. The most pressing issues included financing for the restoration of Phillips Park, which competed with funding for City Hall window replacements and renovations to the iconic Alhambra Water Tower.

While it’s tempting to scrutinize past Commissions for the neglect of City Hall’s current state and question the prioritization of other projects, such retrospection proves unproductive. The latest improvement to City Hall over the past two fiscal years was the replacement of the roof, albeit at a significant cost of nearly $700,000. However, this nearly century-old Mediterranean Revival-style building suffers from South Florida’s natural weathering, evident in peeling frescoes, cracked structures, and dilapidated windows and doors. These issues have led to substantial water leaks and humidity problems, affecting the health of employees and public officials.

Next in line was the Coral Gables Alhambra Water Tower, a non-functional structure but an iconic piece of Coral Gables’ history. Although never intended to last as long as it has, with its centennial approaching, the Alhambra Water Tower remains an unmistakable symbol of the City Beautiful. Renovations occurred from 1993 to 1998, with subsequent maintenance and improvements. Now, it requires more extensive restoration to secure its structural integrity and ensure another century of existence.

Lastly, Phillips Park, long neglected by the city, was set to undergo a transformation into a versatile sports and activity facility. The city’s substantial investment in new recreational facilities and walkable structures aimed to benefit the residents of the densely populated North Gables community.

Mayor Lago and Vice Mayor Anderson, perhaps as a response to Commissioner Menendez’s previous votes in September, advocated for deferring and reallocating funds away from Phillips Park to prioritize City Hall and the Water Tower. However, timing became a pivotal factor, as management explained that procedural hurdles for Phillips Park’s execution would likely push the project to the end of the fiscal year or the beginning of the next. This allowed for a reshuffling of priorities and Commissioner Menendez’s compromise to delay funding for Phillips Park improvements, thus freeing resources for City Hall and the Alhambra Water Tower in the new fiscal year. In addition, the Commission agreed to allow the Historic Preservation Board further oversight over the improvements of the windows at City Hall. This budget resolution, as amended by Commissioner Menendez, passed with unanimous support by the Commission.

However, the entire debate may become theoretical, as Commissioner Fernandez proposed restructuring the 25% reserve fund to free approximately $10,000,000. This would prevent further deterioration of these projects and others in dire need of attention. The proposal’s details remain a work in progress, which will be outlined in future articles, but its mere mention ignited one of the day’s three contentious moments. Mayor Lago attempted to hinder any proposal by suggesting a resolution requiring a 4/5 majority vote to modify the established 25% reserve structure. The debate was largely civil, with Vice Mayor Anderson expressing concerns about potential disasters necessitating reserve use, while Commissioner Castro, participating via teleconference due to illness, highlighted the needed restoration that additional funding could cover, while not affecting the total level of reserves, ultimately leading to the Mayor’s resolution failing in the new 3/2 vote dynamic.

The final two debates, if they could even be termed as such, revolved around Commission salary increases and the annexation of Little Gables and Ponce Davis/High Pines neighborhoods. Mayor Lago and Commissioner Fernandez engaged in some grandstanding, attempting to outmaneuver each other regarding annexation prospects. The exchanges were more posturing than substantive discussion, a healthy airing of differences, though peppered with unproven accusations and unnecessary affidavits outlining each camp’s beliefs. Ultimately, the consensus appeared to be letting voters decide, with the County enclaves getting the first opportunity.

The last point of contention centered on Commission salary increases, a topic previously outlined by this publication. Vice Mayor Anderson allowed for a procedural escape by presenting the issue as a standalone item on the agenda. The Mayor and Vice Mayor’s main complaint centered on transparency, as the item had been outlined within the budget resolution during the September 13, 2023 meeting but hadn’t been debated independently before its first reading. Anderson’s resolution, while not entirely altruistic as she opposed the move, provided Commissioners with the opportunity to clarify their positions and amend the budget to remove the increases. Mayor Lago emphasized the optics of the matter, but opponents pointed out that the very debate he sought was underway through the resolution’s discussion. Ultimately, the eye-catching 53% salary increase was not seen as abusive by 3 Commissioners, given the commitment of time and effort by its members. Vice Mayor Anderson, taking a more moderate approach, left her salary increase decision to her accountant but expressed her opposition via a minority vote to nix the increase, once again resulting in a typical 3/2 vote.

A Fernandez proposal to allow seniors to receive a city voucher of $100.00 passed with unanimous support.

The budget hearing, scheduled for 5:01 PM and the culmination of months of work and debate, concluded with minimal fanfare and few changes, except for Commissioner Menendez’s decision to reallocate funds from his proposed Phillips Park project to support City Hall and the Alhambra Water Tower. The Commission issued a now usual 3/2 vote, with the Mayor and Vice Mayor briefly registering their opposition due to the salary increases, wrapping up the meeting in less than 10 minutes. Overall, residents received value for their money, and the Commission demonstrated its ability to compromise and conduct the people’s business professionally, despite their differences.


12 thoughts on “Commission Meeting Surpasses Expectations Through Collegiality, With a Few Notable Exceptions

  1. I don’t know, but Ariel’s grandstanding with the affidavit in connection to the annexation issue was not quite collegial. I found it to be out of line and I am no fan of Lago. Also, your point of Anderson, not being “entirely altruistic,” would be a bit self-serving if you were to oppose her in the upcoming election in 2025. I’ve seen this playbook used on this platform before. Based on the discussion, Anderson, as you put it, offered a “procedural escape.” it’s very telling that the new majority opted out of a rational alternative; one that would have avoided all the fire they are taking now. The outrage in the community is palpable. I mean, Castro and Fernandez promised transparency. You know, “we listen to the residents,” “residents first,” and all of that.

  2. I feel like if you watched these meetings this article is saying “don’t believe your lying eyes”

  3. Thank you for providing all residents the chance to see what went on that day through Gables Insider! As one who attended the uneventful morning portion of this important 9/26 CG Commissioners meeting in person and then watched the entire contentious afternoon portion on Zoom, I found this article to be a very detailed and objective synopsis. Perhaps the more frequent 3/2 votes will encourage the entire Commission to reflect and reassess what is good for the City and its residents rather than constantly bickering as at the past few meetings.

    As for annexation of several neighborhoods, this should be left to a majority vote of those residents. Though Mayor Lago assured us that he has no personal or family interests in these annexations, he did admit that his brother owns a home in Ponce Davis/High Pines. Other sources have mentioned that his brother works for a Little Gables development client, though I cannot confirm that, but believe it has to do with a mobile home park. Regardless, actual residents of these neighborhoods appear to be mostly in disagreement with annexation.

    As for salary increases and new benefits of the Commissioners, I see no reason to not allow them to be paid for their full-time services, regardless of their time in office. I have contacted most of them at various times and received timely responses. Both the Mayor and Vice Mayor voted against these increases, probably because they already have car and expense write-offs through their other business affairs and an increase in salary would not work well with their ‘accountants’, but the other Commissioners deserve to be reimbursed for their time.

  4. Funding for City Hall’s historic windows must be allocated for renovation NOT replacement and the City must make that distinction. Renovation is the act of restoring something to a better state, while replacement is the act of completely getting rid of that thing and exchanging it for something else.

    The acceptable solution is for the original windows at City Hall and the annex/cottage to be restored and preserved. The windows are original and have withstood every storm since the 1920s, including Andrew and Wilma, which devastated the area. This recommendation is consistent with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards and recommendations of the current and former Coral Gables Historic Preservation Officers.

    City Hall is one of the most significant structures in the City and occupies one of the most visible and traversed locations at Biltmore Way and Le Jeune Road. It should also be remembered that this was the last major structure in the City with which George Merrick was involved. A star in the downtown area, City Hall was designed by premier architects Phineas Paist & Harold Steward and is one of the few buildings included in the City’s official Mediterranean handbook. Furthermore, this is one of the few buildings in the City that is both locally and nationally designated. Simply put, City Hall is one of the most recognized and iconic buildings in Coral Gables. On top of this, City Hall is one of the few buildings in the City that retains its original fenestration.

    The Secretary of the Interior notes: “As one of the few parts of a building serving as both an interior and exterior feature, windows are nearly always an important part of the historic character of a building. In most buildings, windows also comprise a considerable amount of the historic fabric of the wall plane and thus are deserving of special consideration in a rehabilitation project.”

    City Hall’s windows are too important to our “historic fabric” and cultural heritage to be merely “replaced,” which by definition, is the act of completely getting rid of that thing and exchanging it for something else. The windows must be stewarded properly with mindful renovation, which by definition, is the act of restoring something to a better state,

  5. I’m with Ms.Carson. Work together. Fernandez and Castro have been elected Commissioners. A Mayor whose candidates (no more experienced than Fernandez and Castro just more well connected) didn’t win seeks to accomplish what with his attacks, self aggrandizing and supporters sending political text messages attacking Commissioners? Today’s attacks: the salary increases. However sloppily handled, they make sense. No increase since the 1980s? $69k is hardly an over the top salary for Commissioners who , in today’s demanding world, are put upon round the clock. I don’t believe they have paid assistants. The voter’s message was clear: the Commission was too pro-development and we want balanced growth that is also well scaled, not just a hunt for more tax revenues by feeding the development frenzy. Deflecting won’t change the election results/message.

  6. These all the same people who refuse to give city retirees a COLA, since 2012. City workers. Don’t expect your retirement to grow with inflation

  7. Please stop all the infighting and negative texts/emails. You all are showing a lot of intolerance and dividing the commission. This is not what Coral Gables is about. Please, do yourselves and the residents a favor and compromise. Stop the attacks and work to keep this City one of the best places to live in.

  8. To the Editor: Thank you for your insightful and comprehensive analysis of the Sept. 26th Commission Meeting. Re: your comments about the Alhambra Water Tower’s past restoration efforts, I wish to remind you that in 2010, the Alhambra Water Tower Initiative was launched, chaired by Kendell Turner and supported by a volunteer group of 14 residents, of which I was one. Over several months, we were able to raise $70,000 for the rehabilitation of the Tower. Today, a discreet plaque
    honors the successful results of our efforts.

  9. Any annexations should be decided by the C G taxpayer Vince and Kirk have personal conflicts of interest on this matter.

    Salaries? What an abuse by the commission to award themselves a 56% increase for honorary jobs that
    other municipalities pay O, yet city employees here work for slave wages. Something must be done to increase their salaries by the same 56% immediately.

  10. Again, nothing for the employees of this “Great City” except frowns from the Commission while they get a chance to increase their pockets in a voluntary position!

  11. Why did the City kick out the owners of Le Parc??? My theory is that we can’t have something work perfectly well and have our citizens enjoy it without the City taking credit … therefore, kick them out, cause unnecessary disruption, and frustrate the citizens. Ridiculous!

  12. … lagos concern on the optics of the commission salary increase is hypocritical at best, deception at worst … his brother works for a little gables development client … where is that transparency? lago has grown the commissions budget over many years and now has a staff … that was never the case before … and only benefits him …

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