Baños is the Editor of Gables Insider
In a striking display of political tension, Wednesday’s City Commission meeting showcased a notable departure from the norm, hinting at a significant shift in the city’s political landscape. The agenda was relatively concise, yet brimming with issues that could shape the future of the city. The four pivotal items up for discussion were the proposed shift of the upcoming election from April 2025 to November 2024, the establishment of a charter review committee, the renewal of the firefighter’s union contract, and the approval of the millage rate for the forthcoming fiscal year, complete with a budget laden with projects of substantial interest to the city’s residents.
The proposal to change the election date to November 2024 was met with a 3-2 vote against, with Commissioners Menendez, Castro, and Fernandez casting dissenting votes. Vice Mayor Anderson had championed the change, supported by Mayor Lago, though it was difficult to ignore the suspicion that this move was driven by a desire to avoid a repeat of the electoral outcome in April 2023. While proponents argued for increased voter participation and cost savings through a November election, critics, including Commissioner Fernandez, pointed out that voters had ample opportunities to participate in the April elections.
Commissioner Castro raised concerns about the political motivations behind the move, highlighting a political action committee with over $600,000 in its coffers, which had previously supported the Mayor and his preferred candidates. She argued that a crowded federal ballot in November would overshadow local issues and provide an advantage to well-funded campaigns, potentially drowning out the voices of the local electorate.
Commissioner Menendez played the role of mediator, using his experience in team sports coaching to maintain decorum in the chamber. Expressing displeasure at the rushed introduction of the proposal without sufficient public input and debate, he ultimately brought the discussion to a close, much to Mayor Lago’s apparent frustration.
The creation of a Charter Review Committee was another contentious point of debate. Commissioner Fernandez introduced the resolution as a measured alternative to the election date change proposal. However, Mayor Lago and Vice Mayor Anderson, working in tandem throughout the evening, sought to exert control over the committee’s composition, including the appointment of the chair. Commissioner Menendez once again played the role of referee, offering a middle-ground solution that allowed the Mayor’s appointee to chair the committee. The resolution passed with the Commission’s approval.
The debate extended to the firefighters’ union contract, a long-standing point of contention for Mayor Lago. Despite the firefighters compromising and receiving management’s approval, the Mayor appeared dissatisfied, seemingly seeking retribution for perceived political positions taken by the union. It was the rest of the Commission, with Commissioner Menendez’s wise words, that came to the rescue, allowing the compromise to proceed.
The climax of the evening came when Mayor Lago abruptly proposed a graded millage rate decrease of up to 7.75 percent, a regressive tax plan that would primarily benefit more affluent property owners. While many residents welcomed the idea of a tax cut, they raised concerns about the lack of fiscal planning behind the Mayor’s proposal. The proposed budget decrease of nearly $6 to $9 million initially lacked specific item reductions, prompting the Mayor to seek suggestions from his colleagues. Eventually, the Mayor’s proposal targeted park projects, particularly those dear to Commissioner Menendez, encountering strong opposition from the three commissioners who opposed his earlier election date change.
Mayor Lago, seemingly exasperated, demanded a unanimous agreement from the Commission to cut $2.4 million from the budget, holding it hostage in exchange for his support and that of Vice Mayor Anderson for the Manager’s proposed millage rate, which required a 4/5 vote. However, even Vice Mayor Anderson, who very much believes that government should govern, declined to join the Mayor’s brinkmanship, ultimately voting with the rest of the Commission to approve the millage rate.
Mayor Lago’s subsequent attempt to remove various park projects from the budget, prioritizing office improvements at City Hall, was also defeated by the remaining three commissioners, leaving the Manager’s budget unchanged for the Second Budget Meeting
While Mayor Lago has had a history of accomplishments and community engagement as Commissioner Lago, his tenure as Mayor has raised concerns about his approach to governance. Commissioner Fernandez and Castro both implored him to move past the past election and focus on the city’s well-being, but Mayor Lago’s apparent determination to leave his mark, even if it means a scorched-earth exit, raises questions about his priorities. Perhaps, as Commissioner Menendez exemplifies, acting as a referee rather than a rugby player would serve the city’s interests better as it prepares for future deliberations.
As the Coral Gables City Commission prepares for future decisions, one thing is clear: the dynamics within the chamber have shifted, and residents will be watching closely.