Residents of Coral Gables are generally happy with the way the City plays its role. For the most part, they express their opinions via emails and calls to the Commission, away from public light.
However, over the last few months, residents have grown increasingly concerned that their interests are not being heard. This was the main opinion expressed by most participants in last night’s Commission meeting. The meeting had been moved from its usual 9:00AM to 4:00PM at the request of Vice Mayor Vince Lago who wanted to encourage more resident participation.
Over two hundred people logged into the February 9th City Commission meeting, which was intended to feature final votes on several changes to the zoning code.
The meeting began with the Mayor’s scripted remarks and a showcase of images of Miracle Mile throughout the years. Telling residents that Miracle Mile has changed over the years.
PAID CONSULTANT TOO BUSY TO ANSWER RESIDENT QUESTIONS
The City hired the firm of DPZ CoDesign to advise the City on the zoning changes. Over the course of the lengthy zoning change proposal process, it had been led by DPZ partner, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Plater-Zyberk spoke very briefly before excusing herself from the meeting due to a prior commitment to teach a class at the University of Miami. Interestingly, DPZ has a team of 24 people listed on their website, and no one else was present to answer resident questions.
DPZ is under contract at an hourly rate of $250 when Plater-Zyberk is present and $175 per hour when a “project manager is present. Yet Plater-Zyberk was unable to actively participate in what was intended to be the final meeting.
Commissioner Mena excused Plater-Zyberk because of the two week short notice and her potential contract with the University. One resident responded by suggesting the consultant could have found a substitute.
DISDAIN FOR RESIDENTS
However, the meeting quickly spiraled out of control as Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli repeatedly interrupted and went after residents who voiced their opinions and concerns about the lack of transparency and resident input in the process during the public comment period.
Every time a resident was recognized, the Mayor proceeded to taunt them by saying how many times that resident has been recognized for public comment on these zoning issue.
One resident, Leon Kellner, who was United States Attorney for the Southern District of Florida and prosecuted Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, was cut off by the Mayor in a very abrasive way. This brought about a motion from Commissioner Jorge L. Fors, Jr. and seconded by Vice Mayor Lago to allow Kellner to complete his remarks. The Mayor said it was up to him and he would not entertain the motion. According to City Attorney Miriam Ramos, the Mayor has the authority to control public comment. The motion to overrule the Mayor should have called for a vote, but Ramos disagreed and did not interject to explain.
As if the Mayor’s attacks on residents were not enough, Commissioner Michael Mena made it a point to challenge residents for their inability to understand the code and question their integrity.
Dr. Gordon Sokloff, a prominent dentist in Coral Gables and the Chairman of the Transportation Advisory Committee, asked why the over 1,000-page document of changes was not presented to residents in layman’s terms. A condescending Mena began to quote an 8-page memo from October “to see what part of this don’t you understand?”
The document, being from October, does not reflect the changes voted on yesterday.
This is not the first time Mena has overstepped with residents from the dais, as he sparred with parents of George Washington Carver Elementary and Middle Schools over the Wawa development.
Mena took things further yesterday by calling out David Winker, a prominent zoning lawyer, who has advocated for many resident groups in the City, as having filed a “frivolous lawsuit” stating he was speaking not only as a Commissioner, but as a lawyer himself.
Coral Gables reached a new low in public shaming, intimidating and antagonizing someone who has filed a lawsuit against the City. This, so called frivolous lawsuit, must have some merit as Gables Insider has learned that the City has hired high-priced Holland and Knight to represent the City. If it was a frivolous suit, wouldn’t the large team at the City attorney’s office have handled this internally?
CIVILITY OATH VIOLATION?
It is important to note that the Commission signs a civility oath, which is part of their sworn oath of office. It specifically swears them under oath with the words: “to my colleagues and to all those I represent and serve, I pledge fairness, integrity and civility, in all actions taken and all communications made by me as a public servant.”
COMMISSION CANDIDATE PARTICIPATION
Among those who spoke in opposition to the changes, were several candidates for the upcoming City Commission election, including (in alphabetical order): Rhonda Anderson, Javier Baños, Tania Cruz-Gimenez, Jackson Rip Holmes and Mayra Joli. Most of them were victims of the Mayor’s attacks, and seemed to voice a common concern over the lack of transparency in the process, as well as the lack of respect by the Commission towards residents.
Present but not speaking on the issue were Alexander Haq, Kirk Menendez and Jose Valdes-Fauli.
Not present for this crucial City Commission meeting were Alex Bucelo and Claudia Miro.
As for the zoning vote, that too was chaotic. After the meeting, many participants were really unclear as to what had and had not been voted on.
The Commission voted to approve the zoning changes, not related to the Crafts section or Miracle Mile, by a vote of 4-1 with Lago being the only vote against.
On the Crafts section, the measure passed by a 5-0 vote, with changes to the boundaries of the Crafts section and a reduction of height to 45 feet.
There will potentially be a sunshine meeting in the coming weeks to discuss the proposals, but no decision has been made.
The new vote on Miracle Mile zoning changes is scheduled for the March 9th Commission meeting, also time-certain at 5:00PM.