In a 3-2 vote following a lengthy and sometimes accusatory discussion of the issue, Coral Gables Commissions approved sizable salary increases for themselves, the Mayor and Vice Mayor.
Proponents touted the raises as decades overdue and a shift that will empower less well-to-do residents to seek public office.
Critics slammed the move as too abrupt and lacking transparency, arguing most residents weren’t informed of the change and that those who were overwhelmingly opposed it.
“Do I believe that a compensation increase was merited? Potentially. I just don’t like how this was handled,” said Mayor Vince Lago, who voted alongside Vice Mayor Rhonda Anderson against the raises. “(This) paints the city with a pretty bad brushstroke.”
Coral Gables’ ordinances mandate annual salary adjustments for elected officials based on the consumer price index (CPI). By that metric, the Mayor, Vice Mayor and three Commissioners — all of whom are considered part-time officials and vote on the City Commission — would receive 2.63% pay upticks.
Instead, Commissioners Melissa Castro, Ariel Fernandez and Kirk Menendez approved Tuesday:
— A 53.6% raise for the Mayor from $44,905 to $69,000, plus a 60% expense allowance increase from $6,000 to $9,600.
— A 70.5% raise for the Vice Mayor from $39,285 to $67,000, plus a 100% expense allowance increase from $4,800 to $9,600.
— A 78% raise for Commissioners from $36,588 to $65,000, plus a 100% expense allowance increase from $48,000 to $9,600.
All five members of the City Commission will also receive a new, $800-per-month car stipend, which amounts to $8,446 per person yearly.
Altogether, Castro, Fernandez and Menendez’s annual compensation is set to more than double beginning Oct. 1.
Lago and Anderson, who respectively stand to receive 71% and 93% pay increases, said they will refuse anything more than their existing, CPI-adjusted pay.
The last major change in Commissioner compensation was in the 1980s, according to Fernandez, who noted that the Commission salaries in the city’s new, $263 million budget are still lower than what they would have been if a 1% annual increase had been implemented since the last pay overhaul.
Every member of the Commission puts in 30 hours a week at City Hall and many more while working in the community, he said, and that work should be properly compensated.
“All five of us up here devote full-time hours to this job,” he said. “And based on the response that I’ve gotten in the community, I don’t think we’re taking a step in the wrong direction. I think we’re taking a step in the right direction and setting the city up to have residents sitting up here who are committed to the city as much as all five of us are.”
Menendez agreed. Like Fernandez, he said he’d gotten mostly positive feedback about the raises from residents for whom serving in office and earning enough to live in the city had before been mutually exclusive.
“People other than the affluent can (now) run for office and do this full-time, like we are doing, and be able to earn a living and serve the community with balance,” he said. “A lot of people said that they were sort of financially prohibited from running in the past.”
That’s beside the point, said Anderson, who sponsored a resolution Wednesday that would have allowed the budget to pass without the salary increases, which would then have been decided separately after a meeting with residents.
Lago voted for the measure. Castro, Fernandez and Menendez shot it down.
“These numbers were not provided to the public,” Anderson said. “The process was not done right. It wasn’t in a draft budget. It wasn’t done by ordinance. There was no discussion item on it, and … this is not what I want to do. I want it in daylight. I want it to be transparent.”
Anderson pointed out that Fernandez had criticized comparatively smaller salary increases for more than 55 city executives and senior staff — including the City Attorney, City Clerk, the City Manager, Police Chief, Fire Chief and Finance Director — in the October 2022 issue of his locally focused media outlet, Gables Insider. None of those raises exceeded 31%. They collectively amounted to $637,000 in raises.
In the initial 2023-24 budget estimate Coral Gables staff published online and made available for public viewing at two city locales in July, proposed salary increases for the five Commission members, not counting the expense allowances, totaled $199,465.
The raises approved Wednesday during the second and final budget hearing, including the new car stipend but not the expense allowance, totaled $379,000 — a more than 90% increase.
Several residents advocated for and against the raises during the Commission’s more than eight-hour meeting.
Nicolas Cabrera, a local farmer’s market organizer and the son of former Coral Gables Commissioner Rafael Cabrera, said he and many others in the community believe the raises work counter to the purpose of public service.
He attributed most support for them to the Coral Gables Neighbors Association, a large resident activist group that backed Castro and Fernandez in the city’s election this year.
“For me, the position of Commissioner comes with a set of responsibilities, and I don’t think it’s about the money (or) because you need to pay bills,” he said. “You do it because you have a dedication and a passion for this community … and I think the way the salaries were proposed is wrong. I think that it should have been held, as Vice Mayor Anderson proposed today, on the floor rather than in the (budget).”
Ed Santamaria, a former assistant city manager for Coral Gables, said the City Commission should have more actively informed and solicited input from the public before taking a final vote.
“This doesn’t really look good to a lot of people,” he said. “I don’t think that this was deliberated enough (or) handled the way that it should have been, in the sunshine.”
Dentist Gordon Sokoloff, an active member of the community who previously chaired the city’s Transportation Advisory Board, contended the information was available to those interested. He added that the budget is prepared by Coral Gables staff, not elected officials, and the raises reflect the city’s prosperity.
“It was not some conniving rip-off by any of the Commissioners. Like many of the things in this city, things get left behind,” he said.
“The city has grown enormously since 1980 (and) can afford these modicum raises (that help) incentivize prospective citizens to consider running for office. I’d much rather have people that are making money and looking forward to coming to work each day and serving the residents because they make a manageable salary.”
Sue Kawalerski, a media consultant and President of the Coral Gables Neighbors Association, said City Manager Peter Iglesias should be “very offended” by any suggestion the raises were secretly slipped into the budget and then hidden from public view.
She bashed Lago and Anderson for not speaking out against the salary adjustments until Wednesday — a move, she said, that appeared to be politically motivated.
“Where were you a month ago? Were you not debriefed?” she said. “We have two leaders here, the Mayor and the Vice Mayor. Neither of you raised the issue of a sunshine meeting, a referendum, opening this up to the public, let alone putting it on a Commission agenda, (and) it sure looks like hanky-panky. It looks like a plot to get the three (Commissioners) that are not with you.”