April City Hall: Anti-Corruption Audit, Ponce Park Project, and More

At its meeting in April, the Coral Gables City Commission discussed:

ARGUED OVER THE RECALL

Agreed to schedule a special meeting to discuss the issue of the recall that is targeting Mayor Vince Lago and the letter he released attempting to clear his name, which Commissioner Ariel Fernandez claimed leveled false accusations at himself and his fellow commissioners. The discussion turned heated during the public comment portion of the meeting, with members of the Commission on both sides leveling accusations at each other.

Maria Cruz, chair of the recall campaign against the mayor, asked to speak a second time, which Lago, as chair of the Commission, initially declined. Commissioner Melissa Castro made a motion to allow Cruz to speak for an additional minute, which Commissioners Fernandez and Kirk Menendez moved.

DECIDED ON A PICKLEBALL HOME

Voted 5-0 to use the Youth Center as an alternative site for pickleball courts, as opposed to the initial plan to build them at the rooftop of Parking Garage 4. Many sites were suggested over the course of the discussion, which lasted over an hour, but the Youth Center was chosen because of its existing infrastructure and the ability to have a faster turnaround, which residents pointed to as extremely important.

Yet to be determined is whether the courts will replace one of the baseball triangles or parking spaces on the street. A proposal that considers funding, ADA compliance, and other important factors will be presented at the next Commission meeting for both sites.

July City Hall: Pickleball Courts

ATTACKED THE MAYOR’S COUNCIL

Deferred a motion by Commissioner Castro to dissolve the mayor’s advisory board, which allows volunteer residents make suggestions for the Mayor’s Strategic Priorities Plan and hosts meetings open to public comment. Commissioner Castro took issue with the board being labeled as the mayor’s, saying, “We need to work as a Commission as a whole and not keep dividing this Commission.”

The mayor argued that the board is not divisive in the slightest and that Commissioner Castro was blatantly politicizing something that was created four years ago only “to do good.” Vice Mayor Rhonda Anderson offered a compromise to create another advisory board for the Commission, which agreed to consider alternatives before voting at the next meeting.

December City Hall: Public Education, Pension Liability, and More

PROPOSED AN ANTI-CORRUPTION AUDIT

Discussed implementing a forensic audit in addition to the city’s annual audit. The forensic audit would take an even closer look at the city’s spending, though the most recent audit did not find anything close to claims Commissioner Kirk Menendez had made previously of the city being “awash in a cesspool of corruption” or to Commissioner Fernandez’s previously stated concerns over employees’ spending. Mayor Lago, who sponsored the item, made it clear that a forensic audit would be expensive but ensured the city’s integrity. He also suggested the audit start with his own office and that they hire an inspector general to sniff out potential corruption.

FOUND NO MISUSE OF FUNDS

Listened to an update on the audit that Commissioner Fernandez requested in January on Amazon purchases made with city employees’ p-cards. The first stage of the audit covered from June 2023 to January 2024 and will continue back another 16 months, with those findings to be presented at a later meeting. All transactions are reviewed by department directors and then by the procurement division of the finance department.

December City Hall: Public Education, Pension Liability, and More

“We found that no misuse of city funds had been identified,” said Finance Director Diana Gomez. “All purchases were made in accordance with city and departmental past practices and policies in effect at the time.” In response, Commissioner Fernandez said, “I don’t agree with the fact that taxpayer dollars were not spent in a way that they shouldn’t have [been].” City Manager Amos Rojas, Jr. has put in place methods to curb employee spending on things like coffee.

REVIEWED POLICE VACANCIES

Listened to an update on vacancies in the police department, which currently number around 38, not including five more positions to be added later this year. Thus far in 2024, 15 officers have left the department. Chief Hudak cited many reasons for the departures, including better salaries at the county level. “This is not endemic to us,” he added, explaining the issue is nationwide while conceding that morale was low in the department.

The president of the police union, Christopher Challenger, said officers believe their voices are being ignored, specifically on compensation and morale. An anonymous department-wide survey showed that 90 percent of employees rated overall morale as “extremely poor” or “below average,” 72 percent rated communication between leadership and officers as “poor,” and 79 percent said they did not feel all officers are treated fairly. The city is currently negotiating with the union.

SAID YES TO A SMALLER PONCE PROJECT

Voted 5-0 on first reading to approve zoning changes to allow the new Ponce Park Residences development, being built on Ponce de Leon near The Plaza Coral Gables, to move forward. The project has been in the works for almost two years. Mayor Lago had opposed the size of the initially proposed plan, as had residents, which led to a reduction in height and fewer condominiums. Around 20,000-square-feet of park space, as well as retail, restaurants, and a paseo, are included in the new plan.

Developer Allen Morris will also execute long-awaited improvements to nearby Ponce Circle Park to the tune of nearly $9 million. “I was a ‘no’ vote until we had discussions on the issue of Ponce Circle Park,” said Lago. “To me, public spaces are the key and the future of our city.” Many residents who live near the building came to give public comment and spoke in favor of the project based on its changes and the way developer Allen Morris worked with them.

Watch the full April City Hall meeting here.


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