Manager Mismanaged: Commission Fires and Replaces City Manager (Updated)

In an unexpected turn of events, Commissioner Kirk Menendez casts the deciding vote to oust Peter Iglesias

The Coral Gables City Commission voted 3-2 to terminate City Manager Peter Iglesias during its February 13 meeting, a slightly shocking but not completely unsurprising move. A subsequent 5-0 vote appointed Assistant City Manager Alberto Parjus as acting city manager, while a replacement — U.S. Marshal Amos Rojas, Jr. — was voted in as new city manager during the next commission meeting on February 27.

Commissioner Ariel Fernandez, who sponsored the item to fire Iglesias, has a long-documented history of tension with the former city manager, including a previous attempt to oust him less than a year ago. That item was shot down after Commissioner Kirk Menendez voted with the mayor and vice mayor to retain Iglesias, with only Commissioner Melissa Castro following Fernandez’s lead. This time, however, Fernandez and Castro received the support of Menendez, who submitted a nomination for Miami International Airport Director Ralph Cutié to replace Iglesias while making no substantial comment on why he thought Iglesias should be fired.

After biting criticism from Mayor Vince Lago on the state of Miami International Airport, as well as Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava’s apparent ire over the attempt to poach her employee, the airport director hastily retracted any interest he may have had in the position.

The initial discussion of Iglesias’ termination began with 2.5 hours of public comment, the vast majority of which were in favor of retaining the city manager. Several former city officials spoke to Iglesias’ strength of character, professionalism, and capability, including former mayor Dorothy Thomson and former commissioners Chip Withers and Michael Mena. The latter implored Menendez to “do the right thing,” after Menendez had refused multiple attempts, including one by Coral Gables Magazine, to make his stance clear in the days prior to the meeting.

City Manager Peter Iglesias
Commissioner Kirk Menendez (left) votes in favor of getting City Manager Peter Iglesias (right) fired.

One of the more dramatic moments came in the second hour of public comment when resident Samuel Lawson stated, “We, as citizens, should strongly consider recalling Commissioner Fernandez.” He and at least one other speaker suggested that firing the manager should mean recalling Commission members who voted to do so.

Vice Mayor Rhonda Anderson then took the floor, accusing Fernandez of misquoting Iglesias in a memo he sent out prior to the Commission meeting. Fernandez claimed Iglesias had outright refused to do something as directed by the majority of the Commission at a previous meeting in January. Anderson refuted that by presenting a 17-second clip from that meeting which showed Iglesias indicating he would do whatever the Commission directed. She also presented emails showcasing Fernandez’s “accusatory and derogatory” tone in various correspondences with the city manager, including one email where he accused not only Iglesias but also Police Chief Ed Hudak of “insubordination” without evidence.

Mayor Lago also spoke strongly in favor of Iglesias’ retainment, going so far as to plead with his colleagues to treat the manager with more respect. “Make no mistake, the manner in which the city manager has been removed not only undermines our credibility but also sets a dangerous precedent for the future,” he said. “It sends a message to our city employees and to all that personal grievances can triumph over the collective good — a notion that stands in stark contrast to the values we hold dear…. Today, we have witnessed an abuse of power.”

Commissioner Fernandez, who previously ran the anti-government blog Gables Insider, had long accused the city manager of being part of “the establishment.” During his term, Iglesias oversaw the street-project makeover of Miracle Mile and Giralda Plaza, as well as the construction of the new Public Safety Building. Iglesias was also in favor of building a modern Mobility Hub on Andalusia Avenue, something that Fernandez had attacked repeatedly until its plans were sent back to the drawing board.

After a brief recess during which Parjus and Iglesias convened with the city attorney, Parjus returned to the Commission floor and accepted the assignment of interim city manager. Iglesias made a brief farewell speech, expressing gratitude to his supporters and staff before City Clerk Billy Urquia read a statement from himself and staff expressing their well wishes. Iglesias exited the chamber to a standing ovation from the audience, several of whom shed tears. In an act of bizarre contradiction, all three of the commissioners who had just fired Iglesias stood up and clapped for the man they had censured and terminated only minutes previously.

WATCH: View the full Commission meeting here.

At the next Commission meeting, a 3-2 vote by the same trio of Fernandez, Castro, and Menendez was cast to hire Iglesias’ replacement, U.S. Marshal Amos Rojas, Jr., effective immediately.

Rojas’ name was put forward by Commissioner Fernandez despite both the mayor and vice mayor’s pleas to organize a nationwide search first. Though they had met the man only a few minutes earlier, both Commissioners Menendez and Castro voted to hire him based off only his own few comments and information Castro pulled up on his LinkedIn page as she sat on the dais.

An argument ensued prior to Fernandez’s announcement wherein both he and Menendez accused the mayor of “threatening” former candidate Ralph Cutié so he would not take the job. Fernandez also attacked the vice mayor for her comments at the previous meeting, during which she shared that she had been told that the airport director had been fired, though this was not the case.

“We can continue on with this gamesmanship if you wish,” Anderson responded to Fernandez, “or we can get to the matter at hand, which is that we need to find a qualified candidate for this position. Grandstanding like this does not move our city forward. It’s embarrassing for our city.”

Vice Mayor Rhonda Anderson (second from left) called out Commissioner Ariel Fernandez (far right) during the recent city hall meeting.

Nonetheless, Fernandez went on with his prepared statement, putting forth Rojas for the position and revealing that there was apparently little need for negotiation, as he had already shared the terms of the interim city manager’s contract with Rojas. Though the vice mayor and mayor voted against the hire, they did so not because they found Rojas unqualified, but because they were against the process of the hire. It remains to be seen whether Rojas, who has substantial federal government experience but none in the municipal sector and none in engineering or finance, will rise to the challenge of managing a city of 51,000 residents and a budget of over $200 million.

WATCH: View the February 27 Commission meeting here.

This post was originally published on February 13, 2024 following the first Commission meeting. This updated version, which includes the second Commission meeting, was published March 1, 2024. Read a summary of both February City Commission meetings here.