Commissioner Menendez Switches Vote in Favor of Keeping Elections in April
The fight to move Coral Gables’ local elections to coincide with the general federal elections in November has finally reached a conclusion. In an embattled September City Commission meeting, the five commissioners listened to over an hour of public comment on the item before debating furiously amongst themselves for another two hours. In the end, the vote was 3-2 to not change the election date to November, despite myriad emails and public comment from residents in support of the provision.
Moving all future elections from April to November would also have reduced the current commissioners’ terms by four months — or extend them by 20 months, depending on how democratically-inclined the Commission was. As it stands, the debate never got that far.
Commissioners Melissa Castro and Ariel Fernandez, both of whom were elected by a small but vocal minority that turned out for the last April election, both were against the change. They argued that moving the date of the election would allow for more influence and support from special interest groups, and that candidates like themselves who were unable to raise significant funding would be silenced (both won their recent April elections with far fewer dollars than their competitors).
Earlier in the week, Castro wrote in a Coral Gables Neighbors Association newsletter to residents, “…the proposed election date changes were not made to encourage your participation; they were designed to drown out your voice.” Others who opposed the date change said that keeping the elections in April would preserve the city’s historic tradition.
Those who argued in favor of moving the election to November said it would result in far greater voter participation and therefore reflect the sentiments of most residents. Indeed, moving the election to November would increase voter turnout from about 20 percent (or less) to about 80 percent. It would also save the city over $100,000 per election.
“Why on earth would you want to suppress voter turnout?” said Vice Mayor Rhonda Anderson, who brought some 1,500 emails from residents in favor of moving the election. “It’s best for democracy… that we move these elections.” Castro responded by waving printouts of her own significantly smaller pile of 136 emails in favor of keeping elections in April.
The discussion soon fell into thinly veiled personal attacks, with Castro accusing Mayor Vince Lago of misrepresenting himself due to his recent decision to run for re-election (he had previously stated he was unsure of whether he would) and Fernandez handing out Commission rulebooks, implying that certain members of the Commission did not know the rules.
“This has nothing to do with higher turnout and everything to do with the establishment seeking ways to cancel the results of the last election,” Fernandez declared in sweeping comments in which he claimed to be the voice of all Coral Gables residents and accused Lago of censorship and “controlling information,” among several other more personal attacks. He then called for a deferral of the Commission’s vote so they could first discuss creating a Charter Review Committee to help advise the Commission on the issue at hand.
Anderson responded later with a challenge to the two dissenting commissioners to be truthful and fair, and to refrain from purposefully trying to “incense” the public by spreading false claims, which she said she had been the victim of. “Be truthful. Be honest. Do what’s good for this city, not just good for yourself,” she said.
The arguments came to an end when Commissioner Kirk Menendez, who had remained uncharacteristically silent during the debate — even refusing to comment at one point — decided to vote alongside Castro and Fernandez to keep the election date in April. At the previous Commission meeting, Menendez had initially voted in favor of the change, but recommended the final vote be pushed to October to allow for more resident input. He remained adamant that there had not been enough time to solicit commentary from Gableites.
Later that day Menendez joined Commissioners Castro and Fernandez in voting themselves a pay raise of 67 percent, despite opposition from Anderson and Lago.
UPDATE: At the September 26 budget meeting, the Commission approved a $263 million budget that included a raise of almost double the current compensation for commissioners. Mayor Lago and Vice Mayor Anderson again voted against the raise, stating that they will both turn down compensation that surpasses the annual consumer price index increase of 2.63%. This month, the Commission will consider an ordinance to adjust the mayor and vice mayor’s salaries accordingly.
The rest of the commissioners will receive a 78 percent raise, from $36,488 to $65,000, along with double their annual expense allowance, from $4,800 to $9,600. The new budget also allocates $8,446 in annual car allowances for each member of the Commission.