February City Hall: City Manager, Fritz & Franz, Homelessness, and More

At its first February City Hall meeting, the City Commission:

CITY MANAGER FIRED

Voted 3-2 to terminate City Manager Peter Iglesias and then voted 5-0 to replace him for up to three months with Assistant City Manager Alberto Parjus. Read the full story here.

NO OPPOSITION TO THE STATE

Voted 3-2 to shoot down a largely symbolic resolution opposing the State of Florida’s proposed bill to preempt local control of electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Commissioners Fernandez, Menendez, and Castro voted against the item because it would potentially hurt “current initiatives being pushed up in Tallahassee” and taking a stance could anger state legislators. Mayor Lago, a longtime champion of electric vehicles, disagreed, saying, “I think we should take a stance on this. It’s important.”

A MEANINGLESS OPPOSITION

Voted 5-0 to pass a different symbolic resolution that opposes the State’s limitations on local governments’ ability to preserve historic structures located seaward of the “coastal construction control line” (CCCL). The CCCL is defined under the State of Florida as “portions of beaches and dune systems subject to severe fluctuations based on a 100-year storm event.” Coral Gables does not have any buildings that would be subject to this measure, as it primarily effects barrier islands, but the City is taking a symbolic stance as a historic preservation advocate.

Alfred Browning Parking’s “Sea Aerie” in Gables Estates

Commissioner Fernandez said that state legislators told him they would not be angered by this resolution since Coral Gables has long been in the fight for preservation. Previous state legislation preventing local municipalities from historically designating homes in flood zones led to last year’s demolition of the Alfred Browning Parking architectural gem “Sea Aerie” in Gables Estates.

FREEBEE DRIVES ON

Voted 5-0 to execute a new contract with Freebee, which provides on-demand, free public transportation services in Coral Gables, to continue to do so for another year, with two further year-long options.

FRITZ & FRANZ’S NEW DEAL

Voted 5-0 to authorize an amendment to Fritz & Franz Bierhaus’ new lease. There is currently an agreement in place on principle for terms at the market rate rent, which is at $50 per square foot, between the City and Fritz & Franz owner Harald Neuweg. “This is what a good deal looks like,” said Mayor Lago. “I’m all in favor of extending the five-year lease with this… market rate.”

Fritz & Franz; January City Hall

Watch the first February City Hall meeting here.


At its second February City Hall meeting, the City Commission:

A CHALLENGE TO MENENDEZ

Listened to a pitch from Richard Lara, an attorney who announced his candidacy for the Commission, challenging current commissioner Kirk Menendez for his seat in the next election. “As a seasoned problem solver, I’ve always counseled individuals and businesses with respect, civility, and professionalism… [the] very principles that, sadly, are sorely missing from this Commission,” Lara said, citing controversies like the 101 percent pay raise that Menendez, along with Fernandez and Castro, recently awarded themselves.

GIANT TV SCREENS ALLOWED

Voted 3-2 on second reading to allow large TV screens on the inside of windows along Giralda Plaza. The screens will be allowed only at businesses with at least 25-feet of storefront and require an outdoor dining permit. At issue were three screens at 77 Sport Bar, which shine brightly into neighboring Talavera’s dining area.

The Mexican restaurant set up a wall of planters to block the glare, but city staff expressed concerns about damage to the plaza floor as well as accessibility to the walkway. Both restaurants’ owners were found to have violated the city’s code, though they were allowed some leeway until a resolution was found. Talavera has now set up a wall of retractable screens to block the light.

February City Hall

According to Mayor Lago, Commissioner Castro “appropriated” sponsorship of this item from him after first reading, following what the owner of 77 Sport Bar called a “heated discussion” between himself, the mayor, and the restaurant’s landlord. Castro said she spoke to all of the businesses along Giralda, and all supported the TV screens. However, a recent poll by the City’s Economic Development Department showed that most owners were against TV screens.

With this conflicting data in mind, the mayor had worked to schedule a March meeting between city staff and Giralda Plaza business owners to get answers. The conversation dissolved into arguments when Commissioner Fernandez claimed the meeting had been scheduled without his explicit (yet unrequired) input. Vice Mayor Anderson said she had seen the meeting invite with all the other commissioners’ contacts on it, and that it was up to Fernandez to get involved in these matters himself.

(From left to right) : City Attorney Cristina M. Suárez, Vice Mayor Rhonda Anderson, Commissioner Melissa Castro, Mayor Vince Lago, and Commissioner Ariel Fernandez.

Tensions rose to a crescendo when Commissioner Castro accused the mayor of “threatening” and “bullying” the owner of 77 Sport Bar, saying the mayor had threatened to shut down his restaurant and sue him. She further stated the mayor had no intention of bringing back the legislation, which is why she had. The city attorney, who was present when the mayor met with 77 Sport Bar, became the subject of loud verbal assaults when Castro and the restaurant owner tried to force her to admit that the mayor had made threats.

In the end, both Vice Mayor Anderson and Mayor Lago expressed support for the TVs but voted against the ordinance until further discussions were had with Giralda Plaza business owners. A memo the mayor authored to try to clarify matters was read and is available online.

KEEP IT CLEAN

Discussed cleanliness on Ponce de Leon Boulevard and Alhambra Circle, where the mayor said he has seen many instances of graffiti and stickers being added illegally to city property, including on trash cans, newspaper stands, traffic signs, and parking meters.

“I think it’s important to uphold our brand,” said Lago, who takes pictures of all the violations he finds. Businesses are responsible for cleaning these areas, though many apparently do not. Commissioner Fernandez suggested a regular check-up by city staff to make sure that the local businesses are complying. (Sponsored by Mayor Lago)

HELPING THE HOMELESS

Discussed the issue of homelessness in Coral Gables. Mayor Lago has discussed the problem with Camillus House, which provides resources and emergency housing for homeless individuals. Coral Gables has four beds at the Downtown Miami campus, which the city pays for, with a fifth bed in the works. Lago also suggested putting up “No Trespassing” signs around businesses and is working on drafting a law to mitigate panhandling in the city.

February City Hall

“My goal is not to move this person from the city border to the next city,” he said. “That doesn’t resolve the problem.” He encouraged his colleagues to connect with homeless individuals and try to get Camillus House to come out and perform interventions, though he acknowledged that many of these individuals have mental health issues and are unwilling to seek help. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is working to outlaw sleeping on sidewalks, which would take effect in Coral Gables. City staff will draft legislation to address the issue and bring it to other cities in the area for collaboration.

HELPING STUDENTS

Discussed promoting area schools on the city’s website and offering afterschool programming in conjunction with Miami-Dade County Public Schools. The website now includes more information on local schools and enhanced search options. Private school contacts and pictures of all schools have been updated, and schools now have the option to add public events to the city’s site. A workshop was held in late February between schools, PTAs, and city staff to determine how to further promote and better the city’s educational system.

KEEPING THE WHITE WAY LIGHTS LIT

Voted 5-0 to adopt a maintenance schedule for the City’s White Way lights. The lights on University Drive between Ponce de Leon Boulevard and Bird Road, and those on Riviera Drive from University Drive to Anastasia Avenue, will be inspected twice yearly and will be washed and generally touched up as needed. A yearly report on the lights will be disseminated to city staff and the Commission. (Sponsored by Mayor Lago)

January City Hall

QUICK TIME FOR A NEW MANAGER

Voted 3-2 to hire U.S. Marshal Amos Rojas, Jr. as city manager, effective immediately. Rojas’ name was put forward by Commissioner Fernandez and voted in by himself plus Commissioners Castro and Menendez — despite the latter two having literally only met the man a few minutes earlier. Both Mayor Lago and Vice Mayor Anderson voted against, arguing that a nationwide search for the most qualified candidate should be conducted.

Watch the second February City Hall meeting here.