RaiseGate: How 3 Commissioners Gave Themselves a 101% Raise

On September 13, the Coral Gables City Commission was scheduled for a long day. First, they’d have their regular Commission meeting — which usually last upwards of seven hours, sometimes into the evening — and then, at 3 pm, they’d have their First Budget Hearing.

In the draft of the budget that was published online, which is 478 pages, there was no mention of anything involving commission raises. And yet, an item on commission raises was there, added at the last minute. It takes three members of the Commission to add an item to the budget, making it likely that Commissioners Kirk Menendez, Ariel Fernandez, and Melissa Castro — the three who voted in favor of the raise — were those who did so.

In the wake of this, rumors swirled and various numbers were thrown out by different outlets. Now, with two other Commission meetings having taken place, as well as the Second Budget Hearing, we have all — or at least most — of the facts.

It’s important to note first that the mayor, vice mayor, and the three commissioners all make slightly different salaries, including expense allowances (which they do not have to show receipts for). These original amounts before the raise are laid out in chart one below.

Raisegate: Commissioners Raise

Three options for raises were initially proposed. Option 1 was the most modest, with an increase in salary alone and no extra money devoted to expense allowances (which would stay the same) or car allowances. Under this option, the three commissioners would get a yearly raise of 42.51 percent to a proposed $52,000 per year. The mayor and vice mayor would receive smaller raises, putting their salaries just above their colleagues.

Option 2 allowed for the same salary increases as in Option 1 but also included a car allowance of $6,497 and an increase of $2,400 in expense allowances, giving the three commissioners a 59.12 percent total raise to $65,697.

Option 3 was the most lucrative, and the one adopted (see chart two below). The three commissioners will receive a 101.14 percent raise overall, including $9,600 in expense allowances and $8,446 in car allowances. Reportedly, all three commissioners have already bought new luxury cars.

Raisegate: Commissioners Raise

In the following commission meeting on Sept. 26, Vice Mayor Anderson sponsored an item on the agenda to reduce the proposed salary increases. “My point is the process was not done right,” the vice mayor said. “It wasn’t in a draft budget. It wasn’t done by ordinance. There was no discussion item on it.”

She went on to say that she had been approached by residents both in-person and via email who were “really upset” about the way the situation had been handled. In an interview with Coral Gables Magazine, she confirmed that the issue she had was not necessarily with the raises themselves, but with the way the process was handled without resident input, which she called “a deceptive tactic.”

Raisegate: commissioners raise

Fernandez, meanwhile, argued that he had received only two emails against the issue and “numerous” phone calls advocating either for the raise or for making the Commissioner role a full-time position with an appropriate corresponding salary. In a Coral Gables Neighbors Association (CGNA) email that was sent out on Oct. 1, the organization further stated that “the commissioners’ voicemail boxes [were] jammed with abusive messages.” The facts do not bear that out, however.

Jessica Keller, a former city employee with the Public Works Department and current resident of Coral Gables, refutes that statement. “I made a public records request and I saw that that was not accurate,” she told Coral Gables Magazine. Her search included any e-mails sent to Menendez, Fernandez, or Castro that included the words “raise” or “compensation.” She found only four e-mails in support of the raises and 33 against: 14 to Fernandez, 10 to Castro, and nine to Menendez. Of the 33 that advocated against the raise, she found less than a third that could be considered “abusive” or rude.

In the end, the Commission voted 3-2 on Sept. 26 to move forward with the 101.14 percent raise. But the issue wasn’t finished with yet. In the two weeks before the next commission meeting, Mayor Lago took to Spanish-language radio and TV to expound upon his colleagues’ deficiencies. He called the three commissioners “unprepared to do the job,” said they “put their hands down the pockets of residents,” and accused Menendez and Fernandez of “living off their wives,” all in Spanish.

October City Hall: Commissioners Raise
Mayor Vince Lago went on Spanish-language station America TeVe to discuss his colleagues after the three commissioners gave themselves “exorbitant compensation agreements,” according to his Instagram account.

In response, Menendez formally censured the mayor during the Oct. 10 meeting with the support of Fernandez and Castro, a move that will likely have no real repercussions but does speak to the deepening divide on the dais.

Also during that Oct. 10 meeting, Anderson and Lago requested that they be allowed to amend the city code to adjust their compensation and expense allowances back to the pre-raise amounts and to eliminate both of their car allowances, effectively returning the money to the city. Fernandez responded with a prepared statement that accused his two colleagues of attempting to “limit the number of people who can potentially run against them in our next election,” though the logic behind this declaration was not given.

Fernandez then went on to accuse the mayor of using “henchmen” to bully members of the media, and of committing crimes in the mayor’s personal business dealings as a real estate consultant. He further claimed that the mayor made derogatory comments about women at a recent city event. He did not provide any evidence for these claims.

All three commissioners voted against allowing Lago and Anderson to adjust their compensations, effectively forcing them to accept the money and then donate it back to the city. This will ensure that the money is double-taxed and, by the time it makes it back to the city, will be diminished. No reasoning for this was given, but the point was clear. “It’s flawed for the same reason that the raises were flawed” was Anderson’s only comment.

Fernandez’s notoriety largely comes from his previous position running the Gables Insider blog, which he sold after taking office. In an article published on Oct. 6, 2022, long before Fernandez became a city commissioner, he criticized the executive benefits package given — without Commission consent — to senior level employees. The article, entitled “Raises, Executive Benefits & More: Senior Staff Compensation Rises at Taxpayer Expense,” states, “ The attractive points of government work are job security and a pension that provides a stipend…” When asked to provide a comment on the issue, he did not respond.

Castro and Menendez have had comparably little to say on the matter in public, although Castro has been more vocal in her support than Menendez, who has been uncharacteristically quiet over the last few commission meetings. He has been the subject of rumors accusing him of trading his vote to change the date of city elections — which he reversed — to get the raise because he’s currently facing financial challenges.

In an interview with Coral Gables Magazine, Menendez said that these rumors were totally false, and that he voted in favor of the wage raise because it would allow someone earning a low salary to become a city commissioner.

“Nobody can really step into this role unless you have your own practice [as an attorney], or you have your own company, or you’re retired,” he said. “Some residents say it’s still not high enough…. We bumped it up to 65, 67, and 69 thousand dollars [so that a] person can do this, and not be trapped in a situation where they could get fired from their job for missing time.” Menendez said the benchmark they used for the raise was what a senior administration assistant would make.

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To be fair, several other cities in Miami-Dade compensate their elected officials more handsomely than Coral Gables did previously. According to Salary.com, the average compensation for city commissioners in Miami-Dade is $55,230. This ranges from the $1 per year that city councilmembers take in Key Biscayne, to the $138,000 that county commissioners make (they voted last year 7-5 to more than double their yearly compensation from $60,000.) And Coral Gables’ compensation for elected officials had not changed in 40 years.

In the end, says Vice Mayor Anderson, it was the method — not the amount — that was troublesome. When asked if she was surprised by Menendez’s vote on the raise, Anderson responded, “No, I was not surprised by it… I’m surprised by the manner in which he chose to do it.”