The Politics of Participation

The new City Commission aims to include all voices. But are there unintended consequences? 

When Commissioner Rhonda Anderson ran for City Commission in April, her platform was clear: More transparency in local government, a wider “open door” for citizen participation, and stronger controls on commercial projects that threaten the Gables’ quality of life. Mayor Vince Lago ran on the same sort of platform, positioning himself as against overdevelopment and promising more of his own open-door style. 

For Lago, those two over-riding issues – along with his perennial efforts to promote “green” sustainability and fiscal responsibility – defined his previous two terms as city commissioner. He routinely voted against the larger projects that came down the pike and he famously opened his offices at City Hall every Friday afternoon, ready to listen to the concerns of any citizen. 

When Anderson attended her first city commission meeting in May, she came out blazing, issuing a memo to her fellow commissioners that outlined her propositions to control development. These included some things already in the works, including a digital dashboard on the city’s website showing the status of all commercial projects, and some things already gaining traction, like her stance against the so-called “Mediterranean” ordinance that allows for greater height and density if a building mimics the city’s historic style. 

What caused an immediate pushback, however, was her top agenda item: That the city should amend its ordinances that allow “as of right” commercial development to go forward without input from nearby property owners. Her definition of nearby: Within 1,500 feet of any proposed project. 

Why this caused such a stir is because “as of right” means that a property owner is allowed to build whatever they like so long as it complies with the city’s zoning code. When projects seek to go beyond that code – huge buildings, for example – they must go before various city boards and, ultimately, the city commission. But for all the smaller projects, following the rules is sufficient. 

Coral Gables City Commissioner and The Politics of Participation

Except for newly elected Commissioner Kirk Menendez, Anderson’s colleagues all objected. Commissioner Michael Mena said it would be unfair to challenge commercial builders who operate according to the rules, that it would violate basic property rights. Mayor Lago’s concern was that if you required “as-of-right” projects to go through an expensive process of reviews, it would open a pandora’s box of requested variations and make things worse. Commissioner Jorge Fors thought that if every single “as-of-right” commercial project had to go through massive scrutiny via commission meetings and public hearings, the time and resources required would grind city government to a halt. 

Undeterred, Commissioner Anderson requested that a “Sunshine” meeting on commercial development be held, to get more community input. With that, she hit a nerve, attracting nearly 300 citizens – 70 in person and 220 by Zoom – for a meeting that ran just under three hours one evening in June. The sentiment echoed Anderson’s sense that many residents feel that development in the Gables needs to be controlled. That was the good news. What nonplussed the mayor was the tone of the meeting, with some members of the public literally yelling at the city commission. 

“It was the constant lashing at the city commission, where you have this beautiful meeting and then it has to be chaos… with people screaming,” said Lago, who otherwise concurred with citizens about proper notification. He was also put off by cries to “end all development” in the city, since it was a violation of property rights as well as the law. 

For Mayor Lago to be put off by citizens seeking engagement is a sign of how far the lack of civility, as he calls it, has gone. This is a mayor who prides himself on returning every phone call and email, allowing any member of the public to personally talk with him on Friday afternoons. Among other things, he opened his term as mayor with a “100 Days of Listening” project, where he intends to incorporate the ideas of all residents and business owners into a master strategic plan for the city. 

While Anderson – who has also implemented an open-door Friday policy – admits that “you will have some folks who present themselves differently, because of years of frustration at having nothing done,” she still believes that citizen participation at every level will improve the nature of commercial projects in the city. She also believes that the new tone of the Lago-led city commission, far more open to public participation, will ultimately calm things down. “If you learn to listen, and demonstrate that you have that kind of patience, the temperature will come down in the room. Give us a few more months…”