What's an elected official to do when pesky residents are pouring out their hearts over an issue they care about at a virtual commission meeting? In the case of Coral Gables Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli, the solution might be to scroll through social media while reclining in an armchair — decorum be damned.
Yesterday, during a Coral Gables city commission meeting on Zoom, residents and parents of children attending George Washington Carver Elementary School spoke out against a project that would put a Wawa gas station in an empty lot directly in front of the school, citing environmental and safety concerns for their kids.
While speakers complained that the city had not notified community members about the gas station project and that the commission had not been listening to citizens over the past several months, Valdés-Fauli unabashedly leaned back in his chair and scrolled through his phone, which he held in front of his face, visible to everyone else on the call.
One parent said she was disappointed in how dismissive the officials have been of residents opposed to the project. While she spoke, the mayor seemed to be taking a call, something he did several times throughout the public comment period. (Valdés-Fauli, who tested positive for COVID-19 over the weekend, appeared virtually from his home.)
One speaker: "I'm disappointed in the dismissive attitude the commission has had towards us."— Joshua Ceballos (@JoshCeb) December 8, 2020
Unlike many other cities that provide plenty of time for the public to comment on proposals, Coral Gables has a one-hour comment portion at its meetings, and the mayor has the right to limit the amount of comments from speakers. When it became clear that more people were signed up to speak about the Wawa than the hour allowed, Valdés-Fauli expressed his intention to cut them off and appeared frustrated when commissioners wanted to let the remaining residents speak.
"Public comment section is one hour. At 10:20 a.m., I'm gonna cut the comment section off," Valdés-Fauli said. "This is cutting into other things on the agenda that people are scheduled to appear for."
Later on in the meeting, Carver Elementary parents were signed up to speak on a related item about providing notice to Miami-Dade County School Board members when a project is set to be near a school. But the mayor and city commissioners breezed past the comments and ignored those who signed up, including Carver Elementary PTA president Estelle Lockhart.
"Myself and a number of others registered to speak, but we weren't allowed to," Lockhart tells New Times. "That's our legal right. We signed up, did everything we were supposed to, but they wouldn't let us speak."
When one parent spoke up about the Wawa during the related item discussion, commissioners told him they had already addressed the Wawa issue and shut him down before he could speak further.
Lockhart says she and other parents noticed the mayor on his phone while they were speaking.
"The public is asking to be heard, but for the mayor, that seems to be an annoyance for him personally," Lockhart says.
At a previous commission meeting on October 27, when over 100 parents signed up to speak about the Wawa, Valdés-Fauli was similarly dismissive of the speakers and seemed eager to cut off public comments.
Gables Insider, a local blog about Coral Gables government, published a video on its YouTube Channel with clips from the October 27 meeting, highlighting the mayor's efforts to curtail public comment and proceed to items that had lobbyists in attendance.
Valdés-Fauli's distractedness while residents voiced their concerns is just the latest example of elected officials ignoring their constituents during virtual meetings this year.
In September, Miami-Dade County commissioners ate food, talked on the phone, and walked away from their computers during a public hearing on the county's police budget. Just last month, Miami city commissioners ignored eight hours of recorded public comment, inviting First Amendment lawsuits against the city.
In Coral Gables, the Wawa proposal started as an unspecified mixed-use residential project and became a gas station retail development without public review of the plans or proper notification to school officials.
The lot where the proposed Wawa will sit has been empty for decades. Original plans from 2002 proposed townhouses with retail included to support the neighborhood around it — a historically Black area in the West Grove settled by Bahamian immigrants over a century ago.
After a decade of delays with no work done on the lot, the City of Coral Gables agreed to step in and fast-track the project, foregoing public review and authorizing the city attorney and city manager to sign off on the plans themselves.
Parents and school officials didn't know the project had turned into a gas station until it was too late and the final permits had already been approved. Coral Gables commissioners say a notification letter was sent to the school board, but school board member Maria Teresa Rojas, who represents the district including Carver Elementary, said in an email to New Times that she was not aware of the Wawa project and could not confirm that notice was ever sent to the school board.
At the October 27 meeting, commissioners said there was nothing they could do and that construction was already set to begin soon. But Lockhart says parents are still planning to fight the development and advocate for a more open process in government when it comes to projects that will affect schools.
"When people read 'Coral Gables,' they think, 'Whatever, this is just snooty parents,' but this is also a county issue. This could happen at anyone's school," she says.
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