Luigi Boria stood center stage before dozens of Doral residents to talk to them about peace, love and unity.
The Doral mayor, an ordained Christian minister who will complete his first year in office next month, joined the four women who round out the City Council at the city’s 10th anniversary celebration at a local park a week ago.
Everything seemed rosy for the pre-adolescent city’s civic leaders. On a night filled with music, food and smiles, Boria told the crowd what he thinks about his community.
“In Doral, we are a family,” he said, to applause.
But every family has its dysfunction, and Doral is no different.
Boria’s first 11 months at the helm have come with political scandal, bitter feuds on the dais and questions about the first-time mayor’s ability to lead.
Just last week, Doral police arrested Juan Carlos Tovar, a former business partner of Boria’s grown children. Tovar was charged with lying to police about an alleged altercation with City Manager Joe Carollo at City Hall in September. Surveillance video showed no physical tussle.
And even though city residents are enjoying low taxes, steady growth and a strong parks system, Doral’s reputation suffers.
Councilwoman Ana María Rodríguez put it bluntly.
“Now when you say Doral, we’re the laughingstock of cities,” she said.
The most recent wave of controversy culminated Wednesday, when Boria failed to run City Manager Joe Carollo out of town and instead saw a majority of the council give the manager a vote of confidence.
Carollo, a former Miami mayor and commissioner, was hand-picked by Boria in January to fill the manager’s seat, where he has generally earned the praises of his council and staff — but not without some his trademark outspoken manner.
Boria has levied public criticisms at Carollo in recent weeks, calling his behavior unprofessional and erratic.
Carollo, grateful for the vote of confidence, assured that he won’t respond to pressures from the mayor and has even promised to reveal some damning information about Boria at special council meeting this week.
Boria emphatically asserted he will defend himself after Carollo implied a possible federal investigation may be coming.
“I will spend every penny I have to protect my integrity,” Boria said at Wednesday’s meeting.
“Don’t threaten me with your money,” deadpanned Carollo.
Boria has had three city managers during his tenure. Yvonne Soler-McKinley resigned shortly after Boria was sworn in. Then came Merrett Stierheim, a veteran in county and municipal administration, who was replaced by Carollo.
The relationship between Boria and Carollo started to fray during the summer, when Boria’s children sold their shares of a company they owned with their partner, Tovar. The sale happened amid concerns the mayor may have a conflict of interest, as the project was financed with millions of dollars Boria had gifted to his children. Boria recused himself from votes regarding the matter.
The mayor has insisted his problems with Carollo have nothing to do with Tovar.
“I don’t have any personal issues,” he said. “It’s about conduct and behavior.”
Vice-Mayor Bettina Rodríguez-Aguilera praised Carollo for building a strong team of department heads and for his work on the budget.
Carollo said he’s proud of the work he’s done as city manager of Doral, particularly in regards to finding savings in the budget.
“But the truth is, to be a good manager means you have to have a good team behind you,” he said, crediting department directors and staff with the year’s successes. “What we’ve accomplished speaks for itself.”
Rodríguez-Aguilera, who used to be the city’s economic developer, noted that too much instability at the top could give employees a reason to jump ship.
“I’ve heard it in the halls,” she said. “People are saying, “If there’s another change, I’m leaving.’”
Stability of leadership in the city, she said, also attracts developers and businesses. She said she’s received calls from people in the business community expressing dismay and doubt about Doral’s atmosphere.
Ana María Rodríguez said she feels Boria has not made a successful transition from councilman to mayor. In particular, she thinks he needs to work on leading meetings and not mixing personal matters with city business.
“I’ve had my differences with the manager, but you don’t see me trying to fire him,” she said.
Councilwoman Christia Fraga said the council has had a learning curve on working together, and that includes the mayor.
Even though it hasn’t all been Boria’s fault, she said, the hardest part has been keeping strict order at meetings and following procedures to keep the council on track at its monthly meetings.
The three councilwomen approved a vote of confidence in Carollo on Wednesday, against the votes of Boria and Councilwoman Sandra Ruiz.
Ruiz said she isn’t with one side or the other, though she has backed some of the mayor’s opinions of the manager.
The relationship between Ruiz and Boria has its own baggage, as Boria stripped Ruiz of the vice-mayor’s title after he accused her of trying to embarrass him publicly.
Although Ruiz thinks Carollo and the staff did well this budget season, she feels the council doesn’t get enough credit.
“The council should also be given credit for this budget,” she said. “It really is the vision of our council.”
Boria said Friday he’s enjoyed his time as mayor and feels the city has accomplished a lot, like opening the new police station, developing plans for an elaborate new park on 114th Avenue and lowering the property-tax rate.
“What we need to do now is to focus on the administration, rather than the politics,” he said.
Nevertheless, he didn’t rule out proposing Carollo’s ouster again, saying it will depend on the manager’s behavior. But he said he respects the council’s majority in their vote of confidence.
“I’m not a crazy person,” he said. “I’m just trying to move the city forward."
From a distance, Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado said that the crisis in Doral can be overcome.
“They don’t have to be friends but they should learn to work together,” said Regalado, who has found himself in plenty of public feuds with Carollo over the years. “The mayor is going to be there for four years, after all,” he said “And Carollo has the votes to stay, for now.”
Juan Carlos Bermudez, Doral’s first mayor, said Boria needs to put aside personal differences with Carollo, be less divisive and lead.
He thinks Boria may not have been ready for the pressures and responsibilities of the mayor’s office.
"He needed a little more time to mature as an elected official,” Bermudez said.
What Boria needs to do now, in Regalado’s opinion, is present new initiatives in Doral that the council can get behind to rebuild unity on the dais.
“He should work on making Doral attractive to investors, which has been his vision,” he said. “Do that and try not to micromanage things in Doral.”