Volsky on “City Hall’s Ceiling, Like Slesnick’s Reelection Bid, Down”



In April 1997, the Coral Gables Cultural Affairs Council, which a year earlier was instrumental in saving the former Police and Fire Station   from conversion into private use, called upon  the City Commission to refurbish the worn out City Hall.  The call was seconded by other groups, principally the then very influential Chamber of Commerce, headed by former city commissioner Ron Robison.

The commission acted fairly quickly. It elaborated and approved a plan for a multi-story $12-$15 million City Hall Annex;  it secured a  loan from Tallahassee and in late 1999 construction began. According to the plan,  all city offices, except the commissioners’ and the city manager’s, were to be located in the Annex, 100 yards from City Hall.  Also transferred to the Annex, representing substantial savings, would be the rented offices elsewhere in the city.

Then the refurbishing of the City Hall would start. Finally, the rejuvenated building, enhanced by an extended park  with George Merick’s sculpture in it – would become the city’s administrative, cultural and historic center.  The commission and the manager were to have more work space, with additional footage for conferences, exhibitions, city board meetings and  community and civic activities.

But that cogent plan never became reality because Slesnick happened to Coral Gables. In April 2001, Donald Slesnick was elected mayor, defeating his long-time benefactor and Annex promoter Mayor Raul Valdes-Fauli.

Because he was seriously ill,  Valdes-Fauli barely campaigned and chose to ignore Slesnick’s  political and personal attacks. Voters were unaware of the mayor’s illness, well known to his close personal and political friends, among the latter Slesnick.

(A couple of years later, Valdes-Fauli illness, originally unrecognized, was properly diagnosed. Eventually he underwent a 12-hour-long operation – a liver transplant, one of the marvels of modern surgery unimagined a decade earlier.  The Harvard-Sorbonne-educated international attorney, who heads his own law firm in Coral Gables,  says he feels “like a new man;” he works and travels on business more than ever. Does he believe – as many real friends do – that Slesnick’s 2001 sudden turnaround was a political “stab in the back”? He answers, ahem, “let’s talk about the future.”)

One of Slesnick’s first moves as mayor was to kill the Annex, which he had approved earlier as chairman of the Building and Zoning board,  where he served as Valdes-Fauli’s appointee. Yes, the new commission approved it, but it was Slesnick who single-handedly manipulated the destruction.  He was assisted by a well-orchestrated   campaign against the much-need Annex, financed by several property owners who feared the new building would depreciate the value of their older properties nearby.  A faulty advise by the city’s departed attorney  also provided  the mayor a way to undermine the project.

Slesnick made sure that the one-third constructed Annex was  immediately dynamited and razed to the ground; its site became a city parking, much of it free for selected city officials. But city residents are still repaying Florida millions for the Annex’s destruction and will do so for another decade.

During his 2003 reelection campaign the “Annex Killer” boasted of his 2001  deed, but not since. While doing nothing about it, Slesnick probably knew that City Hall’s physical condition was rapidly deteriorating. To wit: the lower ceiling installed for the air conditioning system lacked solid support; old electrical wiring and sewer systems were not entirely upgraded; periodically there were major water leaks and termite infections; mold fungus continues to be defected in  various offices, with employees complaining of the pervasive smell of decay.

As a result, many experts have feared that a calamity could strike City Hall at any time. It did on the last day of 2010.

On January 3, when after the long New Year weekend employees came back to work in the offices of the city manager and the Finance Department they found large parts of the artificial ceiling on the floor. Not just light-weight acoustic panels – in the city manager’s office a large, sharp heavy cement slab fell down from the ceiling.

Experts speculate that a couple of days earlier during the Junior Orange Bowl parade a conflated noise by the marching bands and the parade’s participants and viewers caused strong vibrations that made collapse parts of the artificial ceiling in City Hall’s two large ground floor offices. Interestingly, several years ago when Slesnick, at a cost of $50,000, refurbished his second floor office, he ordered  artificial ceiling removed.


The ceiling of the smaller-sized second or third floor offices were not affected. But the old ceiling represents a hazard, requiring an immediate safety inspection of the entire building.

Still, what happened in City Hall over the New Year’s weekend was a harbinger of other unforeseen physical problems for the ancient and beautiful building, whose façade became marred by the ungainly Merrick sculpture.

“The ceiling incident is like Slesnick’s reelection bid,” one city political savant said laughingly last week looking at the debris in the manager’s office, “both have collapsed.” The Bard might have put it differently: “Don, a soothsayer bids you beware the ides of April.”


About Stephen E. McGaughey
Resident of the City of Coral Gables

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