‘Shock and awe’: Retired U.S. Marshal named Coral Gables city manager in split vote

A divided Coral Gables City Commission on Tuesday voted 3-2 to hire a retired U.S. Marshal and former Florida Department of Law Enforcement special agent to be its next city manager, two weeks after the ouster of City Manager Peter Iglesias.

Commissioners Melissa Castro, Ariel Fernandez and Kirk Menendez voted to appoint Amos Rojas Jr. to the position, a move that came as a surprise to some members on the commission, which was slated to discuss a plan Tuesday to work with an executive search firm to find Iglesias’ replacement. Instead, Fernandez proposed a specific candidate — Rojas — who, moments later, walked into commission chambers.

Mayor Vince Lago and Vice Mayor Rhonda Anderson voted against the appointment, saying their colleagues hadn’t followed the proper process.

Before the commission voted to hire him, Rojas told commissioners that he’s “not a politician” but that he believes he’s the right person for the role.

“You’re my boss,” Rojas said. “You come to me and you ask me to do things, and we’ll get things done. That’s one thing I always do. I get things done.”

Rojas said he wasn’t looking for new work after retiring from the U.S. Marshals Service in 2018. He told the commission he was sipping a glass of wine at his vacation home overlooking a mountain in North Carolina when he got the call from a friend about “an opportunity” coming up.

“And I prayed on it, looked at it, and I said, you know what, I’m going to put my name in the hat,” said Rojas, who did not identify the friend who recruited him for the job.

Rojas’ appointment is the latest development stemming from a shakeup on the City Commission following an election last year where Castro and Fernandez defeated two candidates who had establishment support, including the mayor’s endorsement. The result has been a commission divided by two dueling political factions, with Lago and Anderson on one side, and Castro and Fernandez on the other. Menendez became a swing vote, although he has recently fallen in the latter camp in a series of contentious votes.

Commissioner Kirk Menendez speaks during a Coral Gables City Commission meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023, at City Hall in Coral Gables.
Commissioner Kirk Menendez speaks during a Coral Gables City Commission meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023, at City Hall in Coral Gables.

After the fallout with Iglesias, Fernandez said he was contacted by Rojas, who met his criteria and expressed interest in the job. On Tuesday, Fernandez touted Rojas’ decades of law enforcement experience.

“This individual also has the knowledge and ability to address the No. 1 concern our residents have today: Is there public corruption in Coral Gables?” Fernandez said.

Menendez said he shared those concerns.

“The city of Coral Gables is adrift in a cesspool of public corruption,” he said, “and I’m here to help navigate our beloved city out of the muck and to safe harbor. So I vote yes.”

The commission had not publicly discussed Rojas as a possible replacement for Iglesias before Tuesday. Lago, Castro and Anderson all appeared surprised, saying they had not heard of Rojas.

Lago and Anderson had both advocated for a national search to find Iglesias’ replacement, and they cited the process not being followed in their explanations for voting no. They said they wanted the chance to ask Rojas detailed questions and to vet his background.

“This is not the right way to do things,” Lago said, adding: “If you’re serious about this job, my advice to you is to go through a process. Not to just come up here and say, ‘I want the job, I have the votes, and I’m moving forward.’”

Anderson said Rojas should gain the trust of the community by going through a formal hiring process.

“Not just picked out of a hat, and that’s essentially what this is,” Anderson said. “It’s the first time I’ve heard your name. I don’t have your resume.”

READ MORE: ‘Absolute anarchy’: Coral Gables Commission censures mayor, blocks salary reductions

But Castro and Fernandez expressed urgency in hiring Rojas, saying they feared the mayor would derail their efforts to hire him if given the chance.

“Given the circumstances that we’re in, I do not trust that he’s not going to sabotage this opportunity,” Castro said of the mayor.

Rojas told the commission he was ready to start as early as Wednesday. He began discussing his terms of employment and start date with the City Attorney’s Office shortly after the vote.

Mayor Vince Lago speaks during a Coral Gables City Commission meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023, at City Hall in Coral Gables.
Mayor Vince Lago speaks during a Coral Gables City Commission meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023, at City Hall in Coral Gables.

Lago described his colleagues’ actions Tuesday as a “shock and awe treatment.”

“We as the five people up here have a responsibility to 51,000 residents in this community,” Lago said.

In 2013, Rojas was nominated by President Barack Obama and sworn in as the U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of Florida. Before becoming a U.S. Marshal, Rojas worked for the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office and served as the deputy director of the South Florida Money Laundering Strike Force.

Rojas said he went to Coral Gables Senior High and grew up in the Shenandoah area, later attending the University of Alabama. He said he began his law enforcement career at the South Miami Police Department before joining the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. At FDLE, where he worked for about 25 years, he began as a narcotics agent and worked his way up to special agent in charge of the Miami Regional Operations Center.

Rojas said he is a Miami resident whose philosophy is “faith, family and service to the community.”

Speaking to the Herald after the vote, Lago said he’d rather look ahead than dwell on the past. “We hope that tomorrow is a brighter day,” he said.