As Sweetwater Turns

There was nepotism on the police force and a councilman got busted for hawking fake IDs. But a slew of investigators haven't even begun to sort out the perpetual brouhaha that masquerades as city government.

The business of the city is often dictated -- "plagued" would be a better word -- by conflict between two competing governmental factions: one led by 50-year-old council president Bango and, until his arrest, Mitro; the other headed by the 42-year-old Aguirre, who, in the city's strong-mayor form of government, is Sweetwater's elected chief executive and functions much like city managers do in other cities. (As council president, Bango presides at council meetings; the mayor doesn't vote on issues but maintains veto power.) Until Mitro's suspension the Bango-Mitro alliance held a one-vote advantage on the city council. On three occasions since the suspension the six sitting council members have failed to agree on a replacement. Under the terms of the city's charter, Mitro's successor must be chosen from among the unsuccessful candidates who ran in the previous election.

True to form, each side blames the other for the current state of municipal turmoil. "As chief administrator, you take constant abuse of council members who want to ruin your reputation," claims Aguirre, who was elected mayor in 1991 with 77 percent of the vote. "I spend all my time at it. In my naivete I didn't anticipate the bad side of it, the envious individuals who always want to take shots at you." Replies Bango, who joined the council in 1993 after years as a civic activist: "The problem is that we have one very strong-headed mayor; that's enough to throw the whole place into turmoil. Besides that, we don't have much trouble."

Amid the chaos, observers might do well to keep history in mind: The city was founded by a troupe of Russian circus midgets, a bit of trivia that doesn't seem so odd when illuminated by the spotlights of the present-day Sweetwater big top.

Call it self-preservation. Alfredo Perez, a young private investigator toting a portable phone and looking sharp in a double-breasted navy-blue suit, has taken over the speaker's podium in the chambers of the Sweetwater City Council. He is here to address the politicians about the matter of annexation: Sweetwater recently began eyeing adjacent sections of unincorporated Dade. Perez, representing the residents of a neighborhood to the west of the city, has reason to believe his area is under consideration -- and he wishes council members would look elsewhere. "How can we annex to a town that has so many problems?" he inquires.

The atmosphere in the wood-paneled chambers, where about 75 citizens have gathered to fill roughly half the seats, is already tense, despite the fact that the evening's agenda so far has been relatively uncontroversial. Commencing at 8:00 p.m., the monthly meetings regularly stretch past midnight and have been known to drag on till 3:00 a.m. or later, simple city issues made elastic by petty rivalries and combative egos that go on display like cheap suits. Coffee, needless to say, is free-flowing among those who sit on the dais.

The usual discomfort felt at the front end of a long council meeting, though, has been exacerbated this May night by the glaringly vacant seat of Ronald Mitro, who is occupying a prison cell at the Metro-Dade Pretrial Detention Center. Earlier in the evening two cameramen hauled their video equipment into the chambers to record the first remarks of the council meeting in time for the nightly news. But until Perez took the podium, no one had publicly mentioned the Mitro affair.

And at least one council member isn't prepared to take the rhetorical jabs quietly.

Councilman Jose Diaz, a roly-poly insurance salesman and a Mitro foe, gallantly rushes to the defense of the city's wounded honor. "We've had our problems," he admits levelly. "Nobody up here is going to lie to you and tell you different. The incident you are talking about occurred today. The details of that incident are still being worked on. But there's no city that you can [say] something like this will not happen to. Nobody's perfect, not Coral Gables, not nobody. We have very decent people in this city, very fine people," the councilman pleads. "Because of one incident that may have occurred, it doesn't mean the whole city's like this."

Diaz proceeds to boast about the city's police-response time ("two minutes or less"), its municipal tax rates (among the lowest in Dade), and the residential trash pickups. "You have a chance to do whatever you want for your side," Diaz concludes. "But please, take the facts into consideration."

Much of this is lost on Perez, who stopped following Diaz's train of thought when the councilman attributed the town's sullied reputation to only one incident. "You say a lot of cities aren't perfect," the young P.I. perseveres. "But there are a lot of cities that are perfect in our area that you never hear about: Virginia Gardens, West Miami, a lot of cities that never come up in the news. I believe they're doing something right."

Gloria Bango leans toward the young man, a scowl drooped upon her face. "Tell your people that they can be at ease," she snaps. "Because we never thought of them." Having thus dismissed Perez's fears, she rises, huffs out of the council chambers, and doesn't return for several minutes.

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