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.

Opines Gloria Bango: "I think there's hope for this city -- there's hope Matilde will run for state office. We have candles lit, fingers crossed, praying to Mecca -- whatever we have to do." And a suitable successor? "You're talking to her!"

For her part, Aguirre, whose term ends in May of next year, has confidence that the Sweetwater citizens, disgusted with recent events, will vote out her council opponents and, in her words, "place into office people who will bring back the city's good name."

Others believe the problems don't lie in the personalities. They contend that the city itself is a glaring argument against small-town incorporation. While incorporation yields a considerable amount of governmental independence, the trade-off is additional local expenses -- road maintenance, code enforcement, et cetera -- that otherwise would have been the domain of Dade County. With that in mind, some have suggested Sweetwater should disincorporate and rejoin unincorporated Dade. After the 1990 extortion indictments, a Miami Herald editorial invited such a dialogue. "As for a long-term solution, Dade's Metro Commission and legislative delegation -- both with a say on municipal-incorporation issues -- should order a study of whether Sweetwater and several other tiny Dade municipalities in Dade should be dissolved." (In fact, Sweetwater has survived at least two attempts by its citizens to abolish the town.)

Metro Commission Chairman Art Teele says the city is at a point where it must re-evaluate its modus operandi. In keeping its tax rates low, Teele points out, Sweetwater has not been able to generate enough revenue to accomplish its public-works projects and has thus become dependent on Metro-Dade for help in paying costs that its own coffers should be able to cover. "In many ways we've sort of rewarded the [Sweetwater City Council] by giving them every benefit of every doubt," says Teele. "But clearly there needs to be a refocusing of the city residents: whether they want a municipality, and if so, whether they want to pay for their own municipal services rather than scrounging from Dade County."

Teele speculates that the lack of dignity that characterizes small-town politics, including Sweetwater's, is a symptom of economic stress. "I think that condition is symbolic of deeper problems," the commissioner asserts. "When there's sufficient dollars to keep the playgrounds open and the traffic lights operating and the roads in good shape, people are all right. When you're short of money, nothing works right and it's not a happy place."

Sitting in the cluttered living room of his small concrete-block house, 71-year-old Sweetwater resident Charles Pastore recalls a far less complicated time. "I remember when Sweetwater was just a big pasture. Back when I first got here, 107th Avenue was nothing but dirt road," says Pastore, who moved here from New Jersey in 1950 with his new wife. (They have since divorced.) Pastore went on to become the city's first volunteer fire chief and helped to set up the fire department. Over the next 23 years, he served seven terms as mayor (from 1954 to 1966 and again from 1968 to 1970) and was also a councilman (1967-1968 and 1971-1973), a chronology that he has typed onto a small card that he now carries with him in his breast pocket. ("People always ask me and I like to have the dates right here," Pastore says, patting his guayabera.)

These days Pastore doesn't involve himself much with city hall. He says he only knows what's going on in town from reading the newspaper and watching television. "It's a shame that certain things are going on that shouldn't be going on," the former public official offers. "It's a new culture now, a new regime. It's a whole new ballgame."

Well, not really. And Pastore himself knows a thing or two about embarrassing investigative scrutiny, although he was never personally involved in any scandal. In 1957, while Pastore was mayor, the Dade County Grand Jury examined the process of issuing vehicle-inspection stickers, which had been adopted by some cities. "The Grand Jury has investigated the lax methods employed by certain municipalities in the issuance of automobile-inspection stickers, the most flagrant of which is the town of Sweetwater," jurors wrote in their end-of-term report. And sure enough, two Sweetwater city employees were eventually indicted on charges of bribery in connection with the illegal sale of auto-inspection stickers.

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