Summons Like It Hot

Animosity is all over Sweetwater like a not-so-cheap lawsuit

The August meeting of the Sweetwater City Council has been called to order in the town's cozy wood-paneled council chambers. TV cameras are trained on the dais, where the seven council members, the city attorney, the city clerk, the mayor, and the mayor's lawyer sit.

The meeting is getting under way a bit later than the customary eight o'clock start time, owing partly to the fact that each council member was served upon arrival with a subpoena courtesy of Mayor Gloria Bango, who is suing them.

But things have quieted down now, and everyone is settling in for a long evening of city business. To open the meeting, the mayor has asked the Sweetwater Senior Center choir to sing. "I think they can cheer us up," declares Bango, a tall, wide woman with thick graying curls.

The dozen or so choir members, adorned with red scarves around their necks, gather in front of the dais and sing an a capella medley of ballads, concluding with the exile rallying song "Cuba, Que Lindo Es Cuba," only with a twist: In place of some of the verses, the soloist sings about Sweetwater's most important public officials. "Hemos venido a cantar a Gloria Bango, que es la alcaldesa" (We've come to sing to Gloria Bango, who is the mayor) ... "y al presidente, que es Pepe Diaz...." Between the stirring choruses, each council member is melodically recognized, as is police chief Jesus Menocal. At the end, after the spontaneous cry of "AQue viva Cuba libre!" the audience calls back, "!Viva!"

Los viejitos cantantes are presenting an inspiring unified front, but Sweetwater, population 14,000, is not known for political harmony. (Some of the goings-on were chronicled in New Times in "As Sweetwater Turns," a June 1994 cover story.) The town, founded in 1941 by Russian circus midgets, is in the midst of its latest political wrestling match. Not only has the mayor twice gone to court against the council in recent weeks, but tonight the council will vote unanimously to retain an outside attorney to sue the mayor.

This latest fracas involves a confusing tangle of conflicts over job descriptions.

According to Bango, mayor for close to two years and former council president, it began when her assistant, Dennis Whitt, investigated allegations of sexual harassment against Councilman Manolo Fernandez, found them credible, and in May sent them along to the Dade State Attorney's Office. Soon thereafter council president Diaz refused to place his requisite signature on Whitt's July 16 paycheck, prompting Bango to seek a court order forcing him to sign.

Cameras from Miami's two local Spanish-language television channels follow Bango out of the chambers during a brief break. She tells reporters that Circuit Court Judge Amy Steele Donner has ordered Diaz to sign Whitt's check, but that it was an emergency order and will not be formalized until an evidentiary hearing to be held sometime in the future. "They accused me of illegality and impropriety," Bango complains in Spanish. "I've always done the best I could for the city of Sweetwater. I'm tired of this character assassination."

Captured by the cameras on another break, Pepe Diaz explains that there were several problems with Whitt's check, not the least of which was the fact that it was drawn on a fund reserved for Sweetwater's finance director (there is no finance director at the moment, though Whitt says he does financial work along with his other duties). "[The judge] made the temporary order without evidence, without testimony, nothing," says Diaz, a massive man in a black suit and neon-bright patterned tie, his abundant black hair combed back in a modest pompadour. "We'll see if that was correct or not." Bango, Diaz adds, hired Whitt a year ago without the council's approval. He and his colleagues aren't sure what Whitt does as Bango's assistant, but whatever it is, his $39,000 salary isn't in the budget.

The lawsuit the council will lodge against the mayor demands that she hire a finance director (Bango, who as a so-called strong mayor is responsible for all aspects of city administration, maintains there's no need for a finance director) and a building-and-zoning director (nothing in the budget for this position). Bango's attorney, Stephen Zukoff, says he's filed more than 24 motions with the court in the space of about two weeks; the council's counsel, Roberto Rojas, hasn't as yet put in as much time as Zukoff has, but at rates of $200 to $250 per hour, the town of Sweetwater will be shelling out tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees if the cases drag on for several months as expected.

With so much thrusting and parrying consuming the council's time and the media's attention, it would be easy to forget that there are plenty of other issues to deal with tonight. The citizen protest against the Sweetwater police for assiduous ticketing of illegally parked trucks, for instance. To investigate this matter, the council has retained Charles Toledo, a lawyer who happens to be Sweetwater's former chief of police (fired by the pre-Bango administration) and the brother of a former deputy chief who is engaged in arbitration talks with the city over his 1995 firing for abuse of officers. The lawyer representing the police union assures the council that he will "attack" any findings made by Toledo and begs the members to rethink their appointment of the former chief. They demur.

But long after midnight, as the meeting is finally winding down, they do take a vote on whether to restrict who can sit next to the mayor at the monthly council meetings. For the past several sessions, it has been Zukoff, Bango's lawyer, who is fond of spouting colorful, confrontational sound bites. By unanimous vote, the council decrees that only the mayor's secretary may sit next to her.

"A lot of the council members feel intimidated when you have different people up there," Pepe Diaz reasons. "And you don't want to look bad in front of the citizens.

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