Small Town, Big Hell

Election time in Sweetwater is just another pretext for this rancorous city to go nuts

Miami-Dade County's Eleventh Circuit Court Judge Eleanor Schockett grew testier by the minute. At the request of the Miami-Dade County Elections Department, she scheduled what she thought would be a two-hour emergency hearing at 3:00 on a Friday afternoon. As the hearing passed its fourth hour and barreled toward a fifth, she saw no end in sight. "It is now twenty minutes after seven. I think they turned the air conditioner off for the weekend. Y'all might want to keep that in mind," she reproached the opposing counsels.

Crammed into the little courtroom, the crowd of about 30 people sat patiently. Most were residents of Sweetwater, a city in west Miami-Dade County where people regularly insult each other in council meetings that stretch into the early morning hours. Those who live in Sweetwater have come to expect political discourse in their city will involve a lot of lawyers, and never more so than around election time. Only 24 days away from a May 11 vote to choose a mayor and three council members, the hearing proved Sweetwater's silly season to be in full swing.

David Leahy, Miami-Dade supervisor of elections, had held off mailing 322 absentee ballots pending the results of the case. Judge Schockett could hardly be faulted if she assumed the issue of whether Sweetwater city councilman Manuel Marono, Jr., truly resided within a city eight-tenths of a square mile long might be easy to resolve. (Marono now lives within the limits; whether or not he did during the six months before he registered his candidacy is the debate.) Among those who believe Marono did not live within the limits are Humberto Mesa, a candidate for another council seat, and Benito Filomia, who had failed to qualify for residency for his own council race. The two filed a joint complaint with county authorities.

But this is Sweetwater, and this case is not just about the location of the Marono household. Some hope that eliminating Marono from the ballot will hurt other candidates as well. The 27-year-old is a protege of council president and mayoral candidate Jose "Pepe" Diaz, as well as a member of his five-person ticket (one incumbent is running unopposed). Diaz took a day off from campaigning to watch the hearing. His opponent, current Mayor Gloria Bango, wanted to attend but her husband Reinaldo convinced her it would be inappropriate. Instead she nervously awaited the results in her Sweetwater home.

It's also assumed larger forces in the county play a part in the trial, and in the election. The Diaz camp sees County Commissioner Miriam Alonso, in whose district Sweetwater falls, behind a prosecution that did not come cheap. (Alonso, through a spokesperson, insists she is not supporting anyone in the Sweetwater elections.) "They are just jealous," says Mesa, who works as a county process server and who also insists Alonso did not help bankroll the case. It's not just Alonso; the mayors of Miami-Dade County and Hialeah are rumored to be backing various candidates.

At the table along with Mesa and Filomia, who is a gas station owner, sat lawyer Benedict Kuehne (president of the Dade County Bar Association) and private investigator Hugh Cochran (a former FBI special agent). Marono had former Sweetwater City Attorney Gus Efthimiou and Charles Toledo, former police chief, to represent him. The two ex-city officials say they are working pro bono. Shortly before 8:00 p.m., as Efthimiou prepared to call a string of family and friends on behalf of Marono, an exasperated Judge Schockett stopped the proceedings and ordered a continuance until a later date. (The date has not been formally set.)

Tiny Sweetwater is squeezed between SW 107th Avenue and Florida's Turnpike just north of FIU's University Park Campus. There are well over 15,000 residents in the city, more than 90 percent of them Hispanic. By some accounts they are divided almost equally between Cubans and the more recent Nicaraguan arrivals. Despite the large number of Nicaraguans, the Cuban population remains firmly in control.

Challenging a candidate's residency is a popular tactic in Sweetwater politics, though not nearly as common as the anonymous complaint to state authorities or the unidentified smear. Eight years ago a mayoral candidate was disqualified after failing to prove he lived in the city. Similar allegations have hovered over other candidates this decade. At this time the State Attorney's Office is rumored to be pursuing no less than three investigations. (Assistant State Attorney Joe Centorino confirms there are several open investigations in Sweetwater, but refused to offer specific details.)

Yet in small-town Sweetwater secrets are next to impossible to keep. Gossip was deemed so pernicious at city hall that Mayor Bango issued a memorandum in 1995 forbidding municipal employees from engaging in it. The mayor's directive stated: "All employees will refrain from initiating, repeating, or spreading any gossip, innuendo, rumors, and unfounded or ambiguous allegations about any fellow employee, supervisor, public official, or citizen."

But some conduct defies legislation. Today's scuttlebutt has it that one investigation is focused on misappropriation of funds at the Mildred and Claude Pepper Senior Center. (Grocery bills for food for the elderly are alleged to include dog food and kitty litter.) More often than not complaints made to the State Attorney's Office come from Mayor Bango, who admits talking to Centorino as often as once a week during election time. Most of the matters concern procedural issues that are not prosecutable and Centorino can do little but listen.

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