Small Town, Big Hell

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

There are many plausible reasons for the sorry state of politics in Sweetwater. Certainly a large part of the blame rests with the feud between Jose Diaz and Gloria Bango that has kept city hall a battleground for much of the Nineties.

A strong mayoral system coupled with a city attorney beholden to the council for his job hasn't helped things. Since city government has turned into Bango versus Diaz, it is the city attorney who must mediate. "It is the structure of the government," explains Gus Efthimiou, who was hired as city attorney in August 1993, fired three months later, rehired in January 1994, and then dismissed once again in November of this past year. He is now representing Marono. "The city attorney is appointed by the council and it states in the charter that he serves [at their] pleasure," Efthimiou says. "But sometimes he works for the mayor and the administration. It is like walking a tightrope."

Bango, who believes the council's principal preoccupation is to thwart her every move, often goes to the State Attorney's Office for legal opinions that would normally be resolved locally. "When [Centorino] tells me I have to rely on the city attorney, I say it is a moot issue," Bango declares.

The city's small size could also be a factor. Its constant struggle to find outside money for municipal services to avoid raising taxes on its primarily middle- to low-income residents is a continual font of problems, some believe.

And outside political machines share some blame. Miami-Dade County Commissioner Miriam Alonso, whom the council named the official "godmother" of Sweetwater, is said to exert considerable influence on city politics. Diaz and Bango's failure to name a street after Alonso doomed them from receiving the powerful commissioner's support, city wags say. "You can't insult the cook if you want to eat," Marina says.

The recent war between Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez and Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas has played a role in local politics, many believe. (Despite repeated calls neither man would comment for this article.) Like the superpowers in the cold war, the two political machines of the respective mayors fight their proxy battles in smaller municipalities. "They take their personal problems through all the cities to show their power," council candidate Mesa asserts.

Diaz supported Martinez's opponent Herman Echevarria (who was backed by Penelas) by knocking on doors for him in Hialeah during his unsuccessful bid to oust the mayor in 1997. Bango supported Martinez. Now it is believed the two are returning the favor.

"Raul told me, 'Bango you have been a terrific mayor, if you need me, call on me.' People in Hialeah helped me with money. They know the people who tried to oust Raul are working in this municipality," Bango says.

Diaz characterizes Penelas as a man with vision. "He has supported me through his people," confides the council president, who has received the maximum financial contributions of $500 from Penelas partisans Sergio Pino and Brian May.

Before relating the "no-comment" response from his boss, Penelas spokesman Juan Mendieta indicated he assumed the mayor would support Diaz. "They are good friends," he says. "Pepe is always over here."

Yet the problems in Sweetwater go deeper than Bango, Diaz, Martinez, and Penelas. Scandals have plagued Sweetwater almost since its incorporation. Indeed some say the city will never know peace until the midgets rumored to be buried beneath SW 109th Avenue are properly put to rest.

The story of Sweetwater's founding goes something like this. In 1939 a traveling troupe of twelve very small Russian circus performers were on their way to Florida's west coast to join a big top for the winter. They stopped in Sweetwater (some say because their car broke down) and delighted in the expanse of swamp, green farmland, and straight canals before rejoining the circus. Known variously as the Petrograd Star Company and the Royal Russian Midgets, the group returned shortly and decided to forgo their transitory ways. They built miniature houses and furniture for themselves. But their six-foot manager Joe Sanderlin had bigger plans than just a sunny retirement. Sanderlin and his 40-inch-tall wife Anna envisioned a midget city and tourist attraction. Midgets from all over the nation would come to live in Sweetwater and the curious would pay to see them.

In 1941 the troupe and thirteen other residents incorporated the town. The residents elected Sanderlin as mayor, but the midget mecca never materialized. The onset of World War II and gas rationing curtailed travel and interest withered. After a while the midgets left their tiny homes and returned to the nomadic life of circus performers.

But as legend has it, before the midgets decamped, two of them began an argument that ended in gunfire, and their untimely deaths. Without relatives to care for them, they were buried unceremoniously under what is now one of Sweetwater's main thoroughfares. Since that day the city fathers have fought more often than cooperated. According to urban myth, if tranquility is ever to reign in Sweetwater, the midgets must be exhumed, and given a proper burial.

It didn't take long for evil to go to work. By the early Fifties the sale of alcohol had become good business. In every place in Dade County but one, the bars closed at 1:00 a.m. on weekdays and 2:00 a.m. on weekends. In Sweetwater two liquor bars and one beer-and-wine joint stayed open until 5:00 a.m. A grand jury investigating the city at the time concluded that Sweetwater seemed to exist solely to bestow liquor licenses.

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