If the Suits Fit

The mayor of Hialeah Gardens has a taste for vulgarity, revenge -- and for costing the city big bucks in legal fees

Two of the cases concern actions taken by the administration that preceded Oliveros's re-election to mayor in 1995. But those cases dragged on into her current tenure, and where her behavior is not the substance of the complaint, her intransigence has exacerbated whatever problems existed. "She's totally irrational," says one Hialeah Gardens police officer who asked not to be named. "She's the reason the city keeps getting its ass kicked in court."

Only two of the eleven cases have ended without some cost to the city. Hialeah Gardens has either struck monetary settlements with the remaining plaintiffs, or, in three instances, suffered jury verdicts against it: one for more than $300,000, the other two totaling about $100,000.

Yet Oliveros's administration continues to attract litigation. In addition to Godwin's departure, two former city hall employees who worked closely with the mayor quit this year and are preparing to sue the city. One of these, former secretary Nattacha Amador, filed a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint soon after she left, though she declined to be interviewed for this story. The other ex-employee asked not to be named before her suit is filed. But both of these sources describe the same belligerent behavior that Godwin alleges, adding that the mayor's frequent disparaging comments about blacks offended them as Afro-Cubans.

The official city image
The official city image
Ground zero for numerous complaints and lawsuits against the City of Hialeah Gardens
Steve Satterwhite
Ground zero for numerous complaints and lawsuits against the City of Hialeah Gardens

The portrait of Oliveros that emerges from their descriptions, those of other current and former city employees, and the content of several of the now-closed federal suits against the city, is one of a petty dictator who flouts Florida law and bullies anyone who crosses her. The stack of suits against the city, which has its awards and court costs paid out of an insurance policy with the Florida League of Cities, doesn't appear to faze her. With apologies to Carl Hiaasen, Hialeah Gardens looks like the home of the real "Mayor Loca."

Hialeah Gardens, a city of some 18,000 souls, has borders that resemble three triangles jutting out from the southeastern edge of Okeechobee Road. Much like its namesake and neighbor to the east, Hialeah Gardens has evolved from a sparsely populated, semirural Anglo community into an ever-denser suburb in which the citizens are overwhelmingly of Cuban descent.

Gilda Cabrera Oliveros, now 50 years old, is a high school graduate and mother of two, who first entered politics in the city in 1987 after winning a seat on the city council. (At the time she was married to Aldo Oliveros, but they divorced in 1992.) Unlike in Hialeah, where all council candidates run in one election and the top five vote-getters win seats, Hialeah Gardens aspirants and incumbents vie for individual seats. But like Hialeah it has a strong mayor who is elected separately and who works, without a city manager, as the chief administrator of the government, with the power to hire and fire city staff. This is essentially the same system commissioners in the City of Miami are asking voters to approve in November.

After a tenure on the council that most characterize as steady but unremarkable, Oliveros accomplished a truly remarkable feat. In 1989 she ran for mayor and won, becoming the first Hispanic female mayor of any city in the United States. Even her critics don't have much to say about her first two terms as mayor, though some who knew her then say she would show flashes of her later infamous temper. And she did earn notice for regularly wearing short skirts and low-cut tops to council meetings.

In 1994 she remarried, wedding Angel Ramos de Corzo and changing her name to Gilda Cabrera de Corzo. They divorced in 1997, and she resumed using her first husband's name.

Neither her new name nor her sartorial flair nor her policies were enough to keep her in office. In 1993 she lost the mayoral election to George Hameetman. But she didn't stay down for long, spending the next two years running an auto-tag agency in the city with her friend, Rosa Levy, then mounting a successful campaign to recapture the mayoral seat in 1995.

That election was fraught with mudslinging and backbiting, some of which referred to the employee complaints the city had begun to accumulate under Hameetman's short reign. After her victory Oliveros filed an eleven-count complaint against Hameetman with the State Commission on Ethics, charging that Hameetman had walked off with city property when he vacated city hall. (The commission threw out the charges.) The litigation far from ended once Oliveros took over. Hameetman's police chief and political ally, Glenn Sime, sued the city in state court when Oliveros fired him and replaced him first with interim chief Angel Lopez, then with Harold Keith Joy, who remains chief to this day.

Oliveros moved to consolidate and increase her power, convincing the five council members to amend the city charter and extend the mayoral term from two years to four. In 1997 she won re-election as the city's first four-year mayor. In 1998 the Florida League of Cities appointed her chairwoman of the Criminal Justice, Ethics and Personnel Policy Committee.

Many of her former employees find this appointment risible. Robert Godwin joined her staff in early 1996 as the "council's assistant," then became assistant to the mayor. As the 1997 mayoral election approached, he says, he realized keeping Oliveros in office was part of his job -- in apparent violation of Florida election laws.

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