As Sweetwater Turns

South Floridians who are even vaguely familiar with the brief life and eventful times of the City of Sweetwater probably weren't surprised to see this image played across their television screens last month: Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators leading Sweetwater City Councilman Ronald Mitro, unshaven, sporting a Flintstones T-shirt, and handcuffed, with a wry smile curling across his face, out of his photo-processing and video-rental shop on West Flagler Street. Mitro and his wife, Patricia Guy-Mitro, were arrested after allegedly agreeing to sell Florida identification cards to two undercover FDLE agents without asking for proper information, a felony charge. The two agents had posed as actresses planning to make pornographic videos. ("They asked me if I wanted to join in," recalls Mitro, who has been freed on his own recognizance. "I said, 'Absolutely not.' But I said, 'I'll watch!'")

Mitro, the city council's vice president at the time of his arrest, has been publicly defiant and claims the allegations are part of a political vendetta. (He and his wife have pleaded not guilty to the charges; a trial is set for June 20.) And if the 50-year-old councilman weren't talking about Sweetwater, his remarks might be disregarded as the embittered mutterings of yet another Dade politician caught in flagrante delicto. But scandalous politics is to Sweetwater what heroin is to a junkie; at times it seems that every official act undertaken within the borders of this little city, wedged in between SW 107th Avenue and Florida's Turnpike, just north of FIU's University Park campus, is plagued by the bugaboo of small-town political factionalism, which constantly threatens to paralyze government.

Mitro's attorney, Ben Kuehne, argues that the circumstances of his client's arrest were extraordinary and that they raise questions about the authorities' objectives. "It's real easy to find some technical violation of a statute and go after a decent guy," says Kuehne. "In most contexts the regulators would simply advise a shop owner, 'This is what we need. Make sure you keep your records.' At this point I can't say whether the arrest was politically motivated, but I think there was more to it than simply this arrest."

Mitro's allies on the Sweetwater City Council have sounded a similar alarm. When Gov. Lawton Chiles suspended her colleague ten days after his arrest, council president Gloria Bango implied that the governor himself was somehow in cahoots with their enemies. "It's all political," Bango declared. "When you're in that type of position, you have advisers, and I think somebody's been advising his advisers, if you get my drift." Bango stopped short of speculating about who the advisers' advisers might be.

Law enforcement officials contend that the arrest was not politically motivated in the least and that it was a "spinoff" from a broader, multiagency criminal investigation into the city. Indeed, Sweetwater, a town with a predominantly Latin population of about 14,000 squeezed into eight-tenths of a square mile (making it the most densely populated city in Dade), has been awash in an alphabet soup of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies in recent months. Investigators are zealously probing the city's administration, council, and police department. But outside scrutiny is nothing new for Sweetwater. Since its incorporation in 1941, the city has developed an ignominious reputation for official misconduct, ranging from political brawls -- the kind with fists -- to extortion.

And if the recent rashes that have spread across the exposed regions of the body politic are any indication of what lies below, the municipality's internal constitution is as ill as ever. In addition to the Mitro arrest, the following convolutions have troubled the city in the past year:

In August 1993 Mayor Matilde Aguirre fired Sweetwater Police Chief Charles Toledo for violating the state's nepotism laws by permitting his brother Ray to serve as assistant chief. Both men had been Sweetwater police officers for eighteen years. (State statutes prohibit a public official from employing or advancing a relative, or advocating the appointment or advancement of a relative.) In a memorandum explaining the firing, the mayor asserted that the city's police force, which now numbers eighteen sworn officers, had "lost total confidence and trust in the police administration as a direct result of the continued and existing favoritism that exists [sic]." At the same time, she suspended Ray Toledo, pending an investigation of charges that he was abusive to officers and misused city funds. An internal affairs investigation is ongoing.

Two months ago the seven-member city council filed a civil suit against Mayor Aguirre, alleging that she withheld public records from public scrutiny, a violation of Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine Law.

Also in April a majority of the city council voted to hire an outside attorney to "ensure that Aguirre complies with state laws and stops bypassing the council when making certain administrative decisions," as Mitro announced at the time.

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Kirk Semple