On Aug. 5, Sweetwater Mayor José Diaz spoke to former Mayor Manuel “Manny” Maroño about a personal matter. Thirty minutes later that morning, Diaz’s political career quickly changed: The FBI arrested Maroño on bribery charges and was later suspended by Gov. Rick Scott.
“Everything was great and in 30 minutes I heard about the situation that was difficult,” he said in the first interview in which he spoke about Maroño’s arrest. “It was lamentable.”
Diaz, who served as commission president and vice mayor, had kept mum on the situation until now. He was sworn in Aug. 12 at city hall quietly with no press around. Commission Vice President José A. Bergouignan was sworn in as the city vice mayor. If Diaz were to serve as mayor, he would serve Maroño’s term till May 2015.
Diaz, who is Cuban-born, had served on the commission for 12 years and worked as a teacher at an all-girls Young Women’s Preparatory Academy in Miami. He even won a teaching award from the Hispanic television network Univisión.
He said the transition from being a teacher to being acting mayor has caused sleepless nights.
“The adjustment has been a non-adjustment,” he said in Spanish.
Sweetwater has a strong-mayor form of government, so Diaz will also serve as the city manager. Diaz, who holds a bachelor’s of science degree in public administration from Barry University, said he doesn’t intend to change anything from the past administration other than to make improvements.
“I am not celebrating,” he said in reference of his taking the acting-mayor job. “I am responsible for the community. No one can deny, in the last 10 years that Sweetwater has changed radically, toward a better future, and it is not José Diaz who will stop that future. It is a great responsibility, but I am honored.”
Since taking the position, Diaz has moved to the mayor’s office where all of Maroño’s mementos such as photographs and other items have since been removed.
However, the Maroño family presence is still felt. Isolina Maroño sits on the commission after being elected this year. She was appointed last year after a commissioner’s death. His uncle Antero Espinosa is the city’s maintenance director. Jennifer Muñoz-Maroño, his wife, has worked for the city since 2001 as director of special projects.
Diaz says he won’t fire anyone and has no intention of changing the staff.
“If there are employees from the previous administration and they are Maroño’s family members, well, I know it doesn’t look right, but how am I going to fire someone who is working well?” he said. “It’s controversial and we have lived with it.”
Diaz said that once he took office he gathered the entire city staff and asked them to “embark on a boat full of hope with respect, cooperation and professionalism.”
As of now, there hasn’t been any information on Maroño’s allegations or his future, but Diaz says that if the old mayor were to return, he would be content.
“If Maroño returns, I would have an ally to move forward to advance Sweetwater in all involvement,” he said. “And, I would gladly return to teach because I miss my students and colleagues. Teaching has been my passion.”
In less than a month, he says that his staff and commissioners have welcomed him in his new role. He has made some changes such as in the upcoming 2013-14 budget. For example, plans to purchase a $104,000 flatbed truck that would have delivered equipment across the city has been scratched.
“If we have a sidewalk that needs to get fixed, a grant won’t pay for it,” he said. “I’d rather pay for the sidewalk, so a senior citizen won’t trip and fall.”
He says his plans are to continue to grow the city and be recognized as a university town. Florida International University is just a few minutes away from city hall.
“We have a coalition with FIU,” he said. “We want Central and South America and Europe to know that Sweetwater, although a small city in Miami-Dade County, is surrounded by technology, beauty, entertainment, security and education.”
Diaz who has lived in the Sweetwater for over 20 years says, if he remains as mayor, he intends to run a campaign to keep his seat in 2015.
“I will already start to work on my campaign and would count on the community to vote for me for this position,” he said. “It would be an honor.”
He says his goal is to continue the legacy of a growing and prosperous city.
“I am a dreamer,” he said. “There are areas to fix in our lives and it motivates me on how to better on what we already have.”
Sweetwater currently has a vacant commission seat. Plans are that the commission will appoint someone at their upcoming meeting Sept. 9 at 8 p.m. at City Hall, 500 S.W. 109 Ave.