After hours of debate Monday night, Sweetwater city commissioners voted to reinstate four city employees recently fired by the mayor.
Mayor José M. Diaz had fired the four employees, along with two others, two weeks ago as part of his “Clean House” project after months of scandals that have plagued the city in the wake of former Mayor Manny Maroño’s arrest and conviction on federal bribery charges.
The commission had the final say Monday when the six appealed their dismissals. Sweetwater is unusual in South Florida in that the mayor is the city’s chief executive and can hire and fire staff members. But the city charter gives fired employees the right to appeal to the City Commission.
Joanna Rubio, human resources director and godmother to Maroño and to his wife, got her job back. Also reinstated were: Guillermo Chez, manager of the city vehicle fleet; Frank Alvarez, a maintenance employee; and Miriam Mallea, a part-time employee in the passport office.
The commission declined to overturn the dismissals of Anny Chez, director of the finance department and wife of Guillermo Chez, and Luis Quintero, parks and recreation director.
Commissioner Orlando Lopez, who was elected to the vice mayor’s seat on Monday, told reporters before the meeting that he felt Diaz was playing politics with the firings. He said Diaz was creating a “circus” to make himself look good.
“Nobody saw him start the fire, but everybody sees him with the hose,” he said.
Miami-based employment lawyer Gary Costales came to the meeting to argue for the reinstatement of the Chezes, Rubio and Quintero. He maintained that the each of the employees was blindsided, and should have had pre-termination hearings.
“Give them reasons in writing,” he said as he asked for their reinstatement. “And if you want to terminate them again, do it the right way.”
Diaz had his private attorney, Susan Norton of Coral Gables-based Allen Norton and Blue, present Costales and the commission with a packet of memos that detailed reasons for the dismissals for each employee right as Monday’s 8 p.m. meeting began.
She and Diaz argued that reasons were ultimately irrelevant because all of the employees were “at-will” — in other words, they could be fired at any time for any reason.
“There’s no obligation to give these letters at all,” Norton said.
City Attorney Ralph Ventura opined that the mayor did indeed have the authority to fire department heads without a pre-termination hearing.
The commission took up each employee separately. Norton said there had been problems with background checks not being done by the human resources department, as well as nepotism issues because Rubio’s mother is her administrative assistant.
Lopez said Rubio did not hire her mother and that the mayor should work with Rubio to fix performance issues.
“It’s the lack of progressive discipline,” he said.
Rubio was the only department head to get her job back, by a 5-2 vote, with commissioner Jose Bergouignan and Prisca Barreto dissenting.
After hearing of the mayor’s issues with the finance department and problems with overtime hours in the parks and recreation department, the commission voted 4-3 not to reinstate the other two former department heads. Commissioners Manuel Duasso, Bergouinan, Barreto and Lopez prevailed.