In the race to determine who will take the leading roles in the Sweetwater government there is a significant factor: money.
Less than a month before the May 12 municipal elections, the 10 candidates running for office have collected just more than a $250,000 combined, making this one of the most expensive elections in the history of the small city.
“In the last mayoral election, between the two candidates running they didn’t even break $80,000 [in campaign donations],” said Commissioner Orlando López, who is running for mayor and has collected $115,000 in donations – $50,000 of which came from his own pocket.
“It’s a serious commitment on my part,” Lopez said.
Some of the more notable donors include companies that have special interests in the city, such as developers – whose donations show more support towards incumbent Mayor José M. Díaz – and towing companies, which have donated mainly to López.
On Monday, a Miami-Dade County judge ruled that Díaz is disqualified from the election, for violating the state law known as “resign to run.”
At issue is the fact that Díaz was appointed — not elected — to the mayoral seat after the arrest of former Mayor Manuel Maroño. Before that, he was a commissioner and he never officially resigned from that post.
Judge Barbara Areces ruled on Monday that state and municipal law requires that Díaz resign from his last elected post by March 6 in order to run for the mayoral seat.
Díaz 's attorney, Juan Carlos Planas, said he will appeal the decision, arguing that Díaz did not have to resign because the commission seat he left vacant when appointed mayor was already filled.
The decision was based on a lawsuit López filed in early April.
Both candidates say their campaign donations reflect good faith in how they have handled their role in public office. Developers and tow truck operators are donating at a time of development boom in the city and just when the city is planning to issue a request for proposals for a towing services contract with the city.
“[Developers] have seen how the new administration is a serious one, and this has motivated businessmen and investors nearby to put their trust in our style of government,” said Díaz, whose campaign received more than $86,000, aside from benefiting from an electioneering communications organization and at least one political action committee.
López, on the other hand, said developers are just looking out for their own interests.
“They want the city to bend over backwards for the developer,”said López.
Sweetwater has seen an increase in construction with student housing developments and hotel projects near Dolphin Mall. But Lopez said the city has already seen the consequences of making exceptions for developers, like the parking issues caused by the 109 Tower student apartment for FIU students.
In 2012, Sweetwater allowed 109 Tower to be built without the required amount of parking spaces, causing havoc for the neighbors in the area and for the students who risked getting a ticket or towed.
Meanwhile, López received donations from several towing companies, a business that has been controversial in the city.
After the arrest of former mayor Manuel “Manny” Maroño for public corruption, a series of scandals came to light involving Southland Towing Company, which had a monopoly in the city for years.
Southland was part of a fraud scheme where the company towed cars if people were arrested in the city, even if the car was not related to the alleged charges. Maroño, whose mother Isolina Maroño is a commissioner in the city and supports López, was connected to the towing company, according to documented information from an investigation by El Nuevo Herald.
López said he has received the support of the towing companies — including the Southland’s new owner — because he helped put an end to the monopoly of towing in the city.
In the coming weeks, Sweetwater will present for the first time a request for proposal to choose two towing companies to service the city. After the city got rid of Southland, which was being investigated by the FBI, Díaz allowed a new company, AAA Towing, to take over.
“This [RFP] is what towing companies have been asking for for years,” Lopez said.
However, Díaz, who became mayor after Maroño’s arrest, said the companies are supporting López as a form of reprisal.
“My administration has reduced the number of car towings by 96 percent,” said Díaz. “This is the type of business that lends itself to illegal practices that took place during the previous administration, so [towing company owners] are upset because they can’t continue with these practices.”
While López and Díaz have collected tens of thousands of dollars for their campaigns, their other opponents, Deborah Centeno and Douglas Mayorga, have collected a little more than $10,000 combined. Mayorga, who entered the race months after the other candidates, has collected only $950. Both candidates have received donations from individual residents and smaller companies.
In the campaign reports submitted in the beginning of April, the candidates running for city commission reported:
▪ Saúl Díaz: $8,700, and his opponent, incumbent Manuel Duasso, $14,000
▪ Incumbent Prisca Barreto, $14,100 and opponent, Elsa Thompson, $6,500
▪ Incumbent José Guerra, $6,000, while opponent Idania Llanio has received $8,900.