West Miami-Dade

Recall effort is ‘the root of all evil,’ Sweetwater mayor says

Sweetwater Mayor Orlando Lopez, center, holds a press conference Monday, March 5, 2017, along with his attorney, Joseph Carballo, left, as he announces a lawsuit he has filed challenging the recall by the city commission.
Sweetwater Mayor Orlando Lopez, center, holds a press conference Monday, March 5, 2017, along with his attorney, Joseph Carballo, left, as he announces a lawsuit he has filed challenging the recall by the city commission. cjuste@miamiherald.com

An effort to recall the mayor of Sweetwater is raising allegations of fraud, conspiracy and voter intimidation, and once again threatening upheaval in a town perpetually locked in a political tempest.

Last month, a political committee linked to a city commissioner turned in nearly 2,000 signed petitions calling for the ouster of Orlando Lopez, a strong mayor who serves as the small city’s manager. The committee, Providing Effective Government for All Residents, says Lopez is an absentee administrator who skipped at least five commission meetings and workshops last year amid a financial crisis.

“He’s neglected his duty,” said J.C. Planas, an attorney who represents the committee. “It’s not just that he missed the meetings, it’s that he didn’t send staff either. Some of these meetings had to be canceled.”

He’s neglected his duty

J.C. Planas, election law attorney

The Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections certified 1,779 petition signatures on Feb. 23, enough to allow the recall effort to move forward under a process laid out in state law. A second petition drive circulated along with a rebuttal by Lopez in the west Dade ‘burb just north of Florida International University’s Modesto Maidique campus will likely begin this week.

The political committee now has 60 days to obtain valid signatures from 15 percent of the town’s roughly 10,000 registered voters, triggering a recall election barring Lopez’s resignation. If the vote is held and goes against the mayor, Lopez would become the first elected official in Miami-Dade to be recalled since county mayor Carlos Alvarez in 2011.

But the mayor doesn’t intend to let that happen.

Lopez filed a complaint Friday in circuit court against the county supervisor of elections, Sweetwater clerk, and Gonzalo Sanchez, the chairman of the political committee behind the recall. He is challenging the verification of signatures and pushing to invalidate the petition drive.

His case is based on two arguments: that he’s not actually required to attend meetings under the city charter, which says he “may” attend, and that signatures were obtained through fraud. He says private investigators who checked behind petitioners secured 47 affidavits from voters who testified that Rafael Castro, a fired Sweetwater police officer who served as a witness on petition signatures for the campaign, lied about being there.

Others, they claim, were Spanish-speakers duped into signing a document written entirely in English.

“We have had sworn affidavits from people who say they were told this was to improve the trolley service, this was to lower taxes next year, anything but the truth,” said Lopez, who asserts — without evidence — that further investigation will reveal additional fraud.

This is just the root of all evil

Mayor Orlando Lopez

Lopez says the recall is part of a prolonged effort by city commissioners to undercut his administration. He described committee chairman Sanchez as the “live-in boyfriend” of Commissioner Idania Llanio, a political opponent, and accused commissioners of a trading favors with Castro, whom he said has a history of making false statements and falsifying documents, is trying to win his job back next month.

The political committee has been funded by some substantial donations, including $20,000 from developer Wayne Rosen.

“What this case is not is some sort of grassroots campaign by the citizens of Sweetwater to recall the mayor,” said Lopez’s attorney, Joseph Carballo. “This is a political campaign done by the commission to deny the voters who elected the mayor two years ago of their right to have the mayor serve out his term and clean up the corruption at city hall.”

The recall effort follows years of controversy in the city, dating back to the FBI’s 2013 arrest of former mayor Manny Marono, uncovering a sewer of corruption. In the ensuing election, the interim mayor, Jose M. Diaz, was effectively defeated by Lopez when a judge threw Diaz off the ballot. Once in office, Lopez ran into a power struggle with city commissioners that, he says, continues today.

Responding to a request for comment Monday, Llanio said she was in a meeting and unavailable to talk. Sanchez did not respond to an email and multiple voice mails. Castro could not be reached for comment.

Planas, however, said Lopez’s arguments are specious, and claims of fraud and collusion are “red herrings.” Petition signatures were individually verified, according to the elections department, and Planas said no amount of harassing and intimidating voters will change that the petition drive is legitimate, or that the city’s top administrator has an obligation to staff commission meetings.

“They shouldn’t be going to the houses of people, saying ‘We know you signed the petition. We know you were duped.’ C’mon,” said Planas, who filed an ethics complaint against the mayor. “He’s throwing a whole bunch of fraud allegations around without any sort of backup. The guy is grasping at straws.”