West Miami-Dade

Sweetwater mayoral candidates’ political face-off escalates to legal dispute

Orlando López (right), a mayoral candidate in Sweetwater, next to his lawyer José M. Herrera during a press conference in Herrera’s office on Thursday, April 2.
Orlando López (right), a mayoral candidate in Sweetwater, next to his lawyer José M. Herrera during a press conference in Herrera’s office on Thursday, April 2. EL NUEVO HERALD

The battle to become mayor of Sweetwater may end up in the courtroom.

A little more than a month before the May 12 elections, Mayor José M. Díaz and mayoral candidate Orlando López are caught in a legal dispute over the mayor’s candidacy.

López, president of the City Commission, filed a lawsuit with the state court to get Díaz off the ballot, arguing that Díaz had ignored a rule in the state statute called “resign to run,” as well as the equivalent rule in the city charter.

The law states that elected officials need to resign from their current position at least 10 days before the election to qualify for another position.

In response, the mayor’s campaign argued that state law only requires resignation when the elected official seeking office would be holding two positions at the same time.

Díaz was elected as commissioner in May 2013 for a term that expires in 2017. Then in August 2013, Díaz, who was president of the City Commission at the time, was elevated by virtue of that post to be mayor after the arrest of then-Mayor Manuel “Manny” Maroño on charges of public corruption. Maroño is serving time in federal prison after being convicted.

Not long after, the other commissioners selected Catalino Rodríguez to take the vacant seat in the City Commission that had belonged to Díaz.

“The state statute is very clear and it only demands a resignation if someone would be holding two positions at once,” said Juan Carlos Planas, Díaz’s lawyer and a former state representative. “Mayor Díaz did not have to resign any position because the commission seat has already been filled and he cannot return to that position. He never held two positions at the same time.”

However, according to José M. Herrera, López’s attorney, the city charter gives Díaz the right to return to his commission seat at any time if he does not win the mayoral election.

“This is precisely what the law sets out to avoid by requesting a resignation, so elected officials don’t use their current positions as a lifeline if they lose the election,” Herrera said.

According to the lawsuit, the city charter establishes that “the president of the commission who filled in for mayor has the right to return to their former seat in the commission once the mayor is reinstated or the term expires.”

The Florida Elections Department’s definition states: “The ‘resign-to-run law’ essentially prohibits an elected or appointed ‘officer’ from qualifying as a candidate for another state, district, county or municipal public office if the terms or any part of the terms overlap with each other if the person did not resign from the office the person presently holds.”

Planas affirmed that in the case of conflicts in the interpretation of electoral laws, the state law is above the municipal rule.

“We have to remember that in Sweetwater when a vacant position is filled by a nomination, it wasn’t taken to a special election. What was going to happen after Díaz’s resignation already did, and the position was filled,” Planas said.

López, whose term expires in 2017, presented his resignation on March 6.

“This is not about a political attack,” López said on Thursday. “The residents of Sweetwater are tired of elected officials who abuse their office and break the law.”

Díaz, on the other hand, is convinced that the lawsuit is just a political maneuver.

“They know we are ahead and they are using these tactics so they don’t have to face us in the polls,” he said.

The other candidates running for mayor in Sweetwater are Deborah Centeno and Douglas Mayorga. Neither one has held an elected position in the city.

Follow Brenda Medina and Rebeca Piccardo on Twitter: @BrendaMedinar and @rpicc002.