After a little more than a year of electoral warfare over the Sweetwater mayoral race, a major battle did not make it to the polls.
On Tuesday, a Florida appeals court upheld the decision made by the Miami-Dade County Circuit Court to disqualify Mayor José M. Díaz from the election, following a lawsuit filed by his main opponent, Commissioner Orlando López.
The Third District Court of Appeal determined after a hearing that Díaz violated the state statute known as “resign to run,” and the equivalent statutes in the Sweetwater city charter, just as Circuit Court Judge Barbara Areces had ruled.
Election Day is May 12 and absentee ballots were finally distributed on Thursday, according to a spokeswoman from the Miami-Dade County Elections Department.
The ballots include a document stating Díaz has been disqualified, and votes for him will not be counted.
“I am very disappointed in the judicial system,” said Díaz after the court decision. “They have deprived Sweetwater from the opportunity to follow a moral path with a good administration.”
Díaz, who was president of the city commission, became interim mayor in August 2013 after then-Mayor Manuel “Manny” Maroño was arrested on public corruption charges. In January 2014, Díaz was sworn in as the official mayor, after Maroño was convicted and sentenced to three years in federal prison.
According to the court decision, Díaz should have resigned his last elected position — commissioner — before qualifying as a mayoral candidate, since the law allows him to return to his seat in the city commission once his term as mayor expires.
“This is not a victory for me, it’s a victory for all the residents of Sweetwater. José Díaz violated the law and when he had the opportunity to fix his mistakes, he chose not to present his resignation,” López said. “He chose to have his cake and eat it too.”
The purpose of the “resign to run” law is to prevent candidates who are already serving as elected officials from securing a position to fall back on if they lose the election.
The term for the commission seat Díaz was originally elected expires in May 2017.
“Since the term of the position [as commissioner] overlaps with the term of the position Díaz aspired for, he was required to comply with the Florida statute ‘resign to run,’” Judges Juan F. Fernández, Vance E. Salter and Edwin A. Scales III concluded unanimously.
“I was always convinced that the decision from the judge [Barbara Areces] would stand and that we had a strong case,” commented López’s attorney, José “Pepe” Herrera, who insisted the lawsuit was not a political attack.
Díaz’s lawyer, Juan Carlos “J.C.” Planas, had initially argued that his client did not have to resign a position he no longer occupied, and said Díaz signed an affidavit stating he would not go back to his former position, which was filled by ex-cop Catalino Rodríguez by a majority vote in the commission.
But a day after the court decision, Díaz announced that he will be going back to his seat in the city commission on May 13.
“The people have asked me to return. They have called me, they are outraged,” Díaz said. “I will continue my work as president of the city commission and I am in good spirits to continue having a government with transparency.”
The Sweetwater Commission is currently divided. José Bergouignan, Prisca Barreto and Manuel Duasso – the last two are seeking reelection – have aligned with Díaz.
Rodríguez, José Guerra, and Isolina Maroño – mother of ex-Mayor Manny Maroño – are in an alliance with López. Guerra is also seeking reelection.
On Tuesday, López referred to the affidavit Díaz said he had signed, declaring he had no interest in returning to the city commission.
“If he wants to exert his right to do that [return to the commission], then once again he’d be deceiving the residents of Sweetwater,” López commented.
While having Díaz out of the race has mostly cleared the path for López to become mayor in one of the most expensive elections in Sweetwater, the commissioner is still facing two other candidates: Nicaraguans Deborah Centeno and Douglas Mayorga.
Follow Brenda Medina on Twitter: @BrendaMedinar.