MIAMI — Florida trial and appeal courts have decided that Sweetwater Mayor Orlando Lopez cannot be forced to attend commission meetings, and some find this ruling to be fair.
On May 3, the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Florida decided to uphold a trial court's decision to reject a petition for the recall of Lopez. The petition, created by Providing Effective Government for All Residents, had garnered 1,779 signatures in February. The committee claimed that Lopez was neglecting the city by failing to attend commission meetings.
Lopez filed a complaint in a circuit court in March against the county supervisor of elections, the Sweetwater clerk and Gonzalo Sanchez, the chairman of the political committee behind the effort. According to the Miami Herald, Lopez argued that Article IV of the City Charter, which outlines the mayor's duties, said that the mayor "may" attend commission meetings but is not forced to do so. Lopez also said he found many issues with the recall petition. Some signatures were allegedly fabricated, some of the signees allegedly only spoke Spanish and therefore could not have read the petition and others allegedly thought the petition was for an entirely different cause.
A trial court found that Lopez was not obligated to attend commission meetings. Sanchez and the committee appealed the decision.
The appeals court agreed with the trial court, stating that the recall petition "did not state a valid ground for neglect of duty pursuant to the City Charter."
While some who were invested in the case feel the ruling will ultimately hurt Sweetwater, others find no issue with the mayor skipping meetings.
"In some places, the mayor has very different powers from the commission, which could serve almost like a 'check' on the mayor's power," Mark C. Smith, a constitutional law professor at Cedarville University, told the Florida Record. "In that sense, I don't think it should be mandatory unless the city government's structure necessitates it."
Kyle C. Kopco, an assistant political science professor at Elizabethtown College, shared similar sentiments.
"There are times when elected officials can't attend meetings for a variety of reasons, so there always has to be some leeway for that," Kopco said.
Lopez maintains that the recall effort was not simply about his absence in meetings. He said the attack was meant to prevent him from "[cleaning] up the corruption at City Hall." Lopez also claimed Sanchez is the “live-in boyfriend” of his political opponent, Commissioner Idania Llanio. He added that Rafael Castro, a fired Sweetwater police officer whom the commission allegedly trades favors with, is trying to win back his position.
"I think oftentimes when there are recall efforts, there is policy disagreement or disagreement with the direction of leadership," Kopco said. "And that's just politics."
Lopez is here to stay, for now. Whether he is held accountable for his actions will depend on the citizens of Sweetwater.
"If there are enough citizens that feel the mayor isn't doing his job, they should simply speak up, exercise their democratic rights," Kopco said. "That's what elected officials expect. And if the people of Sweetwater agree with the mayor, they should also speak up. There's probably not going to be a court-sanctioned solution. This is something that voters are going to have to sort out themselves."