Miami Gardens / Opa-locka

Opa-locka

Liability claims haunt Opa-locka City Hall

 

ldixon@MiamiHerald.com

Since 2004, Opa-locka’s insurance company has paid more than $3 million in claims from people who said they were hurt from the negligence or wrongdoing of city employees.

In the biggest claim, the insurer faced a $1 million payment to the families of California tourists that were killed in a collision last April after a police officer pursued a driver heading the wrong way on Interstate 95.

The city has also paid damages in at least two other auto liability incidents and to at least four employees who claimed they were wrongly fired. In one accident, in 2009, a police officer chased a suspect through a yellow light and hit Mary and Clifton Young’s vehicle. Mary Young later died due to her injuries and the accident cost the city more than $150,000.

Last year, the city’s insurance provider, the Florida League of Cities, said it had enough. The league said it wouldn’t renew the city’s liability insurance policy, but relented when city officials promised to take steps to improve hiring practices and reduce other risks.

Donald Lund, the associate director of insurance services for the league, said that Opa-locka needed to have a wake-up call.

“They need to do a better job with some of their hiring and firing practices,” Lund said. “I’m sure we’ve got their attention.”

City leaders met with representatives from the league and agreed upon a plan to help the city reduce its serious claims.

The plan included hiring a dedicated risk manager, additional training and supervision for city employees and improving the vetting process when the city hires new employees. The City Commission passed a resolution last September approving the renewal at a cost of $997,304.

The city has already acted on some of the plan’s mandates including having monthly safety meetings and having quarterly meetings with department heads. City Manager Kelvin Baker said the city and human resources department are interviewing candidates for the risk manager position and hopes to have someone in place “any day now.”

The risk manager position was supposed to be filled by Jan. 1.

Despite missing that deadline, Assistant City Manager David Chiverton said the league has continued to work with the city.

“We’ve been in communication with them through our [human resources] department,” Chiverton said. “We want to make sure that the person is able to comply and fit all the standards they outlined.”

The police force, which has about 60 officers, has also gone through about a dozen police chiefs in the last 20 years and three different city managers since 2008. The force also once hired German Bosque, an officer who during his 20-year-career, he has been fired at least six times, most recently, in October 2012, for letting his father-in-law handle his department-issued assault rifle.

He’s currently facing charges for kidnapping, battery and tampering with a witness stemming from an arrest last June.

The renewal of the insurance plan will carry the city through this budget year, but will only remain if city leaders continue to follow the plan.

“There are things we have to be more vigilant about,” said Chiverton. “We need to have a more aggressive safety and awareness program in regards to injuries and other things that can be costly to the city.”

Lund said that the variety of claims, across multiple departments, is what made the league suggest changes across the board. He added that the city’s changes in city managers in recent years made negotiations difficult in the past.

“We worked with a city manager for a while and seemed to have gotten their attention and then they were gone,” said Lund.

Bryan Finnie held the city manager position from 2008 until 2010. He was initially serving on an interim basis, but was not initially considered for the full-time job. Clarance Patterson replace him for less than a year from January 2010 until June 2010 — when he stepped down from the position. Finnie returned to the job for a little over a year after Patterson left and was succeeded by Baker in July 2012.

“They’re on the the bad end of the bell curve in our world,” said Lund.

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