Embattled Opa-locka City Manager David Chiverton announced he is taking a leave of absence, one week after the Miami Herald reported he had improperly paid himself nearly $40,000 in unused vacation and sick time.
Currently at the center of an FBI investigation into widespread corruption, Chiverton stated in a memo he is taking a leave for “medical reasons” while the city faces mounting debts that could lead to a financial takeover by the state.
The 51-year-old administrator wrote to Mayor Myra Taylor and commissioners that he named his newly hired assistant manager, Yvette Harrell, as a replacement, citing his authority under the city’s charter. He added that he would assist her — “to the extent I am able” — until his return.
Harrell, 42, a lawyer who has served just weeks in office, had worked with City Attorney Vincent Brown before she was hired last month as Chiverton’s assistant. Chiverton did not respond Thursday to interview requests.
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The abrupt move comes in the midst of tense discussions between the city and the governor’s office over Opa-locka’s mounting debts — which reached $8 million last year — and the prospect of the state declaring a financial emergency and placing the city under control of an oversight board.
After the Herald published a story on May 12 showing Chiverton directed tens of thousands in benefits to himself to which he was not entitled, Florida’s chief inspector general, Melinda Miguel, fired off an email to the manager demanding an explanation for the payments.
“Please provide this by close of business on Friday,” she wrote.
Chiverton wrote back in an email that “due to unforeseen emergencies” he had to cash in his unused vacation and sick time because his daughter has been diagnosed with an “incurable disease” and his “elderly mother suffers from severe ongoing medical conditions.”
He said that since there was no policy in place for city administrators appointed by the commissioners, there was nothing that “prohibits or restricts me” from receiving vacation and sick pay.
In conclusion, he said, “my actions did not constitute a violation of any policy, procedure or practice relating to appointed personnel.”
The Herald found the city manager approved two payments totaling nearly $40,000 to himself in what were violations of the city’s policies.
Not only does the Opa-locka personnel benefits handbook state “the city will not pay out accrued sick leave to current employees,” but it also states “employees will not be paid for accumulated annual leave [vacation time] while continuing to be employed by the city.”
There is no separate provision for employees appointed by the commission, such as the city manager, city clerk and city attorney. Brown, the city attorney, declined to comment.
In Chiverton’s case, one of the payments for $14,160 was for unused vacation time and the other — $24,982 — was for sick time that far exceeded what he was allowed to receive under the city’s rules.
While Chiverton was receiving the payments in late April, the city was embarking on a recovery plan that included slashing the work week for most employees to 32 hours and laying off a round of city employees.
Chiverton, a former assistant city manager who was appointed acting manager in November, said in an interview with the Herald last week that other employees have tapped into their benefits in the past “when unforeseen expenses” occurred. “Why is this an issue with me?”
However, city regulations say that employees who serve less than five years are limited to receiving just a quarter of what they accrue in sick time — and even then, only after they retire. Chiverton has served less than four years with Opa-locka.
In his case, he took the full amount: a gross payment of $24,982 — equaling 419 hours in sick pay, or 10 weeks, on April 27.
In an email to Chiverton on Tuesday, the inspector general noted that she had just spoken to Mayor Myra Taylor on the phone and that the mayor said she approved Chiverton tapping into his sick and vacation pay.
She said “that this leave payout was consistent with the city’s policy,” Miguel wrote.
Former Opa-locka Vice Mayor Steven Barrett said the mayor does not have the executive authority to allow him to cash in his benefits.
“If she did that, it’s illegal,” Barrett said. “We don’t have a strong mayor form of government. She would need three votes on the commission.” Taylor could not be reached Thursday.
What’s unclear is whether Chiverton will be paid while he’s on leave. The memo he wrote on Wednesday did not say if he would continue to receive his $123,500 annual salary.
The commission is likely to take up the issue at its regular meeting on May 25.
While the city manager has been at the center of the financial crisis, he has also been a key suspect in the FBI investigation, which is probing nearly every level of local government.
At least two informants working for federal agents say they secretly tape recorded meetings as Chiverton and other public officials allegedly shook down business owners for tens of thousands before granting them operating licenses, according to two owners who became informants for the FBI. Chiverton has declined to discuss the federal investigation.
During a meeting last week, Commissioner Joseph Kelley proposed the city manager be placed on unpaid leave until the controversy ends, but the commission turned it down, 3-1.
Reached on Thursday, Kelley said he was concerned about how long Chiverton’s replacement would be on the job. “We need to have someone in that position who can handle the financial recovery and the day-to-day operations,” Kelley said. “That’s a tall order.”
Commissioner Terence Pinder said he agreed with Kelley, adding that the role of the city manager will be “critical” in the current crisis, mainly because the city faces a potential takeover.