The Opa-locka City Commission voted 3-2 to award a multimillion-dollar trash contract to a company that currently picks up the city’s garbage — and, until the previous month employed one of Mayor Myra Taylor’s sons as a dispatcher.
Commissioners Luis Santiago and John Riley sponsored the measure to give the city’s garbage business to Universal Waste Services of Florida, which was the runner-up in a competitive bidding process to Waste Management. Taylor, who voted for her son’s former employer, was otherwise silent during the discussion at Wednesday night’s meeting.
The commission’s action irked members of a state oversight board appointed in June by Florida’s governor to help Opa-locka recover from a financial emergency — all while the FBI is wrapping up a major investigation into corruption at city hall.
Last month, Taylor and those same commissioners rejected Waste Management, even though the longtime South Florida trash hauler was recommended by a staff selection committee and the city manager. At that commission meeting, Taylor also said nothing about her son, Corleon Taylor, who worked for Universal Waste for two years.
The mayor and other commissioners then asked City Manager Yvette Harrell to reassess the competitors for the city’s garbage service — and she chose Universal Waste, asserting it would save the city almost $500,000 in residential trash pickups compared with Waste Management’s proposal. “It was clear to me that UWS was better,” she told the commission.
On Thursday, Taylor bristled when she was asked about any potential conflict of interest in voting to extend Universal Waste’s trash-hauling service.
“I don’t know his status at UWS,” Taylor said. “I don’t know if he works there or not. I have no comment about UWS.”
During the hearing, the state’s chief inspector general, Melinda Miguel, who chairs the oversight board, expressed her disappointment in the commission’s choice of Universal Waste. But the sharpest criticism came from Merrett Stierheim, a former Miami-Dade County manager and recognized government troubleshooter, who was deputized by Miguel as an inspector general to monitor Opa-locka’s financial crisis.
“I have some serious problems with this issue,” Stierheim said.
“I am aware,” Harrell responded.
“I share those concerns,” Miguel said.
“The truth of the matter is, there has been nonexistent management of this company’s contract and its invoices,” said Stierheim, noting that Universal Waste owes the city about $450,000 in franchise fees for commercial trash pickups.
“We need to look into this with further detail,” added Miguel, suggesting the oversight board might use its authority to reject the city’s choice of a trash hauler.
At Wednesday night’s commission meeting, two members voiced strong opposition to selecting Universal Waste, which took over the city’s residential and commercial garbage service at the end of 2014.
Commissioner Joseph Kelley complained that two of his colleagues — and not the city manager — sponsored the selection. He criticized Harrell for not presenting any documentation on why she was recommending Universal Waste over Waste Management and two other competitors. As part of its proposal, Waste Management agreed to advance the cash-strapped city about $1 million in payments from trash-hauling revenues.
“I do not understand the hurry,” Kelley told the city manager, as he instructed her to provide detailed comparisons of the competitors’ proposals “so we can see how the numbers play out.”
Commissioner Timothy Holmes said he was “very disappointed with the city manager making this recommendation for Universal Waste.”
Community activists who regularly attend the commission meetings said the mayor directed the city manager behind the scenes to support Universal Waste and to rush the vote because one of her allies, Santiago, could lose his seat in the Nov. 8 municipal election.
Santiago, who regularly sides with the mayor and whose daughter is married to another of the mayor’s sons, is the target of an FBI investigation into bribery at City Hall that has already resulted in guilty pleas by the former city manager and a public works supervisor. Riley, who in the midst of a re-election campaign, also regularly supports the mayor’s legislation.
“Without their support, the mayor would not have been able to push through this contract for Universal Waste,” Natasha Ervin said after Wednesday’s meeting. “This was done now because she might not have their votes after the election.”
Friction over the city’s trash-hauling contract was not the only drama at the commission meeting.
Commissioner Kelley said he was ‘very upset’ about the city giving Harrell such a big raise, insisting her yearly pay should be limited to $110,000 because the city’s employees are still working 32 hours a week under a furlough plan.
Santiago proposed giving Harrell, a lawyer who took over as city manager on an interim basis in May and permanently in August, a formal contract for two years. At first, the contract called for a $150,000 annual salary, but it was reduced to $125,000 — in line with that of her predecessor, David Chiverton.
Santiago described her as a hard-working, dedicated leader who was handed a “hot potato” when she took over the job.
Santiago, Riley, Holmes and Mayor Taylor voted to give her the new contract, despite opposition from oversight board members, who urged that her salary be kept at $85,000 while the city is still in financial turmoil. Stierheim, who is advising the oversight board, sees Harrell as a public administrator who lacks the professional credentials to run Opa-locka’s government.
Kelley said he was “very upset” about the city giving Harrell such a big raise, insisting her yearly pay should be limited to $110,000 because the city’s employees are still working 32 hours a week under a furlough plan.
One newcomer to Opa-locka’s political scene who is running for a commission seat said he saw the city manager’s big raise as payment for her switching her support to Universal Waste in the bidding process for a trash contractor.
“That’s a little too obvious about what’s going on in his city,” said Matthew Pigatt, who works as a scholarship coordinator at Florida Memorial University. “This type of behavior has to stop.”
After she received her raise, Harrell thanked the commission and took offense at Pigatt’s remark, calling it “egregious.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to note that Corleon Taylor no longer works for Universal Waste, having resigned from the company, effective Sept. 2.