As millions in debts piled up for months at City Hall, Opa-locka’s political leaders finally agreed to ask Florida’s governor to declare a financial emergency and appoint an oversight board to shepherd the city toward recovery.
But since that momentous vote in June, city-state relations have been painfully strained.
They reached a low point in January when City Commissioner John Riley said in a letter to the governor that the oversight board was like a “dictatorship” that views the city’s politicians and managers as “a group of ‘incompetent and defiant black officials’ that are operating with criminal intent.”
Now — with Opa-locka’s current budget barely balanced and past debts mounting up to $14 million — Florida legislators are considering a proposed law that would give the governor even greater power over cities placed under financial emergency.
A state House lawmaker has proposed allowing the governor to replace elected officials in cities such as Opa-locka, if they fail to comply with an oversight board’s demands on spending and other fiscal matters within 60 days. Any replacement by the governor would be temporary until a local election were held to fill the seat.
“The state has spent a great deal of time and resources on trying to help the city [of Opa-locka],” state Rep. Dan Raulerson, R-Plant City, told the Miami Herald. “The response has been delay, delay, delay by the city in working toward financial stability.”
His legislation, which has been winding through state House committees this spring, would toughen Florida’s existing law on declaring financial emergencies and appointing oversight boards. There is a companion bill in the Senate.
Currently, state law says if local officials fail to resolve a financial emergency, the governor can find their conduct “constitutes malfeasance, misfeasance and neglect of duty.” But the existing statute doesn’t allow the governor to remove elected local officials unless they are charged with a crime, such as corruption.
Raulerson, a former mayor of Plant City who recently visited Opa-locka, said he recognizes the Constitutional balancing act between state and local governments. But he said “there has got to be some teeth in this statute” to compel local officials to comply with an oversight board’s requirements, calling Opa-locka a “test case.”
The proposed law change would also allow the House speaker and Senate president to play parts in picking oversight board members along with the governor. The state Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, which monitors the financial conditions of local governments, would also play a greater role.
Riley, the Opa-locka commissioner who has served as mayor in the past, called Raulerson’s proposed law change “bad policy” and accused legislators of “overreaching.”
Riley has been the harshest critic of the state oversight board in the working-class, predominantly African-American city of 16,000. He said the proposed bill is unconstitutional because it would violate the authority of elected local officials in Opa-locka and other Florida cities.
“There is a difference between oversight and giving orders,” Riley told the Herald on Friday. “If you’re going to have a governor giving orders, then why have elected officials in municipalities in the first place.”
Opa-locka Vice Mayor Joseph Kelley said he was unaware of the new legislation. But Kelley expressed his “suspicions” about a bill that would give the governor such sweeping authority over elected local officials.
“I have to see what it entails and how far-reaching it is,” Kelley said.
Riley said the city overcame a similar financial emergency in 2002 under the guidance of a state oversight board.
This time around, he said, the current nine-member oversight board — headed by the Gov. Scott’s inspector general, Melinda Miguel — has provided no assistance in his view to Opa-locka in its recovery effort.
By comparison, he said, Miami-Dade County’s government has helped by providing employees to work with the city on management issues, including collecting millions in overdue water and sewer payments.
Riley, along with Opa-locka Mayor Myra Taylor, initially urged the governor to provide a low-interest loan to help the city through its financial crisis. But state officials have refused to offer any money, and instead have provided only financial and professional advice.
The state’s reluctance is not only based on doubts about the city’s ability to repay a loan.
For the past four years, the FBI has been investigating Opa-locka’s government at the highest levels. The corruption probe has led to the convictions of a former city commissioner, a city manager, a public works supervisor and the mayor’s son in plea deals stemming from bribery charges. A major indictment and more arrests are expected later this year.
Members of the state Joint Legislative Auditing Commission, at a recent meeting, openly questioned why more elected officials in Opa-locka have not been removed for failing to comply with the oversight board’s budgetary demands.
“I don’t think giving them money is going to solve their problems,” said Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, who co-chairs the committee with Raulerson. “What’s going to solve their problems is getting people out of there that have been making these bad decisions.”