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Despite past legal and ethics questions, Opa-locka rehires former city manager

Plundering a small town

How corruption and mismanagement pushed Opa-locka to the edge of insolvency.
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How corruption and mismanagement pushed Opa-locka to the edge of insolvency.

Yvette Harrell, a former Opa-locka city manager who got rehired this week for the job, was under criminal investigation for allegedly receiving an improper severance payment well before she resigned from the position last year, according to sources familiar with the Miami-Dade County probe.

Despite that cloud hanging over her, a divided city commission voted 3-2 to rehire Harrell on Tuesday. And on Thursday at another special meeting, the commission split once again over giving her a proposed two-year contract with a $125,000 annual salary — with a local election only a month away.

In the end, the commission compromised on the length of Harrell’s contract and voted 3-2 on a one-year employment agreement. Harrell also gets a $600-a-month car allowance, a credit card for city-related business, and a severance package of 20 weeks’ pay if she is fired without cause, according to the contract.

Harrell’s new contract is subject to the approval of a state oversight board that has been monitoring the city’s troubled finances for the past two years.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office issued a close-out memo in July of this year, saying there was “insufficient evidence” to prove that Harrell committed grand theft in May 2017 when she received two checks for her severance payment a few months before her actual resignation and without the approval of the state board.

Prosecutors concluded that because she did not cash the checks totaling about $12,000 for retroactive pay — and the state board later approved her severance just before she left office in late July 2017 — Harrell committed no wrongdoing, according to the memo obtained by the Miami Herald on Friday.

However, prosecutors referred the matter to the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and the Public Trust to determine whether Harrell violated a county ordinance “for exploitation of [her] official position.” The commission’s investigators had already opened their own probe into Harrell’s conduct more than a year ago. A spokesperson declined to comment, saying the commission could neither confirm nor deny the existence of any ongoing investigation.

According to sources familiar with the parallel probes, investigators began looking into Harrell’s severance payment after the Miami Herald reported in May 2017 that she pressured the city’s then-finance director, Charmaine Parchment, to issue her severance payment. Parchment, who received a subpoena, was a key witness.

In early May of last year, Harrell ordered the city’s finance director to issue a $5,908 check and then a second check for the same amount, without securing the required approval of the state board overseeing Opa-locka’s financial emergency. Harrell did not actually leave the manager’s job until the end of July.

Harrell demanded — and received — her retroactive pay based on a raise she got in October 2016 without the necessary approval of the oversight board, which was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott earlier that year. The governor declared a financial emergency because of the city’s multimillion-dollar debt and inability to pay city contractors and the county for water and sewer services.

Harrell, an attorney, did not respond to a request for comment. Last year, Harrell said she did nothing wrong. But Harrell also said she did not cash her first severance check when she was contacted by a Herald reporter.

Last year, Harrell said her retroactive pay had nothing to do with her separation agreement from the city, even though it was listed as the second provision in the agreement. “I earned that money, and I deserve it,” she told the Herald. But she also said: “I have not cashed the check. I chose not to.” Then, without elaborating, she hung up the phone.

At the time, Harrell’s severance issue was the latest controversy over back pay and benefits in Opa-locka — a city known for generously handing out both despite teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Also, since 2016, seven people, including a trio of Opa-locka officials, have pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges stemming from bribery and extortion schemes uncovered at city hall by the FBI.

Harrell, who initially served as an assistant city manager, replaced City Manager David Chiverton in August 2016, after he was charged with and later pleaded guilty to a bribery conspiracy and went to prison.

Harrell served as the city’s chief administrator until July 2017, but she was widely criticized for her lack of professional management experience by the state oversight board, including a prominent member, Frank Rollason, a retired city of Miami administrator. Rollason, who monitors the city’s monthly spending for the oversight board, said he would not have approved the $5,908 check to Harrell for retroactive pay.

Another vocal critical of Harrell: Merrett Stierheim, a legendary public administrator in Miami-Dade who was asked by the oversight board’s chairman to provide advice during Opa-locka’s financial struggles.

Harrell’s inexperience as city manager did not stop Mayor Myra Taylor from leading the way to rehire her on Tuesday immediately after she pushed for the firing of Newall Daughtrey as Opa-locka’s chief administrator.

Taylor, who cannot run for re-election because of term limits, was joined by Commissioner John Riley, who is running for mayor, and the swing vote on the commission, Timothy Holmes, who also faces term limits.

“I think Mr. Daughtrey has gone as far as he can go,” Taylor told the Herald. “It’s time to move on.”

Taylor said she was unaware of any open investigation into alleged wrongdoing by Harrell. “I thought she did well,” Taylor said of her last stint as city manager.

On Thursday, Taylor, Riley and Holmes voted to give Harrell the one-year contract, after the commission argued over the initial two-year proposal.

Vice Mayor Joseph Kelley and Commissioner Matthew Pigatt opposed Daughtrey’s firing, especially because he was working on an interim basis and he had experience as a former city manager in Opa-locka. Both also opposed the rehiring of Harrell as his replacement, including her new contract.

The appointment of a new city manager, just one month before the Nov. 6 election, drew harsh rebukes from Opa-locka residents at the special commission meeting. At least three new commissioners will be elected to the five-member panel.

“Why do you want to give a job to a woman who doesn’t want to help this city?” said George Suarez Jr., who is running for a commission seat. “You’re going to put her in a position where the new commission can’t get her out. Shame on you.”

After the vote on Harrell’s contract, Suarez said: “She’s in the mayor’s back pocket.”

Longtime civic activist Natasha Ervin also said the move to rehire Harrell was shameful. “Y’all always do what you want you do. Y’all always let the mayor have her way,” Ervin said. “I hope like hell the FBI is watching.”

Dorothy “Dottie” Johnson, who once served as a commissioner and is running for mayor, said the commission’s firing of Daughtrey and hiring of Harrell was Taylor’s handiwork — meant to allow her to exert pressure on the city manager after Taylor leaves office.

“I just think they need a complete overhaul,” Johnson said, calling Harrell’s hire “dead weight.”

“Why would you bring her back?” she said.