South Florida

Troubleshooter calls Opa-locka worst mess he has ever dealt with as he bows out

Former Miami-Dade County Manager Merrett Stierheim, who has periodically been called on to help stabilize the finances of troubled governments, said Opa-locka’s situation is the worst he has seen.
Former Miami-Dade County Manager Merrett Stierheim, who has periodically been called on to help stabilize the finances of troubled governments, said Opa-locka’s situation is the worst he has seen.

Widely recognized as South Florida’s dean of public administrators, Merrett Stierheim says he has given up on Opa-locka’s government and politicians after helping guide them through months of financial upheaval.

He is stepping down from his advisory post “with more questions than answers as to whether future efforts will be successful in saving the city.”

Stierheim issued a final, bleak assessment of what he sees as a deeply rooted culture of dysfunction among the city’s leaders, saying they seem unwilling to deal with millions of dollars in debts and bring on seasoned managers to overcome Opa-locka’s intractable financial emergency.

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“I truly hope that my skepticism is proved wrong; however, I am fearful that the city will continue to suffer from what I perceive to be the current lack” of political leadership and management, Stierheim wrote over the weekend to the chair of a state board overseeing Opa-locka's finances.

“There will be some Opa-locka officials, and others within and outside the city organization, who will be pleased to see me disengage,” wrote Stierheim, who was retained as a volunteer in August to help the state oversight board appointed by Florida’s governor. “It is not at all unusual, however, that many of those same people don’t want to hear or face the truth; or be held accountable for their actions, inactions, poor judgment, lack of experience or ethical transgressions.”

Although Stierheim did not identify any local officials by name, Miami-Dade County’s former manager has made no secret of his lack of faith in Opa-locka’s mayor, Myra Taylor, and its city manager, Yvette Harrell. Both have exerted great influence over the city’s difficult recovery effort, while the state oversight board appointed last June has tried to reduce spending.

The board, chaired by Gov. Rick Scott’s chief inspector general, Melinda Miguel, has witnessed Opa-locka miss one budget deadline after another as the commission and manager struggle to balance a spending plan six months into the current fiscal year. The oversight board is scheduled to meet with Opa-locka officials next Tuesday to determine whether the city has balanced its fiscal year 2017 budget — in what is supposed to be the foundation of a five-year recovery plan.

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

If the mayor, commissioners and city manager fail to come up with an acceptable spending plan at this critical juncture, Gov. Scott could exercise his authority and find local officials’ conduct constitutes “malfeasance, misfeasance and neglect of duty.” If he reaches that conclusion, the governor could potentially remove them from office or dissolve the city’s government and place it under the receivership of another entity, such as Miami-Dade County. Placing Opa-locka — one of Florida’s poorest cities — in bankruptcy would be unprecedented.

Taylor, the mayor, and Harrell, the city manager, have both refused to speak with the Miami Herald about the city’s financial crisis.

In his letter to the governor’s inspector general, Stierheim expressed so little faith in the city's current political and administrative management that he complained for the first time about what he sees as a lack of progress by the FBI to complete its four-year-old investigation into alleged corruption at the highest levels of City Hall.

Since last summer, four defendants — including a former city commissioner, city manager, public works supervisor and the mayor's son — have pleaded guilty to extorting local business people for bribes in exchange for government permits. But the U.S. attorney's office has yet to unveil a long-awaited indictment charging others suspected of participating in the corruption conspiracy.

“Hindsight being 20-20 vision, it is unfortunate that the FBI could not have completed its investigations more expeditiously,” Stierheim wrote the governor’s inspector general, copying the email to city commissioners, oversight board members and some Miami-Dade County officials, who are helping the city through its recovery.

“Had that happened, our reform efforts over the past six months may well have had measurably far greater success,” said Stierheim, now 83, who has earned a reputation for turning around financially troubled local governments but called Opa-locka’s “by far the worst case” in his career. “Instead, we have been forced to deal with some elected and appointed officials who often demonstrated their resistance, or opposition to needed reforms.”

In his letter to the state’s inspector general, Stierheim called the residents ‘all innocent victims’ who need new leadership — a goal that has eluded him and the state oversight board.

Stierheim has pegged the city’s accumulated debt at $14 million, with half of that money owed to Miami-Dade County for water and sewer services and the rest to private contractors as well as Opa-locka’s water customers and its own government from internal borrowing of restricted funds.

In the past, Stierheim has openly criticized Harrell’s lack of experience as a government administrator, telling the city manager that while she may be well educated and licensed as a lawyer she has worked as a public administrator only since last year.She became the acting city manager last May and later permanently replaced David Chiverton, who was convicted of corruption in August. Stierheim has questioned her failure to hire a finance director to help prepare the city’s budget and her hiring of a new trash hauler after bungling a staff bidding process.

The state oversight board, whose chair appointed Stierheim to advise members, has refused to authorize Harrell’s $125,000 contract, which was approved by the city commission in a 4-1 vote — before one commissioner, Luis Santiago, lost his seat in the November election and was charged with bribery the following month. Before the vote on her two-year contract, she was making $85,000. Board members also sharply criticized her arrangement with the commission to continue her private practice as a lawyer.

Stierheim, along with oversight board members, also condemned Harrell’s decision to tap into a restricted $600,000 fund to help make the city’s payroll last year — money that was supposed to be for investors who bought bonds that Opa-locka officials issued to acquire a new City Hall building for $8 million in 2015.

In an email to the Herald, the city manager said the Herald’s coverage of that topic and other management issues on her watch has been “reckless.”

Although she refused to comment for this story, the city manager was compelled to answer questions last month in a whistleblower lawsuit filed against Opa-locka by its former budget director, Keith Carswell. He was fired by Harrell last June. She never replaced him, despite the city’s ongoing budget woes.

In a deposition, Carswell’s attorney, Michael Pizzi, repeatedly questioned Harrell about her own credentials to be city manager — a position appointed by the Opa-locka commission.

“What were your qualifications to be city manager?” Pizzi asked her in February.

“I don’t know what the qualifications for city manager are,” Harrell responded. “So, I don’t know what my qualifications are.”

Asked why she fired Carswell — who had sent emails casting serious doubts about budget-balancing recovery plans by Chiverton and Harrell — she said repeatedly that the former budget director was “incompetent.” But Harrell provided no specifics and never spoke with Carswell’s supervisor about firing him.

When questioned by Pizzi about the city’s financial deficit from last year, Harrell said none existed — despite ongoing deficit spending documented by the oversight board in 2016.

“I told you that the city met its obligations [in 2016] and that the city did not have a $4.5 million deficit by the end of the year,” Harrell said under oath.

Stierheim, who has about 60 years’ experience as an administrator, told the Herald that the city manager was “unqualified” to lead Opa-locka’s government.

“I’m not saying she had an easy job dealing with the mayor and city commissioners, but her performance has been very disappointing,” he said in an interview. “The whole thing is a mess.”

Stierheim said that his greatest concern is for the city employees who have experienced cutbacks while trying to help turn around their government, as well as for the working-class, mostly African-American residents. He noted their services are mediocre to poor, yet they pay some of the highest tax and water rates in Miami-Dade County.

In his letter to the state’s inspector general, Stierheim called the residents “all innocent victims” who need new leadership — a goal that has eluded him and the state oversight board.

Calling himself a “change agent” for local governments in the past, Stierheim lamented the financial and political challenges confronting Opa-locka in his letter to the state’s inspector general.

“Such cultures are very difficult to change, and in my opinion, it is impossible to do so without inspired leadership, commitment and hard work,” he wrote. “Opa-locka is certainly no exception and by far the worst case with which I have dealt.”

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