South Florida

Help wanted: A seasoned city manager to save Opa-locka

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.

Help wanted: A South Florida city is looking for an experienced public administrator to run a debt-ridden government that is being investigated by the FBI and scrutinized by the state during a financial emergency.

Applications for the city manager's position in Opa-locka must be submitted by June 14. Salary and benefits are negotiable.

The City Commission voted Wednesday to place ads in local newspapers and with the Florida League of Cities, seeking a new city manager to replace Yvette Harrell. She announced her resignation in early April but has indicated she will stay on the job until her successor is picked this summer. Initially, the commission's plan was to replace her this month with an interim appointment, but that was scrapped at Wednesday’s meeting.

Harrell, a one-time assistant city attorney who has been criticized for her lack of government experience, replaced former city manager David Chiverton after his arrest in August.

Chiverton was charged with accepting thousands of dollars in bribes from local businessmen in exchange for operational licenses. He pleaded guilty to a federal extortion charge and is serving three years in prison. Three others have also pleaded guilty to similar corruption charges, including former City Commissioner Luis Santiago, who is assisting the FBI in the long-running investigation in the hope of reducing his pending prison term.

In searching for a new city manager, the commission rejected a proposal to establish a five-person search committee with three representatives from Opa-locka, a fourth from Miami-Dade County and a fifth from the state of Florida. The committee would review applicants and recommend a short list of three qualified candidates. The search committee was proposed last month by neophyte Commissioner Matthew Pigatt, who defeated Santiago and others for his seat in the November election

But Pigatt received no support from the other four commissioners: Mayor Myra Taylor, Timothy Holmes, John Riley and Joseph Kelley — all veteran politicians.

Pigatt told the Miami Herald that he was disappointed in the entire hiring process, raising concerns the city would end up with another inexperienced manager while a state oversight board appointed last year by Gov. Rick Scott tries to steer Opa-locka toward recovery. Opa-locka — which is saddled with $14 million in debt, mostly for water and sewer expenses owed to the county — has gone through five city managers since 2012, generating constant chaos at City Hall.

“We have received great assistance from the county and state to help this city get back on its feet,” Piagatt said Thursday. “While we may not be able to do a nationwide search for this job, we can at least leverage our relationships with the county and state to assist us in identifying the best person for city manager.”

Since the election, Pigatt has often found himself alone as he struggles with the entrenched political culture of Opa-locka, a predominantly African-American city that has endured years of financial problems, high taxes, poor services and corruption scandals.

Last month, Pigatt and Kelley were in the minority when they voted against awarding a severance package for Harrell, who recently requested retroactive pay dating to August based on an annual salary of $125,000. Harrell, who had been making $85,000 a year, received that higher salary from the commission in October — though the state oversight board only approved her raise in March.

The outgoing city manager’s retroactive pay would cost the city more than $26,000, records show.

The nine-member state oversight board, which must authorize all city spending, has not yet decided whether to approve her back pay.

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