South Florida

Outgoing Opa-locka manager paid $5,900 without required approval of state board

Opa-locka City Manager Yvette Harrell
Opa-locka City Manager Yvette Harrell

Outgoing Opa-locka City Manager Yvette Harrell ordered the city’s finance director to issue her a check for $5,908 as part of her resignation agreement without securing the required approval of a state board overseeing the city’s financial emergency.

Harrell demanded — and received — part of her retroactive pay based on a raise she got in October without the necessary approval of the state oversight board appointed by Gov. Rick Scott almost a year ago.

It’s only the latest controversy over back pay and benefits in Opa-locka, a city that has generously handed out both despite teetering on the brink of bankruptcy for more than a year, having several officials plead guilty to federal corruption charges and seeing a string of city managers come and go.

Harrell, who is also a lawyer, insisted on the back pay in a May 9 email to Finance Director Charmaine Parchment, saying her email provided the “authority to effectuate [the payment] with impunity.” Harrell cited the city commission’s approval of her separation agreement in late April and an opinion from the city attorney.

The following day, Opa-locka city attorney Vincent Brown contradicted Harrell, saying she needed both the commission’s and the state oversight board’s approval before receiving her separation package, which will eventually total more than $20,000 for retroactive pay along with unused sick and vacation time.

Brown wrote to Harrell and Parchment that “we have not gotten approval from the [state Financial Emergency Board] as of yet, and no action can be taken in that respect.”

We have not gotten approval from the [state Financial Emergency Board] as of yet, and no action can be taken in that respect.

Vincent Brown, city attorney

Harrell submitted her formal resignation May 10. However, her “separation agreement,” which includes retroactive pay and other benefits, does not take effect until she leaves and is replaced by an interim or permanent city manager, according to the terms. The city commission plans to pick her successor this summer.

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

Harrell, who was hired as city manager by the commission last August, makes $125,000 a year from her Opa-locka job. In February, a default and final judgment was filed against Harrell for failing to pay $4,281 on a Citibank/Best Buy credit card since 2014.

I earned that money, and I deserve it. I have not cashed the check. I chose not to.

Yvette Harrell, Opa-locka city manager

The default order was issued by Miami-Dade County Court Judge Linda Singer Stein after Harrell failed to appear for a key hearing in the dispute with a debt collector, Midland Funding, which acquired the right from CitiBank to pursue the outstanding credit card balance. Harrell is now challenging the judgment.

Throughout the credit card litigation, her personal lawyer has been Brown, the city attorney who is paid $19,000 a month by Opa-locka’s government to provide advice on legal matters — including Harrell’s separation agreement with the city. Harrell had worked as Brown’s deputy city attorney in Opa-locka before she was hired as an assistant city manager in early 2016.

The nine-member state oversight board has been critical of Harrell’s performance since she took over the reins of Opa-locka’s government from David Chiverton, who pleaded guilty in August to accepting thousands of dollars in bribes from local business owners in exchange for city licenses.

Board members have repeatedly said Harrell, who was hired as an assistant city manager by Chiverton, lacked the experience to run Opa-locka’s government — especially in light of persistent budget problems and longtime debt totaling about $14 million. That amount is mostly owed to Miami-Dade County for water and sewer expenses and other city contractors.

In February, the state oversight board rejected Harrell’s two-year contract — which included the annual salary of $125,000, a substantial bump from the previous $85,000 — after the city commission had approved it in October.

The state board eventually OK’d the new salary but separated it from the contract and pegged it to a six-month performance review. Harrell, who plans to leave her job this summer, is seeking retroactive pay to August based on that higher salary.

It’s only the latest controversy over back pay and benefits in Opa-locka, a city that has generously handed out both despite teetering on the brink of bankruptcy for more than a year, having several officials plead guilty to federal corruption charges, and seeing a string of city managers come and go.

The board’s contracts review committee is headed by North Bay Village City Manager Frank Rollason. He reviews the city’s outstanding bills and payments every month and makes recommendations to the governor’s chief inspector general for final approval.

Rollason said he would not have approved the $5,908 check to Harrell for retroactive pay.

“As far as I know, the oversight board has not approved her separation agreement,” Rollason told the Miami Herald. “As a result, I would not have approved any partial payment for her separation from the city because the agreement has not been approved by the oversight board. She hasn’t met any of the conditions to be paid the money.”

Last month, Rollason criticized Harrell for approving a check for nearly $32,000 paid to former public works supervisor Gregory Harris, who was convicted in August of taking a $300 bribe from a local businessman. Harrell had included Harris’ name on a list of 14 former Opa-locka employees due back pay for unused sick and vacation time — but didn’t flag the convicted felon’s name for Rollason’s review.

Harrell defended the payment to Harris, saying “I won’t debate this with you.”

Rollason retorted: “Yvette, it is not a debate — it is common sense!”

Rollason told the Herald he was “incredulous” that Harrell and other local officials did not bring Harris’ name to the state panel’s attention, as though they were trying to “slip it by” board members.

I would not have approved any partial payment for her separation from the city because the agreement has not been approved by the oversight board. She hasn’t met any of the conditions to be paid the money.

Frank Rollason, member of the state oversight board

A year ago — just days after Chiverton was identified by FBI informants in a Herald story as a suspect in the corruption investigation — the then-city manager approved two payments totaling nearly $40,000 to himself in what were violations of the city’s policies for employees. Like Harris, Chiverton cashed in benefits for unused sick and vacation time, but he did so before he left the employment of the city, in violation of its personnel rules.

While Chiverton was receiving the payments, the city was struggling to cut costs by reducing the work week for most employees to 32 hours and refusing to pay contractors and vendors hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Last year, the Herald published a series of stories detailing how Chiverton and other top officials shook down business owners who were working undercover for the FBI in various backroom bribes recorded on video. The businessmen paid out thousands of dollars in bribes to obtain routine operating licenses and water connections. The ongoing investigation is among the largest corruption probes in South Florida history.

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