South Florida

Disgusted reformers say Opa-locka’s too crooked to save. They want it abolished.

Luis Santiago, former commissioner for the City of Opa-Locka, exits the Federal Courthouse in Miami after surrendering to bribery charges. He pleaded not guilty and was released after posting $50,000 surety bond on Friday, December 30, 2016, while his defense attorney Roderick Vereen looks on.
Luis Santiago, former commissioner for the City of Opa-Locka, exits the Federal Courthouse in Miami after surrendering to bribery charges. He pleaded not guilty and was released after posting $50,000 surety bond on Friday, December 30, 2016, while his defense attorney Roderick Vereen looks on. cmguerrero@elnuevoherald.com

For more than a year, Opa-locka has tried to save itself from financial ruin as city leaders reluctantly accepted help from a governor-appointed oversight board with whom they have constantly butted heads.

Everyday frustration has given way to such despair over millions in debt, high taxes and poor services that a group of activists is pushing a petition to abolish this predominantly African-American city of 16,000 and fold it into Miami-Dade County.

The new campaign to dissolve Opa-locka parallels a recently stepped-up Miami federal grand jury investigation into corruption and extortion at City Hall, including a new subpoena demanding all records for major public works projects dating back to 2012.

The petition drive is no easy task because the potentially divisive proposal would require substantial voter signatures and referendum approval. Moreover, Opa-locka — founded in 1926 by aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, who developed the city with an Arabian Nights theme and several Moorish-style buildings — would be headed in the opposite direction of almost 10 unincorporated areas that have broken off from the county and established their own cities since the early 1990s.

Steven Barrett
Former Opa-locka Vice Mayor Steven Barrett Jose A. Iglesias jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com

Steven Barrett, a former Opa-locka vice mayor, said he and 10 other members of the newly created 21st Century Abolitionists Committee have gone on the offensive because they’re so disgusted with what they see as endless waste, graft and inertia among some of the city commissioners and the mayor. Barrett and the others believe the only solution is Miami-Dade’s takeover of Opa-locka, which owes the county millions in water, sewer and other services and is the city’s biggest creditor.

“They really don’t care about the poor people of Opa-locka — they have destroyed this city,” Barrett told the Herald. “We’re in the same place we were in last year. Nothing has changed. At least with the county, we have an opportunity to get out of debt, lower our taxes and have a better quality of life.”

Deborah Irby, a native who once worked as a city clerk in Opa-locka, said the five-member commission lacks enough “respected leaders” to make a difference.

“After 66 years of living in this city, I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly, but enough is enough,” said Irby, who is a member of the petition committee. “Enough with no services. Enough with extremely high taxes. Enough with extremely high water bills. Enough with garbage not being picked up around the city.”

Some committee members fear, however, that powerful city leaders, including Mayor Myra Taylor, will try to block the petition from ever going before voters in a special election. Last week, City Attorney Vincent Brown, who is appointed by the commission and must approve the petition language, rejected it as “legally insufficient,” but did not give a reason, according to proponents.

MyraTaylor
Opa-locka Mayor Myra Taylor sits on the dais at a city commission meeting on Wednesday, May 11, 2016, as the future of the embattled city is discussed. PATRICK FARRELL pfarrell@miamiherald.com

Taylor could not be reached for comment on Monday.

To help them fight City Hall, Barrett and his group have teamed up with political consultant Willis Howard, who lives in Miramar but grew up in Liberty City, near Opa-locka. Howard ran the successful 2016 Opa-locka campaigns of new Commissioner Matthew Pigatt and Vice Mayor Joseph Kelley.

“If we have to go to court to get a judge to approve this, we will,” Howard said.

He said the state oversight board, which was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott last summer, is incapable of making progress when the majority of the commissioner won’t go along with its recommendations on spending, a garbage contract, and the recent hiring of a new city manager, among other major issues.

Once the petition language is approved, he said, the 11-member committee must gather signatures from 10 percent of the registered voters within 60 days to place it on the ballot in a referendum, citing Opa-locka’s charter.

“We only need 800 signatures, but it’s too big of an issue so we’re going to get 2,500 signatures,” Howard said. “That means the voters of Opa-locka will be buying into it and will be on the front lines.”

Miami-Dade’s government, which has already taken over Opa-locka’s deeply flawed billing system for water and sewer services along with residential garbage pickups, is waiting to see what happens.

“Mayor [Carlos] Gimenez will respect the process that has been initiated and will support whatever decision Opa-locka residents make,” the mayor’s communications director, Mike Hernandez, said in a statement.

The committee’s petition to abolish Opa-locka as a city was filed earlier this month, just after the commission voted 3-2 to hire a new manager, Ed Brown. The governor’s office strongly opposed his selection because he was seen as a political insider with a hand in Opa-locka’s past financial troubles.

Ed Brown
Opa-locka’s new city manager, Ed Brown, is pictured at far left, and the late Commissioner Terence Pinder is shown at far right.

Meanwhile, as Barrett and his allies pursue the dissolution petition, a federal grand jury in Miami has stepped up its investigation into suspected extortion and kickbacks between City Hall officials, lobbyists and contractors. In July, the grand jury subpoenaed all Opa-locka records for major public works projects involving a half-dozen contractors dating from January 2012, along with local, state and federal grants and loans. The city was ordered to turn over those documents this month.

The Opa-locka government contractors named in the subpoena are: C&I Construction and Design; D.C. Equipment Corp., Intercounty Engineering; IMECO Inc.; APAC Group Inc.; and My Lawn Services Inc.

Brown, the new city manager, once worked as a lobbyist for APAC Group, an engineering company that was awarded tens of millions of dollars in government contracts. Dante Starks, a lobbyist with close ties to Mayor Taylor and other Opa-locka politicians, also worked behind the scenes for APAC and other contractors named in the subpoena.

DanteStarksStateofCity.
Lobbyist Dante Starks, Budget Director Keith Carswell and Bishop John Taylor, husband of Mayor Myra Taylor, speak after the Opa-locka state of the city address on Friday, Jan. 29, 2016. Shannon Kaestle skaestle@miamiherald.com

So far, three city officials, including former Commissioner Luis Santiago, and the mayor’s son have pleaded guilty to bribery conspiracy charges.

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