Opa-locka commissioner accuses state board of racism, rudeness

Opa-locka Commissioner John Riley
Opa-locka Commissioner John Riley Miami Herald file photo

Opa-locka City Commissioner John Riley says that a state board overseeing the financially troubled city’s recovery effort is acting tyrannically toward elected officials and administrators — and asserts that race is a factor in the rift.

Riley, a former Opa-locka mayor who won re-election to the commission in November, wrote a letter to Gov. Rick Scott that accuses board members of exceeding their authority by imposing the equivalent of “marshal law and dictatorship” under the state’s agreement with the city.

“Certain members of the oversight board have been deliberate in their actions with their preconceived beliefs that the city government is a group of ‘incompetent and defiant black officials’ that are operating with criminal intent,” Riley wrote in his Jan. 13 letter received by the governor’s office four days later.

“The board is acting as a self-directed body of mavericks [whose] sole purpose is to hold court by openly interrogating the elected leaders in a subversive manner as if they have been relegated to conduct an independent criminal investigation instead of providing the much-needed technical support promised.”

Riley’s letter — sent in the aftermath of three Opa-locka officials and the mayor’s son pleading guilty to bribery charges — marked the second time that a local elected official has bristled over the board’s dominant role since it was appointed by the governor in June.

Two months later, Mayor Myra Taylor told the state’s chief inspector general, Melinda Miguel, that instead of focusing on the city’s finances, the oversight board “looks down” on Opa-locka’s elected officials and has not provided any solutions for their problems.

She noted, for instance, that her continued use of a city-owned vehicle had become “a center of the board’s concern.”

“To date, all the city has gotten is the flexing of power, a lot of meetings, a lot of conference calls, a lot of requests, a lot of public comments on our ‘bad’ situation, insulting remarks — but no real results!” Taylor wrote in the email, which was copied to Opa-locka City Manager Yvette Harrell.

Neither Riley nor Taylor responded to Miami Herald requests for comment.

Former Opa-locka Vice Mayor Steve Barrett said that both Riley and Taylor are shifting the blame for the city’s intractable financial problems to the state, using inflammatory rhetoric to disguise their failures.

“When they can’t do what they want to do, they always play the race card,” said Barrett, a frequent critic of the city’s leaders who, like Riley and Taylor, is black. “They have never done the right thing for the citizens and business owners.

“How can the board trust them when the mayor’s son is going to jail for bribery, when the former city manager is going to jail for bribery, when the former public works supervisor is going to jail for bribery and when a former city commissioner is going to jail for bribery?” Barrett said. “I would trust the governor’s oversight board before I’d trust John Riley and Myra Taylor.”

The relationship between city officials and the nine-member oversight board has been strained almost from the start, especially after Miguel, who chairs the panel, warned early on that the days of waste and mismanagement were over — including commissioners’ perks, such as leased SUVs, free gas and credit cards.

“The city is not going to operate as usual,” Miguel told commissioners in a July conference call from Tallahassee — in a tone that stunned spectators in the audience, who were accustomed to their local leaders being in charge.

“We’re trying to keep the lights on,” Miguel said. “We are asking them to make drastic cuts. We are teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.”

Miguel did not respond to a request for comment on Riley’s letter. But Gov. Scott’s office issued a statement, saying he “adamantly holds elected officials to the highest standards and believes in transparency for the residents of the City of Opa-locka.”

The oversight board has still not given final approval to the city’s budget for fiscal year 2017, sending a letter last week that highlighted dozens of items, including further layoffs of employees.

Under its agreement with the state, the city commission must approve a budget — with the board holding the authority to make changes — or face serious consequences, including the possible dissolution of Opa-locka’s government. According to that agreement, “the city shall include the changes directed by the governor” and “the city shall accept the response of the governor.”

In his letter to the governor, Riley questioned the authority of the board to block spending approved by him and four other commissioners, including a $125,000-a-year contract for Harrell, the city manager.

Several oversight board members — as well as former Miami-Dade County Manager Merrett Stierheim, an adviser to the panel — have openly criticized Harrell’s lack of experience as a public administrator. Harrell, a licensed Florida lawyer, had never worked in municipal government until former City Manager David Chiverton hired her as his assistant last year. After Chiverton resigned and was charged with extorting bribes from local businesses, the commission named Harrell to replace him.

In his letter, Riley defended Harrell and said certain board members have treated her rudely and seemingly sought to undermine her efforts to turn around the debt-ridden city.

“It is hideous to witness acts that are causing the public humiliation for the city manager by the board’s refusal to approve her two-year contract,” Riley wrote.

“When there is a concerted effort to deny the city manager the basic essentials to perform her assigned tasks expeditiously, then in my estimation this is equivalent to ‘sabotage.’ ’’

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