Miami Gardens - Opa-locka

Weary of scandals, Opa-locka voters choose young reformer for commission

Matthew Pigatt
Matthew Pigatt Joe Wesley

Matthew Pigatt campaigned across Opa-locka, pledging change.

Change from the insider deals and pet projects that had dominated Opa-locka politics for years; change from the shoddy financial practices that now threaten to force the city into bankruptcy.

In a dramatic victory on Tuesday, the 30-year-old upstart captured a city commission seat in an at-large election that came just months after a state takeover of the government’s finances.

Pigatt will join incumbent Joseph Kelley, a reform commissioner who won the most votes in the six-person race in what could signal the first shift in power in local politics in more than a decade.

“We can’t be doing the backroom deals [anymore],” said Pigatt, a scholarship coordinator at Florida Memorial University who once served an internship at City Hall. “These people have not been doing right.”

Ousted in the voting: once powerful commissioner Luis Santiago, who was caught on video last year shaking down a local business owner for cash in order to get permits and water connections.

Now the target of a criminal grand jury investigation, Santiago won just 17 percent of the vote, despite support from Mayor Myra Taylor and her influential husband, Bishop John Taylor.

Others in the race: Alvin Burke, a local activist who captured 13 percent of the vote; Christine Banks, who won 11 percent, and Diamos Demerritt, who garnered 3 percent. Kelley took in 34 percent of the 6,409 votes cast.

Current commissioner John Riley was initially booted from the ballot after he bounced a check to pay for the qualifying fee. But as a result of a favorable court ruling, he will be allowed to run in a special election against Anna Margarita Alvarado on Nov. 29.

The emergence of Pigatt is likely to provide support to Kelly, a popular minister who often opposes Mayor Taylor on key issues, including her recent backing of a contract to a trash hauling firm that until recently employed her son.

For weeks, the commission race dominated Opa-locka, with signs plastering nearly every neighborhood and candidates raising money at backyard barbecues. The hot topic at nearly every event: the ongoing FBI probe into City Hall.

Pigatt said he was struck by the outrage expressed by residents. “They are fed up with it,” he said. “This is a critical time for the city. It was an election that was pivotal to the city.”

He said he wants to work closely with the state emergency board overseeing the city’s budget to ensure Opa-locka can develop a plan to pay its debts, now totaling $14 million, and stem the cronyism that has crippled the city.

The Miami Herald found that Opa-locka officials spent millions over the past five years on employee bonuses, pet projects and insider deals, despite being warned that the city was edging toward a financial emergency. In many cases, the city was failing to perform even basic bookkeeping functions to track the losses, records show.

“We just need to think differently,” said Pigatt. “We have a huge task in front of us. We have the best experts in the state of Florida and the best local experts to help get the city right.”

Lance Dixon: 305-376-3708, @LDixon_3