Miami Gardens - Opa-locka

Mayoral candidates face questions, do final push before re-do of Miami Gardens election

The candidates for Miami Gardens mayor. From top left, clockwise: Clara Johnson, former councilman Ulysses Harvard, James Wright and Mayor Oliver Gilbert.
The candidates for Miami Gardens mayor. From top left, clockwise: Clara Johnson, former councilman Ulysses Harvard, James Wright and Mayor Oliver Gilbert.

One person has dominated much of the conversation surrounding Miami Gardens upcoming special mayoral election and it isn’t the incumbent Mayor Oliver Gilbert, it’s one of his opponents, James Wright.

Wright’s effort to get back on the Aug. 30 ballot was unsuccessful but his case went to the state Supreme Court, resulting in voters returning to the polls on Tuesday, and will cost the city about $200,000. Wright will face Gilbert, retired AT&T employee Clara Johnson and former councilman Ulysses Harvard.

Wright sued the city and his case was eventually ruled on by the state’s highest court. In September, they threw out the August election results and ordered a do-over of the mayoral contest.

“The voters will have another opportunity to get it right. It was a tremendous battle emotionally and financially,” Wright said.

Some of the conversation in recent weeks and months has focused on Wright’s decision to fight for his spot on the ballot, after he was disqualified because his qualifying check was returned by his bank, the cost to Miami Gardens and questions about Wright’s residency.

An attack ad, mailed out by a group called Jobs Now, cites a Miami Times report indicating that Wright rents a room in Miami Gardens from his mother and used that address for his qualifying documents while still owning a property in a neighboring unincorporated area. The mailer reads that “James Wright’s check cost Miami Gardens taxpayers $200,000.”

Wright purchased a property in the Country Club of Miami Estates area in 2010, according to Miami-Dade County records. He also collected a 2015 homestead exemption while already renting his room in Miami Gardens to meet the one-year residency requirement for office.

Wright said he failed to file the proper paperwork when he moved but that he canceled the exemption and cleared up the issue with the Miami-Dade Property Appraiser’s office.

“You don’t come into office on a platform of honesty, integrity and transparency and take on a city government and not do the right thing,” Wright said.

The same attack ad also points to Wright’s firing as Opa-locka police chief. He was fired in 2008, after about three years on the job, amid allegations of problems with commissioners and sexual harassment that were reported by the Miami New Times.

Wright called the ad just a collection of rehashed stories and pointed to a 2009 letter from Opa-locka interim City Manager Bryan Finnie indicating that he was fired without cause and “his departure from the city of Opa-locka should in no way serve as evidence of an admission or concession or any fault or liability whatsoever.”

“Any other allegations, in my opinion, are just that. The city had the opportunity to say I was fired while under investigation and I was not,” Wright said.

He said his focus is on using his law enforcement background to deal with reducing violent crime in the city.

“What the city needs is not someone guessing about how to reduce crime in their community,” Wright said.

With Wright being the cause for the unplanned election, the other candidates have tried to learn from their experiences in the August election and find ways to stand out.

The candidates have continued to focus their message on speeding up the planned projects funded through the city’s $60 million general obligation bond for park and public safety improvements, encouraging development and creating jobs in Miami Gardens.

“The key for me is it’s not about power, it’s about passion and being in a position to have passion for the community,” Harvard said.

Harvard and Johnson have said that resident involvement in city government has been lacking in the past four years and they want to encourage transparency through things like broadcasting City Council meetings on TV and improving communication about city services.

“I think any candidate that’s running for office needs to know it’s not about me the candidate, it’s about us,” Harvard said.

Gilbert has said that he hasn’t discussed Wright much when talking to residents but he’s focused on the city’s coming developments like Topgolf and Wawa and pointed to his experience in the position.

“The problems we have didn’t manifest overnight they won’t be solved overnight,” Gilbert said. “People say things and make all these promises but we need thoughtful plans and policy.”

Voting will take place from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and a runoff election, if necessary, would take place Dec. 20.

An earlier version of this story included an incorrect date for the Miami Gardens August election.

Lance Dixon: 305-376-3708, @LDixon_3