Miami Gardens - Opa-locka

Tired of corruption, Opa-locka commission candidates want to set the city on new path

The old Opa-locka City Hall.
The old Opa-locka City Hall. MIAMI HERALD ARCHIVES

Opa-locka is on the verge of a rebirth.

At least, that’s the vision of the 10 candidates running for the City Commission. With four of five seats open, including the mayor’s seat, the Nov. 6 election will usher in a near-complete turnover of the Opa-locka government.

Rampant corruption has long plagued this minority community in north-central Miami-Dade County. An ongoing FBI probe into City Hall landed a manager and other officials in jail on bribery charges. A state financial oversight board has been monitoring the nearly bankrupt city for the last two years.

But the race for commission seats has a field of fresh faces that offers a possible changing of the guard.

Unlike the mayor’s race, where all four candidates have served on the commission, none of the commission candidates has held elected office, though three have worked as administrators for the city and several have run unsuccessfully for commission seats in earlier elections.

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The upcoming election, they said, may be the most important in the city’s history, as a long-awaited opportunity to clean up the political and financial shenanigans that have become a hallmark of the local government. Still, some residents say the individuals behind those shenanigans aren’t going away: They’re plying the commission race with successors.

In one instance, there’s a literal successor: John Henry Taylor Jr., whose mother is Mayor Myra Taylor, is running for commissioner amid a family legacy of illegal dealings. His father, Bishop John Taylor, and two other family members were arrested in 2010 on criminal campaign charges. His brother, Demetrius Corleon Taylor, was arrested by the FBI in 2016 and sentenced to 10 months in prison for conspiring to extort illicit cash payments from business owners. And the mayor and her husband are under scrutiny in a federal criminal investigation into their financial dealings. Taylor Jr. did not respond to requests for comment.

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Campaign ads for the Opa-locka city commission race. Maya Kaufman mbkaufman@miamiherald.com

“We have to get new people into office who are not connected to the old political system,” said candidate Christina Banks.

Banks, 66, an administrative assistant in Opa-locka’s government, is among the five candidates competing to fill two open commission seats for four-year terms each. Another five candidates are vying for a two-year commissioner term created by the resignation of Commissioner Matthew Pigatt, who is running for mayor.

The candidates’ pitches to voters radiate with passion, optimism and a refusal to be complacent.

“A lot of people want to talk and complain,” said candidate George Suarez Jr., 46., a catering chef at Florida International University who is running for a four-year term. “I wanted to do something about it.”

Some are also fighting for representation. Opa-locka’s population is 56 percent black and 43 percent Hispanic, U.S. census data show, but candidates Audrey Dominguez and Sandra Espinal said the Hispanic community is underrepresented. There are no Hispanics on the current commission.

“We are from different cultures, different ethnicities, and we all need to unite,” Dominguez said.

The winning candidates will face an uphill battle fulfilling their campaign promises. The state froze funds to Opa-locka, a bad credit score has scared off potential lenders and the city cannot receive grants until it completes all overdue financial audits.

Many candidates named infrastructure fixes as a priority, but for years officials failed to collect millions of dollars in water bills that could pay for such projects. In August, feces-filled sewage leaked into the streets thanks to a decaying sewer system in serious disrepair. Floods resulting from the lack of storm water drainage have formed enormous — and treacherous — potholes.

Nonetheless, the candidates insist they can help Opa-locka land back on its feet. They are fed up with the status quo, they told the Herald, and want to fight for change.

THE CANDIDATES

Five candidates are competing for two full-term commission seats, currently held by Timothy Holmes, who is term-limited, and John Riley, who is running for mayor. Another five candidates are running for a two-year term as commissioner to fill the seat vacated by Commissioner Matthew Pigatt, who is running for mayor.

Two seats, four-year term

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Alvin Burke

Alvin Burke is a colorful fixture at City Hall who has been at odds with commission members for years. The local activist, 64, worked as a county corrections officer for nearly two decades, then served as a code enforcement officer in Opa-locka. Although he ran unsuccessfully for the commission in 2016, he sees the upcoming election as an opportunity to change the public’s perception of Opa-locka as a “city of corruption.”

Burke said that with three new commissioners and a new mayor, Opa-locka’s government would be in better political shape to seek financial help from Miami-Dade County and the state. “No one wants to help the city because of the current commission,” he said. Burke noted the city’s host of serious infrastructure problems. “I do believe there would be help for the city when a new commission is elected.”

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Christina Banks

Christina Banks may be about to retire after 22 years as an administrative assistant in Opa-locka’s government, but she said she won’t stop working. The 66-year-old believes the upcoming election is the most important in the city’s history, as a chance to clean up the corruption that has plagued the government for years. “I know the ins and outs of this city,” she said. “I would like to see if we can lift the city to another economic level.”

Banks, who ran unsuccessfully for the City Commission in 2016, said the city needs to improve its relationship with the state of Florida. “The state is not the enemy,” she said. “We have to develop a trust with them. When that happens, funds will start to trickle in.”

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Chris Davis

Chris Davis, 31, works as a community organizer for the Opa-locka Community Development Corp. (If elected, he pledges to recuse himself from any votes involving the nonprofit.) Davis, a life-long Opa-locka resident, has a master’s degree in public administration from Florida A&M. He serves on the city’s zoning board and the community relations and parks and recreation activities advisory board. His work building a park in Magnolia North earned him a 2014 grassroots initiative award from the American Planning Association.

As commissioner, he said he would develop a financial recovery program, offer tax incentives to small businesses that hire Opa-locka residents and make code enforcement more equitable. “I will try to get ahead of things, rather than waiting for things to blow up and putting out a fire then,” he said.

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George Suarez Jr.

George Suarez Jr. calls himself a “blue collar, hard-working young man.” The Florida International University catering chef, 46, moved to Opa-locka in 2015 with his family. Last year, he filed a class-action lawsuit against the city demanding refunds on inflated water bills. If elected, he would prioritize fixing the city’s infrastructure, like its rampant potholes, to attract businesses and strengthen the local economy. Other proposals include outreach programs for the elderly and parks and recreation programs for kids. “It takes a community to fix your neighborhood,” he said.

Suarez told the Herald he will fight for residents and not pander to special interests: “I’m not going to be bought.”

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Audrey Dominguez

Audrey Dominguez, an Opa-locka resident for 24 years, plans to harness what she learned studying criminal justice and human resources if elected. “I have a lot of experience working with people. I know how to talk to people,” she said. Dominguez, 55, an office manager at Miami Dade College, would work on crime prevention by uniting residents to watch over one another’s properties and introduce programs for the elderly, like transportation to supermarkets and bingo nights. She said the city could pay for such initiatives by applying for grants.

Dominguez also wants local businesses to hire young people during the summer and show them how their businesses operate, encouraging entrepreneurship. She said she will not be swayed by special interests: “I’m not going to fall into that trap. My freedom is very important to me.”

One seat, two-year term

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Anna M. Alvarado.

Anna Alvarado, 54, is a former library assistant and receptionist in the city manager’s office. She ran unsuccessfully for commissioner in 2016, losing to Commissioner John Riley in a special election. Alvarado, an Opa-locka resident for more than 40 years, has studied business administration at Miami Dade College and plans to earn a bachelor’s degree in that area.

She said she is honest and hard-working, with no ties to special interests. She is experienced dealing with the City Commission and, thanks to her years as an administrator, familiar with the paperwork. If elected to the commission, she plans to work with — not against — the state oversight board, noting that the board members’ expertise should be respected. “These people are here to help us,” she said.

Alvarado hopes voters do their homework to determine the best commissiom candidates. “We have to be accountable on a daily basis,” she said. “A lot of people get stuck in titles, but a public servant is someone who serves their community.”

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Sherelean Bass

Sherelean Bass, a minister who has been living in Opa-locka for 28 years, says the city’s biggest issue is the lack of transparency and trust. As a community liaison at Dr. Robert B. Ingram Elementary School, the 50-year-old has spent nearly two decades working with local families and helping them obtain benefits. “The issues that they have became my issues,” she said. Calling herself “the voice of Opa-locka,” Bass said her priorities as commissioner would be to expand and improve affordable housing and fix the city’s infrastructure. “It’s going to take a miracle for us to get out of this, but it can happen. It will happen.”

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John Henry Taylor Jr.

John Henry Taylor Jr., 29, is a restaurant general manager and has served as a youth pastor at his church. He established a mentoring program called Youth Nation, which provides students with tutoring, counseling and book bags, in addition to Christmas toys for kids and Thanksgiving baskets for needy families. “I’m an advocate for my city because I have a love for Opa-locka and a passion to serve my fellow citizens,” he wrote in an email. Taylor could not be reached for further comment on his candidacy.

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Deborah S. Irby

Deborah Irby spent nearly two decades as the Opa-locka city clerk and once owned an entertainment and production company. In 2012, she was fired without cause from the clerk position. Irby ran unsuccessfully for commissioner that same year and in 2014.

The Miami-Dade County Commission on Ethics & Public Trust found Irby in violation of ethics codes when she signed a city contract with her own musical entertainment company in 2004, while she was city clerk. As the main organizer for the Arabian Nights Festival, she booked musical acts for the event, including a hip-hop group represented by a company she led as president. “I wasn’t found guilty of anything,” Irby said, although county records show that in a non-criminal proceeding, she was found in violation of the ethics code. She insisted the incident would not affect her ability to serve as commissioner: “I did nothing wrong.”

“I contracted with a lot of bands, not just one band,” she added. “I really can’t remember.”

A self-identified activist and community organizer, the 67-year-old has raised money for school supplies for local students and the Helen Miller scholarship, named after Florida’s first black female mayor. She also petitioned to introduce term limits for commissioners. She said she’s running for the two-year seat, instead of the four-year seats, because she wants to see younger people run for office. Irby wouldn’t name specific policy ideas but said she’ll use her expertise working in government to inform a two-year plan: “I know better than anybody what needs to be done.”

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Sandra Espinal

Sandra Espinal, 64, said she is running for commissioner to represent the Spanish-speaking community in Opa-locka. The retired government health official, who worked in family planning and with children, wants to improve local schools and combat youth recidivism with increased educational opportunities. Espinal has no civic service experience, but she has a long history of civic engagement as a frequent city meeting attendee — and she thinks Opa-locka’s government could use a fresh face. “I want to change something,” she said. “It’s the same people all the time.”

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