Former Opa-locka commissioner Timothy Holmes’ silver 2013 Ford Expedition was parked on his lawn on Dec. 7 when the 75-year-old went to bed. When he woke up the next morning, it was gone.
So Holmes said he called 9-1-1. He thought his truck might have been stolen.
It wasn’t. Police told Holmes that his handicap-accessible vehicle had been repossessed by the city late at night on Dec. 7, Holmes told the Miami Herald. While the city owned the vehicle, Holmes said he was given no notice of the repossession or time to look for other transportation options.
Without the vehicle, the former commissioner — who can’t walk due to multiple herniated disks — said he has not been able to go anywhere, other than the post office, a short trip that he makes on his electric scooter.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“I had to cancel my doctor’s appointment. I can’t go to the drugstore,” said Holmes, who suffers significant health problems including diabetes. He lives alone and said he had to hire people to go to the supermarket for him.
During Holmes’ tenure in city government, Opa-locka commissioners were all given an option to use city vehicles while they were in office. In compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act requiring cities to make accommodations for the handicapped, in 2013 Opa-locka bought the Expedition for Holmes and had it modified with a lift for his scooter. A few years later, Holmes said he added hand gears so he could drive without his feet as his condition deteriorated.
Holmes said the city helped pay for some of the original modifications to the vehicle. When the lift broke in October, however, Holmes paid for a new one out of his own pocket. According to a proposal from Handicap Drivers Services dated Oct. 19, Holmes paid $4,355 for the repair. The city did not reimburse him for the expense, according to Holmes.
When commissioners leave office, they are required to return their vehicles and other city property. Holmes was not excluded from that requirement.
Before he left office, on Nov. 14, Holmes penned a letter to the city attorney, Vincent Brown, and the then-city manager, Yvette Harrell, asking to buy the vehicle from the city at fair market value given its unique value to him alone.
“The truck is equipped with expensive equipment that allows me to get around on a daily basis,” his letter read. “This equipment was paid for by me. Please let me know whatever it takes for me to keep this city vehicle.”
Holmes said he was led to believe he would be allowed to buy the vehicle, worth $14,500 according to a CarMax assessment Holmes commissioned. Then with no warning or explanation for the sudden change of heart, the city took the vehicle back.
The Expedition is currently sitting in the lot behind the Opa-locka Public Works building.
“Before they cruelly took a disabled senior citizen’s only method of transportation, the City Attorney should have placed an item on the City Commission Agenda to declare Commissioner Holmes’ handicapped van surplus property of unique value only to him and then let him purchase it at fair market value,” said Holmes’ attorney, Michael Pizzi. “Instead, they did a repo in the middle of the night.”
Standard practice would be for the city to put its unused property up for auction after it is repossessed. In cases where city property has unique value to a single person, a commission can usually pass a resolution to donate or sell the property directly. But in Opa-locka, there’s a catch.
All city business with any financial implications must be run past an oversight board, appointed by the governor three years ago after he declared a state of emergency. Years of corruption and mismanagement had put Opa-locka on the brink of bankruptcy.
In late November, Opa-locka officials presented a resolution to the Contract Review Committee, a subcommittee of the oversight board, that would allow the city manager to directly sell obsolete property at fair market value without auction. The committee deferred making a recommendation on the ordinance until language could be added as to how the city manager would determine fair market value, said Frank Rollason, the committee’s chairman.
Then Holmes went up to the podium and said the deferral would cause him a problem with his vehicle.
“I was caught flat footed, and I said I feel for you and we were not aware,” Rollason said. ”It became clear that the whole idea of this ordinance was to somehow convey this car to him.”
The resolution has still not been approved.
In early December, Holmes was given 72 hours to turn in his vehicle. On Dec. 7, the final day of the allotted time, Holmes said he ran into newly elected Mayor Matthew Pigatt as he was leaving the post office.
Pigatt “got out of his car and said I need to turn in the truck,” Holmes remembers. Pigatt confirmed the conversation to the Miami Herald.
But Holmes said he didn’t think it meant the vehicle would be repossessed, much less so soon. He said he received a phone call from then-city manager Harrell that day overriding the 72-hour notice. “She told me she wasn’t going to bother the truck,” Holmes said. “I took her at her word.”
That night, the truck was taken from his yard at the instruction of Harrell and City Attorney Vincent Brown, according to city manager Newall Daughtrey, who was only recently rehired and did not work for the city during the repossession. The City Commission removed Harrell as city manager on Dec. 12.
Brown denied involvement, saying the action would fall under the manager’s jurisdiction only. “Whatever the city manager did or did not do was within her purview, she does not have to report to me,” Brown said.
Holmes said he believed Pigatt pressured Harrell to repossess his vehicle in exchange for his support in the upcoming commission meeting where officials would consider Harrell’s termination. The commission voted 3-2 to fire Harrell; Pigatt voted against her termination.
“Pigatt said the reason he is doing this is because when he was a commissioner on the dais, the mayor and everybody else disrespected him,” Holmes said.
Pigatt declined to comment on the allegations other than to say he was not familiar with the specifics of the incident and did not order the repossession.
“I’m not involved in the day to day operations,” Pigatt said. “And I cannot direct anyone to do anything.”
Harrell declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation into the matter. She did not identify the investigating agency. Brown said the city had been in touch with the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust regarding the matter. But the city attorney said he had no knowledge of an open investigation. Neither did the city clerk, Joanna Flores.
The city did not respond to records requests for notices of repossession or any other correspondence regarding the vehicle. James Dobson, the city’s police chief and public information officer, said he didn’t know anything about the vehicle or its repossession.
When he left his seat in in November, Holmes claimed he was Opa-locka’s longest serving commissioner to end his time in the city government through retirement, rather than being forced out by criminal charges or by going to jail. He was first elected to the commission in 1994, and served 23 years, though not all consecutively.