Over a month after Opa-locka staff went to former commissioner Timothy Holmes’ house in the dead of night to repossess his wheelchair-accessible SUV, a Miami-Dade judge ordered it to be returned to the 75-year-old immediately. Holmes uses a wheelchair because of multiple herniated discs that have worsened over time and needs the vehicle to get around.
The ruling in Holmes’ lawsuit seeking to overrule the repossession was granted on the grounds that the city was causing Holmes to suffer irreparable harm by denying him access to his vehicle.
“He is unable to carry out routine tasks of life, including obtaining needed healthcare,” wrote Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Spencer Eig in his decision.
Late in the afternoon on Friday Jan. 25, Holmes picked up the wheelchair-accessible SUV from the Public Works department lot, where it had been sitting unused for the duration of the lawsuit. At the same time, Holmes said he had been unable to complete basic tasks like picking up prescriptions or going grocery shopping.
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“Justice has been done and Commissioner Holmes’ vehicle is parked in front of his house in the same spot where the city improperly took it,” Holmes’ attorney, Michael Pizzi said Friday. “Hopefully, the city has learned that they cannot get away with trying to bully a disabled veteran who served the city for over two decades. Mr. Holmes will be going grocery shopping and leading a normal life this weekend thanks to our wonderful court system.”
The city originally gave Holmes the Expedition in 2013, retrofitted it with a wheelchair lift and hand controls, while he served as an Opa-locka commissioner. It was part of the city’s program to provide transportation to elected officials while they were in office. The program has since been discontinued.
Under the previous rules, officials were required to return their vehicles after they left office. Before he left office last November however, Holmes had offered to buy the vehicle from the city. Holmes had paid for some of the modifications himself and argued that the vehicle had unique value to him.
Though any financial negotiation with the city of Opa-locka is complicated by the required state approval through an appointed oversight board, Holmes said he had thought the negotiations that would allow him to keep the truck were moving forward. He had offered $14,000, the market price according to a CarMax assessment Holmes commissioned. Negotiations moved forward.
Then, Holmes woke up on Dec. 8 to find that the SUV was no longer where he had parked it the night before. Initially, thinking it stolen, he called 911, only to find that city officials had repossessed it with no warning in the middle of the night. He filed a lawsuit, claiming he could no longer live an independent life without the vehicle.
Mayor Matthew Pigatt justified the move at the time, saying that weeks after Holmes left office, the city was well within the law to take back the vehicle. Pigatt could not be reached for further comment.
City Attorney Vincent Brown fought the suit, claiming above all, that an injunction would be against public interest because “it would force the City to violate Miami-Dade Conflict of Interest and Code of Ethics Ordinance.” He cited a section, 2-11.1(c) which prohibits elected officials from doing business with their own municipality.
Except it wouldn’t have violated the ethics code, and Brown knew it on Jan. 13 when he filed his objection with the court. Holmes was no longer an elected official. The Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust had already given Brown an opinion on the matter.
“The former elected commissioner may purchase the vehicle from the municipality or he may receive the vehicle as a gift since these business transactions would not be prohibited by Section 2-11.1(c) of the Ethics Code,” wrote county ethics director Jose Arrojo in an opinion dated Christmas Eve and sent directly to Brown.
“The city’s false statements to the judge about the ethics code were utterly disgraceful and showed contempt for the law,” Pizzi said.
Brown could not be reached for comment.
Ultimately, Holmes ended up with the SUV, paying $4,000 less for it than his original offer, according to Pizzi. Not a single elected official contacted Holmes after the ruling or offered an apology for the disservice, Pizzi said.