Miami Gardens - Opa-locka

Opa-locka resisted takeover—until ultimatum

Since last fall, Mayor Myra Taylor stiff-armed anyone who tried to persuade her to admit that Opa-locka’s nearly bankrupt government was in a “state of financial emergency.”

Taylor led the way to fire City Manager Steve Shiver in November after he alerted the governor’s office of Opa-locka’s looming collapse, and then she pushed back efforts by fellow Commissioners Joseph Kelley and Terence Pinder to ask Florida for assistance from the state’s financial experts.

But on Wednesday night, in a role reversal, Taylor took credit for Gov. Rick Scott’s executive order that declared the state would take over the city’s debt-ridden financial operations — with a Scott-appointed board approving all future spending.

“I just got word that the governor issued an order declaring a state of financial emergency in Opa-locka based on our resolution,” Taylor told about 50 people who attended a commission meeting. The commission had voted 4-0 to request that the governor declare the emergency and appoint the oversight board.

But according to sources familiar with events leading up to that vote, the governor’s chief inspector general had given Opa-locka’s city manager an ultimatum: The state will help Opa-locka only if the commission formally asks for it.

Toward the end of Wednesday’s meeting, acting city manager Yvette Harrell hinted at such an arrangement. “I’d like to thank Gov. Scott for doing what we asked for,” Harrell said.

Some residents in the audience, however, said the mayor, along with allies Luis Santiago and Timothy Holmes, had flip-flopped on the issue of bringing in the state to take over the city’s reeling government.

“The whole thing was such a joke,” said Alvin Burke, a longtime resident who has criticized the mayor’s inaction on the city’s financial crisis. “The mayor put her own spin on it to make it look like she was for it all along. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

After Wednesday’s meeting, Taylor declined to comment. Harrell — a lawyer who temporarily replaced David Chiverton, the former city manager now on leave — did not return a call for comment. A spokesman for the governor’s office also declined to comment.

While the city has struggled with insolvency, the FBI has continued a sweeping corruption investigation targeting some of Opa-locka’s most prominent leaders, including Taylor, Santiago and Chiverton.

It’s unclear why Taylor, who was elected mayor in 2010, changed her mind about the state takeover.

It could have been triggered by last week’s decision of the city’s finance director, Charmaine Parchment, to admit to the state that the city would run out of money after “the next payroll.” She warned that the city faced a $4.5 million deficit this year, excluding millions more in prior debt.

Or, it could have been caused by the recent suicide of Pinder, the fellow commissioner who rammed his city-issued SUV into a banyan tree one day before he was to surrender on bribery charges to state investigators.

Whatever the reason, Taylor repeatedly resisted a state takeover of her troubled city. In a handwritten letter sent to Gov. Scott last month, the mayor cited Opa-locka’s declining property values and aging water and sewer systems. Then, she asked the governor for “technical assistance to help us with general operations.” She also asked for a state loan and financial consultants — but no governor-appointed oversight board like the city faced during its last crisis, in 2002.

Kelley, the commissioner who first proposed seeking the state’s assistance last month, said he still would like to see if city officials could resolve their financial problems with input from the governor’s inspector general and other experts.

“I really wanted a committee of experts more than an oversight board, because the board would have full control of the city,” Kelley said in an interview on Thursday. “But so much has transpired since [last month]. It’s really up to the governor to decide.”

The governor will appoint members to the oversight board to monitor the monthly spending of every city department.

Scott’s order was released late Wednesday, just as the city commission voted to request that the governor set up a “financial oversight committee,” but stopped short of publicly declaring itself in a state of financial emergency.

Civic activists who attended the meeting expressed surprise when they learned that the governor had taken a more dramatic step. That’s because the city commission only read aloud a portion of the resolution requesting the governor to appoint a “financial oversight committee” — not the part about asking him to declare a “state of financial emergency” in the city of 16,000.

Not since the late Gov. Lawton Chiles ordered a takeover of the city of Miami — with a $68 million shortfall — has a Miami-Dade city captured so much attention over a financial crisis.

Michael Sallah: 305-376-2218, @MikeSallah7