Smooth Operator

Personal financial embarrassments and allegations of sexual impropriety have done nothing to spoil Derrick Miller's political fortunes in Opa-locka

A real smoothie this guy is. Look at him up there on the dais of the Opa-locka City Commission. He's not one to let a boring public meeting interfere with his Valentine's Day message of love. No way, not Derrick Miller. The first time he gets the floor he stands up behind his microphone, adjusts the knot of his tie, and pulls out a bouquet of long-stem roses. With ceremonial flourish he proceeds to hand one rose each to both of the women on the commission. The female city clerk also gets a flower, as do all the female members of her staff. Smooth, man. Real smooth.

Of course in tiny, impoverished Opa-locka, a certain savoir-faire with the ladies is expected from male public officials. Last year the city paid out a two-million-dollar settlement to a former employee who was one of twelve women to file sexual-harassment charges against departed City Manager Earnie Neal. Two years ago a commission secretary charged Miller with making unwanted sexual advances over the course of six years, accusing him of, among other things, verbally fantasizing about sucking her toes. Even more recently the mother of a fifteen-year-old girl went to the Opa-locka police with allegations that Miller was pursuing an inappropriate relationship with her underage daughter.

Miller managed to kill the police investigation, much like he's been able to fend off the harassment charges from the commission secretary, who still works for the city. In fact despite the unseemly allegations and personal financial problems that might crush a politician in any other city, Miller's commission seat is safe. The 38-year-old air-traffic controller and Baptist minister remains popular with city voters. His high visibility and impassioned rhetoric on the dais have helped him galvanize a voting bloc that controls the government. Early this year he and his commission allies voted to replace a crusading and unusually competent city manager, Tony Robinson. The replacement was necessary, Miller said at the time, because Robinson had run amok. That the former manager was investigating Miller's relationship with Jenny Caba, the fifteen-year-old girl, certainly had nothing to do with it.

Yolanda Mercado and daughter Jenny have yet to hear from the police
Steve Satterwhite
Yolanda Mercado and daughter Jenny have yet to hear from the police

Yolanda Mercado: "My father passed away on November 25. Jenny [Caba], my daughter, had shown up at the funeral home in Hialeah with flowers in her hands. At the time she was working at the flea market, on weekends only. Usually when she gets paid she's dead broke again in two days. I noticed her with money and the flowers, but at that time we were all crying and whatever, so I didn't say anything. The next day I asked her where she gets her money. She said from the guy who likes her. She said that the guy who likes her is a commissioner in Opa-locka."

Jenny Caba: "I learned about [Derrick Miller] from my friend Carmen. I met him at her house when he came over to visit. He ordered some pizza. There was some talking. [Carmen] introduced me to him, but after that I didn't see him for like a year. I was fourteen at the time. Now I'm fifteen.

"A couple months ago I saw him driving down Dunad going to Sherbondy Park. I was with one of my friends. He stopped me, and he go, ďHow you doing? I haven't seen you in a while.' Then he gave me his phone numbers: his cell phone, his house phone, everything. He told me if I needed anything to call him.

"He was just talking to me but not like before. My friend Carmen had already told me to look out, that he was trying to holler at me. She told me to watch out for him because he tried to holler at every woman in Opa-locka."

Opa-locka is a small city in Northwest Miami-Dade, founded in the Twenties by famed aviator Glenn Curtiss. Opatishawockalocka was to be a themed community of Persian splendor, a middle-class enclave Rudolph Valentino might choose to settle in if he wanted a cheaply constructed pillbox of a house adorned with a minaret. Each neighborhood was modeled on a different story from The Arabian Nights. City hall, which originally functioned as the developer's office, rose as an Epcot-worthy re-creation of Sultan Kosrouschah's palace. The press releases heralded Opa-locka as the Baghdad of Dade County.

A World War II influx of GIs helped the city prosper -- for a while. White flight following desegregation drove down property values so dramatically that the city now teeters on slum status. Strip malls lie fallow. Industrial detritus unwelcome in other areas gives the city the visual appeal of a four-mile-wide junkyard. Little magic remains in street names such as Sesame, Shakar, and Ali-Baba when those dusty thoroughfares reveal a parade of empty storefronts and boarded-up homes. In 1927 Florida's governor was welcomed at the turreted train station by costumed sheiks on horseback. Today that same station sits locked behind barbed wire, abandoned and weathered like a dead dream.

Those train tracks are valuable, though. Tri-Rail intersects the city, just one of three reasons why Opa-locka is an enviable transportation hub. Tractor trailers can carry their loads away from Opa-locka warehouses on either I-75 or I-95. The Opa-locka Airport is poised for growth. Many cities would pray for Opa-locka's advantages, logistical and otherwise. As unattractive as the dozens of junkyards may be, for example, they generate good money for the city, money that can be used to repair torn-up streets, maintain athletic fields, and otherwise improve the lives of the town's 17,000 residents.

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