By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
Unfortunately that money is controlled by the city's politicians, a group historically incapable of basic management. Opa-locka has churned through six city managers and six police chiefs since 1994. When Earnie Neal quit in the wake of his sexual-harassment scandal, he awarded himself a six-figure golden parachute, which the commission approved. His replacement collected more than $300,000 when he was fired.
Jenny: "One day I'm at my friend Elizabeth's house. It's far away, and I didn't know how to get home, so I called him and asked him if he could come pick me and my friend Dina up. He was there in like five minutes. Before he dropped me off, he gave me $40. He told me that I have beautiful legs, that he would like to see me in a dress.
"The next day I saw him again. And then he started calling here asking me do I want to go out to Flanigan's and stuff. I used to tell him no. But I called him again when I was at my friend's house and needed a ride home. He picked me up. He gave me $30. He just told me I should use it if I needed to get my hair done or my nails done. Another time when he gave me a ride my friend Glenda was in the car. That's when we kissed. He asked me: “Can I have a kiss?' I said, “Yes.'"
Jenny's friend Glenda: "I just knew him because of Jen. I thought he was the mayor but, like, I'd never seen him in person. Me and Jen were walking home, and he came around and gave us a ride home. They kissed. He kissed her. I just got out of the car and kept walking. He's an old man, and she's young."
For sixteen years Opa-locka was governed by Mayor Robert P. Ingram. During his tenure Ingram won for his city its valuable Tri-Rail station and a new cultural arts center. He also helped cement the city's reputation for political incompetence and skullduggery. Debt piled up so high that city staffers were laid off. The tax rate maxed out just shy of the legal limit. The crime rate rose alarmingly at a time when countywide crime actually had dropped. City commissioners recklessly spent thousands of public dollars as if it were their own personal money. The number of women who claimed to have been sexually harassed by city leaders reached into the double digits.
The mayor tended to award his friends fat retroactive raises or lucrative no-bid consulting contracts -- or even better: lucrative jobs on the city payroll. In one instance Ingram appointed as city manager his good friend Arlington Sands, Jr., then negotiated a contract that paid Sands a lump sum of more than $330,000 after his buddy was fired a mere 22 months into the job. The road that runs past city hall is now named in Ingram's honor.
"Opa-locka used to be a beautiful city, so unique," recalls Evelyn LaRock, a commission gadfly and a city resident for 45 years. "Sixteen years ago we started going down the drain. It's a shame. When you get a couple of bad apples in, honey, they can take the whole bushel."
When Ingram left the city in 1998 to take a seat on the Miami-Dade County School Board, his mayoral successor, Alvin Miller (no relation to Derrick), launched an ambitious plan to clean up the government. "I wouldn't say the city itself was corrupt," Alvin Miller elucidates, "but we had, in my opinion, some corrupt people in charge of the city."
The mayor persuaded the commission to install Tony Robinson as his new city manager. Robinson has worked privately in Opa-locka for the past decade as the proprietor of a cardboard-recycling company. A Howard University graduate, he also served as the city's budget and personnel director from 1991 to 1992. Critics decry his political naiveté, but Robinson maintains an idealistic commitment to clean up the city's culture of corruption. "Opa-locka has bad politics," he explains. "The characters that come forth, the individuals who put themselves out there as being the leaders, are doing a pretty good job snowing residents. The residents are very trusting. They want to have somebody to believe in. They vote for the first guy who comes along and says, “I'm a good guy -- and by the way, I happen to be a minister.'"
Derrick Miller happens to be a minister, an ordained Baptist minister. The Pittsburgh native first surfaced in South Florida as the rapping Preacher Man, "aiming to save the youth of South Florida through words and music," according to a 1992 Miami Herald profile. (Sample lyric: "It's not popular, in our world today/For Godly values, y'all, we've got to pray.") Although he's been steadily employed as an air-traffic controller, Miller came into city politics in the early Nineties as Mayor Ingram's volunteer administrative assistant. When Ingram moved up to the school board, Miller won his own seat on the city commission.
Derrick Miller quickly established himself as the most visible and vocal member of the commission. He proposed naming the Opa-locka-Hialeah Flea Market as the city's official downtown. He nominated fired police chief Craig Collins to the city's planning council even though Collins was suing the city to get his job back. He held a rally to oppose Gov. Jeb Bush's "One Florida" initiative. Two years ago he rotated into the ceremonial position of vice mayor, being sworn into the new post by Miami Commissioner Art Teele.