Opa-locka Is So Corrupt and Broken That Residents Want to Abolish the City

At this point, it's unclear why Opa-locka, the city of 16,000 people in Northwest Miami-Dade County, has a right to exist — or what good the city government does for anyone. The place is transparently corrupt, money for basic public services has been squandered, and the police are forced to regularly arrest local politicians.

Rather than suffer through life in Opa-locka any longer, a group of the town's veteran political operatives and activists now wants to put the city out of its misery for good. Earlier this week, that group submitted paperwork to start the process of asking the county to dissolve the whole city.

Local political consultant Willis Howard tells New Times that he jump-started the petition drive after trying and failing to help candidates reform city politics for the better part of the last decade. Now he's fed up.

"I'm a business person, I watch enough Shark Tank," Howard says. "Once you’re tapped out, you're tapped out. The city revenues are tapped out, there's no leadership, and in this case, you can’t even file bankruptcy to restructure your assets, because there's nothing for you to restructure. When I'm advising candidates, I have to give them real assessments on what they're getting into. I started saying, 'I don’t think this should be a city, I think we should just abolish the city,' seven or eight years ago."

In Miami-Dade County, local residents can propose their own laws and force the county to vote on them, so long as activists get enough of the county's registered voters to sign petitions in favor of the plans. Howard's group, which is called the "21st Century Abolitionists PAC," and includes former City Commissioner Steven Barrett, according to the Miami Times, must wait on city attorney Vincent Barrett to approve the petition's legal language. Once that approval comes down, Howard's group will have 60 days to gather 800 signatures.

Opa-locka residents currently pay the highest property-tax rate in Florida, so Howard says he thinks residents will be giddy at the idea of abolishing the city, which was founded in 1926 by aviation-industry pioneer Glenn Curtiss (who also pushed for the Moorish-style city hall architecture). Those tax revenues have done little but enrich a coterie of demonstrably crooked people.

Florida has dissolved other cities in the past, including Islandia, which ceased to exist in 2012. The city previously housed 18 park rangers on an island off Cutler Bay.

In March 2016, FBI agents stormed Opa-locka City Hall and carted out reams of documents and piles of computers, capping what had been a two-year investigation into corruption and kickback schemes rampant at city hall. As it turns out, the city had wasted millions of dollars on needless parties, fancy meals, and SUV trips, draining city coffers and robbing the majority-black city residents of a functioning government. (The FBI probe was still open as of this past  June, and more indictments are expected.)

On June 1, 2016, Gov. Rick Scott declared a "financial emergency" in Opa-locka, and appointed an entire board to sort through the city's legal and financial troubles. Also this past June, city officials told the Miami Herald they had made virtually no progress in 12 months.

In the meantime, multiple city officials have been convicted of criminal charges: Last November, then-City Manager David Chiverton was sentenced to three years in prison after he was caught in a sting taking a $2,500 cash bribe. Chiverton also reportedly weaponized the city's Code Enforcement division and used the enforcement agency to extort business for cash kickbacks, flooding businesses with code violations and taking illegal payments to remove the citations.

In January, ex-City Commissioner Luis Santiago pleaded guilty to accepting $40,000 in bribes and extorting local business owners. Two months later, another commissioner facing bribery charges, Terence Pinder, killed himself by slamming his SUV into a tree.

In the meantime, money for basic city services dried up. Former Miami-Dade County Manager Merritt Steirheim was brought in to manage the city's finances — but even he resigned in March, claiming Opa-locka was the worst mess he'd ever seen.

At this point, Howard says he doesn't see anything worth saving. The city's corruption issues and financial mismanagement have been obvious for years, but Howard says that no matter which candidates he helped run for office, nearly all fell victim to the city's way of life.

"People ask me, 'Why not recall everyone instead?'' Howard said. "But recalling people only looks good if the pool of candidates looks good." And, he added, there seems to be no one waiting in the wings to lead Opa-locka.

As a black man, Howard said he felt a particular calling to help out the majority black residents, who are forced to live in Third World conditions as the city tries to right itself. Before filing the petition papers, he reached out to multiple county, state, and local officials, and told them the drive wasn't an attack. He says he's spoken to the offices of County Mayor Carlos Gimenez, County Commissioner Barbara Jordan, State Senator Oscar Braynon, and multiple city commissioners. He'd rather see the city come under county control. For all his criticisms of the county or state, he thinks the current folks in charge would do a far better job taking care of Opa-locka residents.

"I gotta sit and, as a black man, allow these folks to sit here and suffer, knowing I can do something?" Howard said. "This was like taking pro-bono legal work. Like, 'Your honor, I’ll just take this case.'"

The governor and county commission also have the power to dissolve the city — Howard added that he hopes that if he gets enough signatures, it will compel Scott or Gimenez to act before local residents even ote on the measure.

"Of all the plans I’ve seen in Opa-locka, I've never seen one that deals with the 16-plus-thousand residents," Howard said. "Their dreams are always deferred in the case of Opa-locka."
KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.