Tired of City Hall shenanigans, high water bills and the highest property tax rate in Florida, Opa-locka residents have filed to start a petition drive to dissolve their city and go under the control of Miami-Dade County.
Former City Commissioner Steven Barrett and political consultant Willis Howard filed the paperwork Tuesday afternoon at Opa-locka City Hall for a referendum so voters can decide whether to abolish the city.
The two men filed on behalf of a group of 11 Opa-locka residents under a political action committee called 21st Century Abolitionists PAC to begin the process.
The group also includes a former city clerk and a former county attorney.
Opa-locka, incorporated in 1926, has a rich history in Miami-Dade with its famed Arabian Nights theme and Moorish style buildings. But in recent years, the city has been known more for unpaid debts to the county and vendors. It also has had several elected and administrative leaders go to prison on public corruption convictions. Other corruption investigations are ongoing.
Barrett, a former vice mayor and frequent city critic, said the city’s current leadership has done nothing to remedy the problems.
“It’s not getting better. We’re tired. We don’t have leadership. The conditions in the city are getting worse. Our commission is not doing the job,” Barrett said. “We don’t have a better quality of life. They don’t listen, and they don’t work with anyone. We’d rather go back to the county and have a better quality of life.”
Howard is a longtime political consultant and has relatives in Opa-locka. Last fall he was campaign manager for Matthew Pigatt, the newest commissioner. He also has managed campaigns for Vice Mayor Joseph Kelley. He said he is bankrolling the initiative and expects to spend between “$10,000 and $20,000” of his own funds.
Wednesday morning, Howard said Opa-locka “is at the point of no return” with high debt, high taxes and few benefits for residents. He said the county is better able to provide services such as police, parks and recreation and utilities.
“The county is flush with cash. The only alternative you can offer to the masses … [is to] just go back to the county,” Howard said. “If a municipality can’t provide, the county must.”
Their request has gone to Opa-locka City Attorney Vincent Brown, who first must sign off on the petition language so the PAC can proceed.
Brown acknowledged Wednesday that he received the petition, but did not give additional comments. Neither Mayor Myra Taylor nor Kelley could be reached for comment at press time.
Calls seeking comment from Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and Commissioner Barbara Jordan went unanswered.
If Brown signs off on the validity of the language for the official petition, the PAC will have 60 days to gather about 800 valid signatures — 10 percent of the voters in the last municipal election.
“Once they give us the official petition the clock starts ticking,” Howard said.
This type of dissolution is unchartered territory in the Sunshine State because there does not appear to be a procedure for dissolution driven exclusively by citizens.
Under Florida statutes, a municipality may be dissolved by a special act of the Legislature or an ordinance of the governing body of the municipality, and approved by a vote of qualified voters.
Another stipulation is that the municipality under consideration “must not be substantially surrounded by other municipalities.” Also, the county or another municipality must be demonstrably able to provide necessary services to the municipal area proposed for dissolution, and “an equitable arrangement must be made in relation to bonded indebtedness and vested rights of employees of the municipality to be dissolved.”
Those factors are huge hurdles for Opa-locka dissolution proponents to overcome. The city of 16,000 residents shares borders with Hialeah, Miami Lakes and Miami Gardens. Even worse, the city owes millions to vendors, including Miami-Dade County.
More than 150 Florida cities have been dissolved dating back to 1846. The most recent dissolution occurred when Miami-Dade County abolished the town of Islandia in 2012. The town had no local government and was part of Biscayne National Park. The 18 residents were all park rangers. The other more recent dissolution occurred in the Panhandle-area town of Cedar Grove in 2008.