Opa-locka turns back the clock and rehires its city manager-turned -whistle-blower

Former Opa-locka city manager Newall Daughtrey was rehired as acting manager by the new City Commission on Wednesday, reversing the action of the previous commission that fired him without explanation in October.

Daughtrey filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against the city on Nov. 28, alleging he was fired as retribution for calling out corruption in City Hall.

The complaint highlights a memo Daughtrey wrote detailing millions of dollars in unpaid water bills that he said the city made no effort to collect due to what the complaint called “political pressure.” The delinquent accounts, each owing more than $10,000, belonged to various local businesses, including one owned by then-mayor Myra Taylor that owed over $100,000, according to the court filing.

Daughtrey was fired on Oct. 2 after just six months on the job and replaced by Yvette Harrell, a former Opa-locka city manager with few qualifications who was investigated during her 2017 tenure for allegedly taking improper severance payments. The vote was one of the last actions by the former commission, taken just one month before the election.

On Dec. 12, just two months after her appointment, a new Opa-locka City Commission voted 3-2 to remove Harrell. “Voters voted for change, not to be guided by the decisions of the previous commission,” said commissioner Joseph Kelley, who sponsored the agenda item. “We had a professional manager. We had one that was doing their job.”

Kelley then made a motion to appoint Daughtrey as acting city manager, which the commission approved in a 3-2 split. Daughtrey has years of experience in municipal government, including previous stints as Opa-locka’s city manager.

“Newall is very, very happy because he believes he won the lawsuit when he got his job back last night. That’s why we sued and we won,” said Daughtrey’s attorney, Michael Pizzi. “Technically he may be entitled to some back pay from when they fired him in October. We have not yet discussed that but will do so shortly.”

Pizzi recently won a different whistle-blower suit against the city of Opa-locka on behalf of former interim finance director Charmaine Parchment. On Nov. 28, a circuit judge ruled in favor of Parchment who was fired for refusing to sign off on checks she believed to be illegal.

Parchment said she was also targeted for cooperating with an ongoing FBI probe into corruption in City Hall. The investigation has already resulted in arrests of, among others, former City Manager David Chiverton, City Commissioner Luis Santiago, Assistant Public Works Director Gregory Harris, and Corleon Taylor, son of the city’s former mayor, Myra Taylor. A ruling on damages is expected in the coming months.

Parchment was a key witness against Harrell, testifying that Harrell asked the then-finance director to issue her severance payments before leaving office, though the investigation would produce insufficient evidence to charge Harrell with a crime.

Daughtrey was fired after cooperating with various corruption probes and declining to give the mayor’s son a favorable position as a police officer in City Hall, according to the complaint. He also informed city officials the “friends and family policy” on water collections, and corrupt management of the water billing system that gave a free ride to wealthy individuals and companies, would result in people “going to jail.”

At the time of his firing, Taylor told the Herald she believed “Mr. Daughtrey has gone as far as he can go,” and “It’s time to move on.”

Taylor supported Harrell’s appointment and denied any knowledge of allegations of illegal behavior during her last stint as city manager in 2017. “I thought she did well,” Taylor told the Herald at the time of Harrell’s appointment.

YvetteHarrell.jpg

Opa-locka City Manager Yvette Harrell

– Miami Herald file

Harrell’s two-year contract with the city, approved by the commission in October, includes a severance package of 20 weeks’ pay if she were fired without cause. However, the contract may never have been executed.

The contract — which includes a $125,000 annual salary and a $600-a-month car allowance — was subject to review and approval by the state oversight board, an independent board appointed by the governor and tasked with reviewing every financial transaction of the near-bankrupt city. At the meeting on Dec. 6, the oversight board made a recommendation to defer Harrell’s employment agreement until after the new City Commission had a chance to meet, according to Frank Rollason, a member of the oversight board.

“The contracts should not have been executed by Opa-locka until future approval by the oversight board,” Rollason said. The decision of the oversight board is binding, per a contract between the city and the state of Florida.

The commission was split Wednesday night on the question of the city manager. Newly elected Mayor Matthew Pigatt, who ran on a reform platform, voted against Harrell’s termination.

“I’m excited about the work that this city manager has done,” he said, pointing to her push to collect delinquent water bills in recent months.

Pigatt also voted against the re-hiring of Daughtrey, who has served as city manager on and off over the past few decades, referencing Daughtrey’s lawsuit against the city as one reason not to support his appointment. The new vice mayor, Chris Davis, also voted no out of concern over continuity in City Hall. However, a simple majority carried both motions, with commissioners Sherelean Bass and Alvin Burke joining Joseph Kelley to vote yes.

“Clearly, this is a major victory for integrity in government. Last night was an acknowledgment that the lawsuit we filed on behalf of Daughtrey had merit,” Pizzi said. “They rolled back the clock and went back in time and undid the firing of Daughtrey and hiring of Harrell. They did some damage control.”