Fired Opa-locka City Manager John Pate is alleging that the city’s mayor and vice mayor spoke by phone, in violation of Florida’s Sunshine Law, to “discuss and plan” his firing earlier this month.
In a lawsuit filed Thursday in Miami-Dade Circuit Court, Pate said Vice Mayor John Taylor called Mayor Veronica Williams and other city commissioners to “orchestrate the vote,” which was 4-1 in favor of terminating Pate’s contract “without cause” on Jan. 14.
It wasn’t immediately clear from the court filing how Pate would have known about any phone calls between Taylor and other elected officials.
Pate did not respond to a request for comment Thursday morning. His attorney, Michael Pizzi, declined to comment on the matter, instead saying in an emailed statement that Pate “looks forward to presenting proof of all of his claims in the system of justice.”
Williams, Taylor and Commissioners Sherelean Bass and Audrey Dominguez could not be reached for comment. Commissioner Chris Davis, the lone vote against Pate’s firing, said he did not receive any phone calls from Taylor ahead of the meeting.
The Miami Herald has asked the city clerk to provide records of any phone calls between the vice mayor and other elected officials in the days before Pate’s firing.
He also says his firing was a vindictive move by Taylor, the vice mayor, because Pate had refused days earlier to give favorable treatment to Taylor’s brother, an Opa-locka police officer who was found at fault in a car accident in Broward County while driving a city-owned vehicle.
The lawsuit alleges Taylor’s father, Bishop John Taylor, called Pate after the incident, “requesting on behalf of the family that Pate ignore [the officer’s] transgressions and not follow the appropriate mandated procedures for police misconduct.”
Taylor, who was elected in 2020, is also the son of former Opa-locka Mayor Myra Taylor.
Pate says Taylor also pressured him after the incident involving his brother, telling him after a Jan. 12 commission meeting “that he intended to fire him, for, among other things, Pate’s refusal to condone misconduct.”
Taylor called the special meeting to terminate Pate’s four-year contract. The city provided notice of the meeting Jan. 13, the day before it took place.
“The decision to fire Mr. Pate was motivated by his drawing a line in the sand and refusing to cave in to demands that he sacrifice the integrity of the City for the personal benefit of self-interested officials,” Pizzi said in a statement.
Pate was hired in 2019 as an outsider to bring stability to a city with one of the highest poverty rates in Florida. He had previously served as the city manager and police chief of University Park, Illinois, and was a finalist for police chief roles in Fort Lauderdale and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, during his tenure in Opa-locka.
Pate, who ran the city’s day-to-day operations as its top administrator, said in Thursday’s lawsuit that Pigatt and other elected officials had “constantly harassed” him “to make personnel and administrative decisions that violated the City Charter.” Pigatt had accused Pate of refusing to provide basic information about city business.
Williams, the current mayor, said during the Jan. 14 meeting that Pate’s job performance had been “lackluster,” noting that he was sometimes “non-responsive” to commissioners’ questions.
Dominguez, who was appointed to fill the gap left by Pigatt’s resignation, said Pate showed a “lack of leadership” in his handling of an investigation into allegations that an Opa-locka police captain fired a Taser stun gun at a fellow cop. Miami-Dade prosecutors announced criminal charges against the officer, Sergio Perez, on Jan. 12.
But Davis, the longest-tenured city commissioner, expressed concern about Pate’s firing and noted that the commission had not completed a formal evaluation of Pate’s performance.
Pate was placed on administrative leave Jan. 14. The commission voted to appoint James Wright, Opa-locka’s police chief from 2005 to 2008, as “deputy city manager” — a position that didn’t previously exist — until Feb. 1, and then to make Wright interim city manager after that.
Earlier in the day on Jan. 14, an attorney for Pate sent a memo to the city’s elected officials and the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics requesting protection from retaliation under Florida’s whistleblower statute, saying Taylor and others had “attempted to coerce and improperly influence Mr. Pate with regard to an ongoing police and personnel matter.”
“Ultimately,” Pate’s lawsuit says, “in retaliation for his usage of his First Amendment Right to criticize the City and for his reporting of misconduct of officials, Pate was railroaded based on trumped up allegations of poor performance.”