Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Columbia County Combined Communications
Reality or Point of No Return? The leaders will choose.

Time is running out for Columbia County's Combined Dispatch Center


After spending millions of dollars, having multitudes of meetings, watching consultants, police chiefs and city managers by the handful come and go, former Sheriff Bill Gootee's dream of having a fully combined first responders Communications Dispatch Center in Columbia County is both a heartbeat away from reality and edging up to the point of no return.

When Sheriff Gootee was elected in 2004 the Sheriff's office had its own dispatch system and the County had the 911 system. County fire had not yet been created.

Sheriff Gootee told the Observer, "When a citizen called for the Sheriff’s Office or a 911 call, it would go to 911 and they would transfer the call from 911 to the Sheriff’s Office. [This is called a ring down.] Sometimes calls were dropped. When the caller got the Sheriff's Office they would have to go through that whole thing again. It was in the best interest and the safety of the citizens to combine the two and I did that."

Sheriff Gootee continued, "After the County created fire they wanted me to handle that. I did. The calls increased and we needed more staffing and better equipment. In 2008, I requested that the Communications Advisory Committee be established, which was made up of EMS, County Fire, and myself. We then brought in the City Police Department, and the City Fire Department. For a while the City Manager sat on the Committee. County Commissioner Ronald Williams was also a member."

Sheriff Gootee concluded, "I wanted good government and I wanted to bring these units together, to save the County money, update the equipment and at the same time get everyone on the same page."

As the 2008 election cycle began, Columbia County's good old boys decided that "Gootee had to go" and they made a big political show of taking the communications center from him and badmouthing him every chance they got. In November, Mark Hunter was elected Sheriff of Columbia County.

The ILA – The Interlocal Agreement

Sheriff Mark Hunter put his career on the line getting the technology and software up and running at the center.

In or about September of 2008, County Manager Dale Williams, obtained a copy of the Interlocal agreement between Alachua County and Gainesville and began the process of modifying that Interlocal agreement to suit the needs of Columbia County and Lake City.

The agreement went through many changes. The County Commission, The County Manager, the City Manager, the City Council, the Sheriff, the City Police Chief, and anyone who wanted to suggest a change to the initial draft had the opportunity to do so.

Sometime in 2009, although it is not clear exactly when, a meeting was held in the office of longtime City Attorney, Herbert Darby. Sheriff Hunter, County Manager Williams, and Commissioner Stephen Bailey all have on different occasions mentioned this meeting.

This past Friday, County Manager Williams told the Observer, "I am telling you, Herbert Darby was instrumental in the preparation of the ILA. It was favorable to the city and the county agreed to let it be favorable to the city."

Before the ILA was signed and filed with the Clerk of the Courts, everyone, including members of the City Council, agreed that the City was getting a good deal.

On August 27, 2009, the agreement that was in the works for almost a year, was filed with the Clerk, with the signatures of Sheriff Mark Hunter, Commissioner Stephen Bailey, and Lake City Mayor Stephen Witt.

It seemed like the citizens of Columbia County were finally on their way to having a true combined communications dispatch center. 

Sheriff Hunter,center, invited anyone who wanted to contribute to attend the user group meetings, which he chaired.

The calm before the storm

For awhile things seemed to be going smoothly. The Communications Advisory Committee became the users group and continued to meet. The technology side of the center had outdated equipment failing on a regular basis. Sheriff Hunter, took the bull by the horns, and chaired the users group. While this was not by the letter of the ILA, Sheriff Hunter thought this was necessary.

Shortly after becoming Sheriff and spending some time in the communications center Sheriff Hunter told the Observer, "There are major equipment problems. Right now technology has to be our number one concern. Columbia County's First Responders must be able to communicate and must be able to communicate with each other."

Technology Consultant Hall

The Sheriff hired Billy Hall as the technology consultant for the communications center. Everyone, including the city's consultant, Tom Moreau, agreed that Mr. Hall is an expert and that his technology decisions have been right on the mark.

Lake City

After all the players came on board, there were two new additions to city government. Wendell Johnson became the City Manager and Argatha Gilmore became the Police Chief.

The users group meetings continued. The Lake City Fire Department was represented by Assistant Fire Chief, Frank Armajo and/or Chief Tunsil.

For a while, the Lake City Police Department was represented by Steve Shaw or Chief Gilmore.

For a short time, City Manager, Wendell Johnson, attended the meetings. He correctly observed that the users group spent its time discussing technology. He stopped attending the meetings.

Waterloo - September 14, 2010

On September 14, 2010 Columbia County and Lake City met for a joint City/County meeting.

After much talking, posturing and speechmaking it was decided that Lake City would not be going live along with Columbia County in November. Sheriff Hunter calculated that the cost for the County to separate the city and give it the time it needed to be comfortable that the needs of the city residents would be met, was $35,000.

City consultant Tom Moreau, an expert in the communications field, and Chief Gilmore.

The city articulated that it had a problem with governance. Police Chief Gilmore said that she thought it was policies, procedures, and SOP's that should drive the IT policies. Chief Gilmore spoke about risk assessment, risk management and tabletop scenarios. Chief Gilmore said there was no plan and asked, "What is wrong with asking for a plan?"

A little while later Chief Gilmore said, "We are talking about people's lives here. I believe we should have a Combined Communications Center. I'm saying let's do it right and correctly... We should do the right thing."

At the conclusion of the meeting the County Commission voted to go live with the new equipment without Lake City.

From bad to worse

After September 14, the situation between the City and the County went from bad to worse.

The County ignored a Memorandum of Understanding between it and the City to put the dispatch backup center in the city public safety building. Instead, the County put the backup center at the County Jail. The County claimed that the City knew about this. The City claimed that they never heard a word about it, until after it was done.

Memos, e-mails and bad feelings have ruled the day since September 14th.

While no one would go on the record, for obvious reasons, the consensus is that Commissioner Jody Dupree is a big part of the problem. Inarticulate, ill spoken, stubborn, uneducated, unwilling to compromise, and unwilling to follow the law, Mr. Dupree has set back the already shaky course of City/County relations to the tipping point.

City misses golden opportunity

On February 1, 2010, Sandy Waschek, 911 Director, sent via e-mail, to the County Manager, the EMS Director, the Asst. City Fire Chief, The County Fire Chief, the Under-Sheriff, and the City Manager, a draft copy of the Columbia County Combined Communications Center Departmental SOP.

She wrote: Attached you will find a draft of the Communications SOP.  It is the request of the Communications Committee that this be reviewed by each of you.  Any comments or suggestions should be forwarded to all listed for review.  It was further agreed upon, that this be done by next Tuesday's meeting, February 8th, 2011.     Thank You

Folks made changes and sent the copies back to Ms. Waschek and she incorporated those changes.

On February 7, City Manager, Wendell Johnson, sent the following message to Ms. Waschek: "Good Morning Sandy. I have reviewed the draft SOP. My only comment is that this is not a Combined Communications Dispatch Center SOP."

Epilogue - nearing the point of no return

On Friday, with the concept of a Columbia County Combined Communications Center nearing the point of no return, the Observer spoke with the major players in this saga.

County Manager Dale Williams: "I don't know what the city's thinking. I quit long ago trying to figure it out. That interlocal agreement that they had with the County was a gift. Why in the world they want to screw with something like that is beyond me... I think that if we went to the next Executive Committee Meeting and the City said, OK -- we've looked at this the wrong way -- it would be over with.

Sheriff Mark Hunter: I still think that if we could get the city to go with the original agreement, now with the separate go live date, and pay the $35,000, and the original $300,000 a year, for the eight years, for the dispatchers, that we could at least bring the police department into the fold. At the same time, the Executive Committee could continue working through any issues we may have. And if that can't be reached -- we may have a bridge too far... I'd like to see us stick with the original agreement, that I signed; that we all signed. I don't see any issues that we can't work out.

Mayor Steve Witt: My position is that we are going to keep working towards it. It's not easy because there seemed to be some personalities that are playing into it... Basically, the police department wants operating procedures or guidelines so that they know what to expect out of the system. I am not going to put the police in the position of going blindly into something that we will do on faith.

The Observer: Mr. Mayor, everyone received the Draft SOP's. The City Manager returned them saying they weren't Combined Communications Center SOP's.

Mayor Witt: Send them to me. You may know something I don't know... I think it can be worked out.

Sheriff Hunter concluded his conversation with the Observer. Exasperated, he said, "I'm tryin." 

Comments  (to add a comment go here)

On March 7, 2011 RB from Lake City wrote:

 If you will examine everything Jody Dupree has done as District 3 Commissioner, it has gone upside down for the taxpayers of Columbia County. We can only look forward to the election of 2012 for relief.

The taxpayers of District 3 and the entire county certainly deserve more than Mr. Dupree has to offer, and I for one intend to offer them more.     R.B.


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