Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Code Enforcement: Former Judge Scores $2,000 a day; County Attorney Foreman Will Also Cash In 

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Last Thursday night, December 17, Florida's infamous Columbia County 5 awarded former Circuit Court Judge E. Vernon Douglas $2,000 a day to hear code enforcement cases as Columbia County's first Code Enforcement Special Magistrate. Mr. Douglas was also awarded $275 an hour to do other work, such as to "review ordinances." Joel Foreman, Florida's only popularly elected County Attorney, has decided to prosecute code enforcement cases himself, rather than having Code Enforcement present its cases. Beginning in 2014, Mr. Foreman had led the charge to dissolve Columbia County's Code Enforcement Board.


The County Code Enforcement Board was a group of civic minded citizens who worked for free. The only extra expense was the cost of the County Attorney. The Code Enforcement Board was a jury of the citizen's peers.

In April of 2014, the County 5 passed an ordinance which reestablished the Code Enforcement Board and established a Special Magistrate.

One year later in April of 2015, during a budget workshop, the County's minimalist minutes put it this way: "County Attorney Joel Foreman suggested a need to do some restructuring in this department and asked that the Commission consider budgeting funds to do so."

Ben Scott, who at that time was the acting County Manager, presented nothing more in his work shop presentation other than the words, "Code Enforcement Magistrate."

One month later, on May 28, the Code Enforcement Magistrate was again brought up. The County's minimalist minutes stated the following: "There have been some concerns with the current way that code enforcement violations are being handled. Attorney Joel Foreman recommends that a special magistrate be appointed to handle the code enforcement violations. Attorney Foreman recommends the Commission include a code enforcement magistrate in the floor budget for Fiscal Year 15/16 in the amount of approximately $25,000. There was discussion."

There is no indication in the minutes if any of The 5 contributed to the conversation.

One month later, on June 25, during that month's budget workshop, Mr. Scott's minimalist PowerPoint included no information regarding the special magistrate, other than a slide which stated: "FY 15/16 Floor budget will include $25,000 for the development of a code enforcement magistrate process."

County Attorney Foreman: his true intentions

      Joel Foreman

For the next month the magistrate issue was quiet. Then on August 6, 2015, Mr. Foreman, the attorney elected by the people, revealed his true intentions: dissolve the people's Code Enforcement Board; prosecute Columbia County citizens himself; have the citizens judged by a magistrate (judge) that he would be instrumental in choosing, and whose contract he would negotiate.

On August 20, 2015, the County 5 (the County Commission) adopted Ordinance No. 2015-15, which dissolved the Code Enforcement Board and replaced it with a Special Magistrate.

Special Magistrate Ranking Committee

County Attorney Foreman, even though he would be practicing in front of the Code Enforcement Magistrate that he would chose, denied that there was any conflict of interest or "appearance of impropriety" in the selection process.

Also on the Ranking Committee was the head of County Code Enforcement, Rudy Crews. In 2014, Mr. Crews' Supervisor, Safety Director David Kraus, claimed that Mr. Crews "has been advocating for the County to hire a specific lawyer to fill the magistrate position for personal reasons. This has included efforts to avoid using the County's purchasing policy in the selection of the magistrate."

On October 29, 2015, the Ranking Committee met to rank the Magistrate candidates. Each candidate had submitted a packet of information. It was no surprise when Mr. Foreman and Mr. Crews ranked former Circuit Court Judge, E. Vernon Douglas, number one.

Before the committee convened, Mr. Foreman told your reporter, "The intent is to make it as fair as humanly possible. I'm putting on the County's case, rather than the code officer. We want the Special Magistrate to be separate from us."

On November 19, 2015, buried in the County 5 consent agenda as item number 40: Purchasing - Requesting Approval and Ranking and Authorizing Negotiations – Vernon Douglas - Special Magistrate for Code Enforcement.

Your reporter commented that County Attorney Foreman should not have been on the Ranking Committee, because he would be serving in front of the candidate that he ranked number one and that the "appearance of impropriety" should be avoided.

Mr. Foreman explained, "I was asked and appointed by Mr. Ray Hill to serve on the three-person committee making the selection. Mr. Lilker is again raising the issue of the appearance of impropriety... We’re here tonight so that you can decide whether or not to hire him; then authorize me to negotiate his contract."

The County 5 unanimously approved hiring the former Judge Douglas and authorized Mr. Foreman to negotiate his contract.

At the conclusion of the November 19 meeting, your reporter told The 5:

Now we found that not only is the County Attorney going to be appearing in front of the judge, he is going to negotiate the judge’s salary. The appearance of impropriety should be avoided at all costs. That’s in every ethical consideration of attorneys; of judges; of County commissioners; generally with everybody.

I would request that you reconsider this. You have the prosecutor (Joel Foreman), who is prosecuting for the County, asking the judge to rule on a case where he negotiated the salary for that judge -- clearly, if that does not give the appearance of impropriety, I don’t know what does.

Neither Mr. Foreman, nor any of The 5, had anything to say.

Special Magistrate to receive $2,000 a day

Last week, on December 17, The County 5 approved the Special Magistrate's contract.

       Ben Scott

County Manager Ben Scott explained that he and Purchasing Director, Ray Hill, "basically developed the contract." He claimed that County Attorney Foreman reviewed the contract "and then we did negotiate it with Mr. Douglas."

Mr. Scott told The 5 "We schedule one hearing a month and his fees for that month would be $2,000."

 Mr. Scott added that if they needed any other services, "such as if we needed him to review ordinances or anything related to code enforcement, that would be an hourly fee and that fee would be $275 per hour... What we are asking for is approval of the agreement with Vernon Douglas to provide Special Magistrate services."

None of The 5 asked why County Attorney Foreman, whose hourly rate is about half, was not giving advice on ordinances.

Commissioner Ronald Williams said that Code Enforcement has done all the work and that "Code Enforcement is going to present the case to the magistrate."

County Attorney Foreman claimed that he is presenting the cases.

Commissioner Rusty DePratter asked, "Do we have a history that shows how many cases the old board was hearing?"

County Manager Scott skirted the question, "Basically, what I was informed of is they believe that there's going to be 5 to 6 cases and they believe it's going to be about 10 hours of work on his part."

Mr. Scott did not explain who "they" are.

None of The 5 asked.

County Attorney Foreman weighed in, "Code Enforcement is fully complaint driven. You could have a period of time where there is an influx of complaints. At the same time you could have a period of time where there are very few complaints."

Commissioner Everett Phillips inquired of County Attorney Foreman, "Joel, are you happy with the $2,000 a day?"

Mr. Foreman responded, "I think it's fair... I'll be the attorney prosecuting the cases."

Shortly thereafter, the County 5 approved the contract. The vote was unanimous.


The County Code Enforcement Board was a group of civic minded citizens who worked for free. The only extra expense was the cost of the County Attorney. The Code Enforcement Board was a jury of the citizen's peers.

Columbia County's citizens are now on the hook for an additional $2,000 for each day of Code Enforcement Hearings and $275 per hr. for any additional work the County would like to steer towards Vernon Douglas.

The per capita income for Columbia County is $9.28 per hr.

The Columbia County 5: the legend continues.

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