Terminated: County Manager Throws Book at 2 County Road Workers For Mowing Mom's Lawn
Mowing this lawn caused instant termination by County Manager Ben Scott.
COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – On May 31, 2016, Lake City resident and county commission candidate, B Coker, snapped a few photos of County workers mowing a lawn in her neighborhood with County lawn mowers. She brought the photos to the Lake City Reporter. According to County Manager Ben Scott, Ms. Coker also contacted the County Public Works Department. Dakota Owens and Adam Merritt, part of a 4-man mowing crew, both with unblemished county records, mowed Mr. Owens's mom's lawn during their lunch break. Within a couple of hours the word came down from County Hdq.: fire them.
In March 2014, Dakota Owens was hired by Columbia County as a laborer at $9.15 hr. In August 2015 he was promoted to Technician I at $10.02 hr. In February 2016, due to a cost of living raise, his salary went to $10.98 hr.
Over the course of his employment his record was rated as "expected norm."
Mr. Owens's latest evaluation by his immediate supervisor speaks for itself: "Mr. Owens has shown great eagerness while learning new jobs. Mr. Owens strives to do a good job. Mr. Owens is always open for a new challenge. Mr. Owens works well as a team (above normal). Mr. Owens is always polite when dealing with the public. (Overall Performance – expected norm). Additional comment: Mr. Owens has become an important part of the Storm Water Crew (2014). Mr. Owens works well in the Tree Crew and will grow through additional training and experience (9/29/2015).
In December 2014, Adam Merritt was hired by Columbia County as a Maintenance Technician I at $10.02 hr. In February 2016, he was earning $10.98 hr.
Over the course of Mr. Merritt's employment his performance was rated "above normal" by his supervisor. Mr. Merritt's latest evaluation speaks for itself: Mr. Merritt shows good work knowledge. Mr. Merritt takes pride in each job assignment. Mr. Merritt is very productive. Mr. Merritt works well as a team. Mr. Merritt assesses each task with great consideration. Mr. Merritt always presents himself well. (Overall Performance – above normal) Additional comment: Mr. Merritt is an asset to the tree crew and has a very positive attitude (9/29/2015).
May 31, 2016: The Lake City Reporter
On May 31 at approximately 1 pm, the Lake City Reporter's (LCR) Robert Bridges received an email from B Coker. Ms. Coker wrote that she observed 4 County workers mowing a residential lawn. She said she was told it was "a favor for a friend."
Ms. Coker attached photos; wrote that it was unacceptable and other citizens could benefit. She asked, "Why just the resident at 584 SE Baker Street?"
Ms. Coker wrote, "Citizens should be made aware of how our county's resources are used and more importantly why they aren't privy to the same treatment."
She closed her mail by advising Mr. Bridges, "Call at your convenience, Be."
On June 1, the LCR ran an article propounding the Columbia County management's company line. The article has a purported quote from County Public Works Director / Asst. Cnty Manager, Kevin Kirby. "It was just a poor decision made by an individual."
There were also quotes from the recently hired former Anderson Columbia co-worker of Mr. Kirby, Justin Sikes.
There weren't any quotes from County Manager Scott, the terminated employees, or the property owner.
June 2, 2016: Your reporter inspects the Merritt – Owens files
On June 2 at 4 pm, your reporter inspected the personnel files of Mr. Merritt and Mr. Owens. Two days after the incident there were no records in either personnel file indicating that either employee was under investigation, suspended, or terminated.
June 2 was the day of the 5:30 pm County 5 meeting. Presumably, County Manager Scott briefed the commissioners about the purported mowing incident during the commissioner's pre meeting briefings.
Later that evening, before The 5 adjourned, your reporter addressed The 5, Mr. Scott and Mr. Kirby, County Attorney Foreman, Mr. Scott's secretary, Asst. Cnty Manager Ward and the Clerk:
I don't know how much information
the paper got right and how much they left out. It
seemed to me they might have put the address where it
was that the property was mowed and [who] found out who
was mowing it. Another incomplete report by the paper.
I'm asking publicly now for e-mail tomorrow of all the records that you have and what property that was; where it was located and who owns it. I don't know if any of you guys know, but I sure would like to know who owns it. I sure would like to know if the paper knows who owned it when they wrote the article. It seems that the newspaper now is like Izvestia, the mouthpiece for the Columbia County Board of Commissioners.
After asking again yesterday, the termination letters of Merritt and Owens, dated June 2 and signed by County Manager Scott, were emailed to the Observer.
A confidential source, speaking under the condition of anonymity, told the Observer, "They all knew who owned the property on June 2."
June 8, 2016: The Terminated – Merritt and Owens
Yesterday afternoon your reporter was finally able to make contact with Mr. Merritt and Mr. Owens.
The Observer: My understanding is B Coker walked up to you.
Mr. Merritt: That's right. She spoke to me directly.
The Observer: Can you tell me what happened?
Mr. Merritt: Our intention that day. It became lunch time. Dakota's like me. He's broke. He didn't have any food. His mother's house is right there -- a quarter of a mile from where we mow. We went over to her house to get him some lunch. When we got there Dakota had noticed his mother's grass was high as hell. Her lawn mower does not work. We decided we'd mow it while we were there. We're on lunch break. We didn't think nothin' of it.
Mr. Merritt explained that he noticed "this lady" was taking pictures. Then she asked him some questions like "what does it take to get a residential property mowed?"
The Observer: You guys had no idea who owned the house?
Mr. Merritt: Not until now.
Mr. Merritt: It took us less than ten minutes to unload the mowers; mow a little bit of the yard that she has; and jump back on the truck; and leave.
The Observer: So what happened after that?
Mr. Merritt: We went back to our regular mowing route. I got a call from my supervisor. He told me, "The shit had hit the fan. Have you'll mowed a private property?" I was honest with him, just like I was honest with her [Coker]. I told them yes, I know that we probably should not be using County equipment, but we were just trying to help his mother.
The Observer: Do you have any idea why you didn't just get a reprimand or a suspension?
Mr. Merritt: Some people have a name. Me and Dakota, we're nobody.
The Observer: Who had the pictures?
Mr. Merritt: She had the pictures and she was at the Lake City Reporter. They had to go meet her at the Lake City Reporter... They went to the Lake City Reporter and came back about a half hour later. They told us that me and Dakota were pretty much fired. Kevin Kirby had said that... Kevin is actually the one who fired us.
The Observer: Do you have any kids?
Mr. Merritt: A 5 yr old son and 3 year old daughter.
The Observer: Did you appeal your dismissal?
Mr. Merritt: Yes. I told them I was very dependable and respectful. I never had any problems on the job to be terminated on a first offense. I always had a very good code of ethics. I was on my lunch break...
The Observer: One final question. Do you feel that your firing was justified?
Mr. Merritt: I do not. It was my first offense.
The Observer: Do you feel if that lady had just gone to your bosses and not to the newspaper that you would still have your job?
Mr. Merritt: Yes, I do. 100%.
Mr. Merritt: I've got a family to take care of. Dakota's got a family to take care of. Ain't neither one of us ever been wrote up.
A little while later, the Observer spoke with Dakota Owens. It was his mom that was a tenant in the house. Mr. Owens was not as articulate as Mr. Merritt and he sounded to be more in distress. After a bit of small talk the conversation began: