Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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County Jail: Foot Dragging, Back Room Deals, No Timely & Relevant Info – It's Columbia County

On Jan. 4, 2017, Columbia County Sheriff Mark Hunter met State Senator Rob Bradley. The Senator came prepared and peppered Sheriff Hunter with questions. The Sheriff was not facing the familiar 5, where he never has to answer questions. The Sen. wasn't giving out free passes.

COLUMBIA COUNTY – Foot dragging, back room deals, and a failure to provide relevant and useful documentation have been the hallmarks of Columbia County's infamous Columbia County 5 for decades. On Tuesday, January 17, the Public Safety Coordinating Council met (County Manager Schedules Important County Jail Meeting Same Time as City Council Meeting). The committee members met without any information or knowledge of the purpose of the meeting.

County Manager Ben Scott scheduled the meeting, but he didn't tell anybody publically why they needed to meet until it was just about to end.

The County's newly hired (April 2016) Architects, Clemons Rutherford, began work on alternate plans for a new $26,000,000 jail and site shortly after they were hired, but they weren't talking or handing out information, either, except for a PowerPoint presentation, a copy of which was not given to the committee members, the County management, or anyone.

Florida Statutes (287.055) requires that when the cost for a project exceeds $2,000,000, a continuing contract for the project is prohibited. Clemons Rutherford's April 2016 contract is a continuing contract. The Architectural services had to be put out to bid for this project. It wasn't.

A Little History

The Columbia County Jail. Originally a deal investigated by FDLE, it has required massive maintenance over the years. Rutherford, the folks who want to design the new jail, evaluated the old one. Today's condition of the jail is not clear. It is clear the Sheriff wants a new one.

The County Jail was built in 1986-87. The project was run by County Manager Dale Williams and District I Commissioner Ronald Williams out of the County Manager's Office.

The project was steeped in controversy. It was investigated by FDLE.

County Manager Dale Williams received a gift of a color television set and according to an FDLE investigative report Mr. Williams said the county attorney told him the gift was not illegal. Mr. Williams returned the TV. The then County 5 found nothing wrong.

There were other allegations of money and women being offered up, but there were never any charges filed.

Over the years there have been many issues with the jail which were blamed on shoddy construction.

There had been talks over the years to replace or rehabilitate the jail.

Clemons Rutherford's First Estimate: Way Off

In January 2003, Clemons Rutherford, the County's experts, estimated that "The County will need 500 beds to meet the demand in 20 years." 14 years later, according to Sheriff Hunter, the jail houses 235 inmates.

By 2007-08 the County had accumulated $5,000,000 in various reserves for a new jail. The county subsequently spent the money on other parts of the budget.

In July 2009 the County 5 removed $150,000 from the County Budget earmarked for "jail planning."

Sheriff Hunter Threatens the County

On May 25, 2014, Sheriff Hunter threatened to stop running the jail and turn it back to the County if he didn't get a 5% increase in his budget.

In June 2014, the County recommended putting out RFP's to find someone to run the jail.

No one believed that the Sheriff could walk away from the jail as he had threatened.

Nonetheless, the County 5 eventually buckled and ended up giving the Sheriff the first and only percent based budget in Florida. Sheriff Hunter receives 39% of the County budget. It was reported to the Observer that during the negotiations, the Sheriff wanted 52%.

Between May 2013 and April 2014, Sheriff Hunter claimed the average daily population of the jail was 197.25. Sheriff Hunter puts the jail's capacity at 254 inmates.

Senator Rob Bradley Meets Sheriff Mark Hunter

On January 4, 2017, during a meeting of the Columbia County Legislative Delegation and during a conversation about the County Jail, Senator Rob Bradley asked Sheriff Hunter, "How many of those [inmates] are pretrial and how many of them are...?"

The Senator didn't get out the rest of his question. Sheriff Hunter cut him off.

"I would have to get those numbers. I can't give you that off the top of my head," he said.

One member of the audience let slip a barely audible remark, "Bull Shit."

The Senator chuckled and warned the audience members not to make remarks.

Sheriff Hunter did not disclose to the Senator that he had been working with Clemons Rutherford on plans for a new jail.

Mendacity at the County 5

On January 17, 2017, the Public Safety Coordinating Council (PSCC) met.

On January 19 the County 5 met.

Just as the January 19 meeting of The 5 was about to be adjourned, Chairman Ron Williams, announced, "I appointed Commissioner Nash to be the representative for the County on the jail advisory committee [PSCC]. They have met. They are really workin' hard to bring back a recommendation to the Board. Mr. Nash I appreciate you serving as a representative on that committee. We are looking forward to hearing your recommendation to the Board of County Commissioners.

Commissioner Nash responded, "Thank you sir."

Sheriff Hunter was in the audience and in attendance at the January 17 PSCC meeting.

County Manager Ben Scott was in attendance at both the PSCC meeting and the January 19 meeting of The 5.


At the conclusion of the January 17 PSCC meeting a recommendation regarding a new county jail was made.

Mr. Nash knew it. The Sheriff knew it. The County Manager knew it. They were all at the PSCC meeting.

The County Attorney may have known it, as he is also contracted to the Sheriff.

At the conclusion of the January 19 meeting of the County 5 nobody was talking.

Columbia County: the legend continues.

Part II: the PSCC meeting: the recommendation

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