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Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Lake City

Reversal of Plans, City Man Scrambling, Says Council Mbrs Won't Attend Spec Chamber Meeting

LAKE CITY, FL – The Lake City Reporter's Sunday, May 21 announcement that City Council members will be attending a special 'Chamber Only' meeting in the City's Council Chambers about the proposed implementation of stormwater fees had City Manager Johnson scrambling to walk back the announcement by the LCR.

Background

The Lake City/Columbia County Chamber of Commerce receives tens of thousands of dollars in cash benefits from both Lake City and Columbia County taxpayers. Both the City and the County are members.

Recently, in Lake City, the issue of stormwater management has resurfaced from its demise in 2008. The City is facing the problem of aging stormwater infrastructure, flooding, and the expense of bringing it up to date to handle the City's stormwater needs.

Recently, the City has been bonding itself to the tune of millions, none of it for the repair of its aging stormwater infrastructure.

Still available in the budget is the $1,000,000 grant which City Manager Johnson has earmarked for the Blanche developers. No agreement has been signed by the City Council. The 1 million has been set aside.

As has been reported in the LCR, there is much controversy regarding the funding of the stormwater infrastructure repairs.

Sunday, May 21

The LCR ran an article announcing the stormwater workshop. The workshop is going to be held in City Hall in the City Hall Council Chambers. In attendance will be the City Manager, the City Engineers, the Director of Public Works, and any guests invited by the City Manager.

The Chamber of Commerce requested the meeting so that the business community could ask questions and share its concerns with the City Staff, etc.

The LCR announced that the City Council members would attend. The meeting was scheduled for Wednesday, May 24, four days later.

Monday, May 22

At 8:30 am, your reporter called the popular Chamber Director, Dennille Decker, to discuss the Chamber meeting and the new information that the City Council will be in attendance.

Ms. Decker said she was surprised by the news, but took it in stride. She said, "I think that's great if they are going to be in attendance because they can hear both sides of what the business community is feeling first hand instead of getting it passed through the City Manager or City Engineer."

Ms. Decker continued, "If there are concerned members of the community that feel that they would get more out of this session than one of the others, they won't be kept out of this meeting... This is something we set up for our members, but if there are other people in the community that want to hear what is said, I can't tell them they can't."

Ms. Decker concluded, "In light of the information that was in the newspaper yesterday, that members of the Council will be there, we will abide by all Florida sunshine laws and welcome any interested parties to attend. I don't think it will be an issue."

The City Clerk

Shortly after speaking with Ms. Decker, your reporter contacted the City Clerk, Audrey Sikes.

Ms Sikes said, "I did not know all the members were going to be there. I just read that this morning."

Your reporter said, "I am looking for some kind of statement from the City that if members of the public show up they are not going to be stopped from attending the meeting."

Ms. Sikes responded, "I can't give you that. I will check with the City Manager."

City Councilman Jake Hill

After speaking with Ms. Sikes, your reporter spoke with Councilman Jake Hill. Councilman Hill told the Observer, "I think it’s a good idea for the Council members to attend. It is important that they hear the concerns of the business community and this meeting makes that easy. I plan to attend and will make every effort to attend, unless I have an emergency."

Mayor Steve Witt

Your reporter next called Lake City Mayor Steve Witt. His secretary said he was in Jacksonville and she would give him the message. When your reporter mentioned that he didn't want to bother him on his cell phone, Mr. Witt's secretary said, "He's in court, he wouldn't answer it anyway."

Chamber President Brad Wheeler Weighs In

At 1 pm your reporter received a call from Chamber Director Decker. On the line was Chamber President, Brad Wheeler.

Ms. Decker said she had spoken with City Manager Johnson and that Mr. Johnson had told her that he wasn't aware that the Council members were going to be there until he read it in the paper. "The bottom line is the Council members will not be in attendance," she said, adding, "I did not speak with the council members, I spoke with Wendell, who said he spoke with them."

Mr. Wheeler added, "He told us that the Council members were not going to be there. "That's what we wanted from the beginning. We were doing this for the Chamber members."

Your reporter asked, "You don't think it would be beneficial for the City Council people to hear what your concerns are? You would prefer to have the City Council members not hear your concerns when it's only the business community?"

Mr. Wheeler answered, "If you want – call it a member benefit. We're putting this meeting together to gather information."

Ms. Decker added that it was not the appropriate setting to have the Council members present.

Your reporter asked, "Isn't it up to the Council whether they want to attend or not?"

Ms. Decker said, "No. It's not for them, because it's our private meeting that we're holding."

Your reporter followed up, "It's in City Hall. The City is a member of the Chamber, which makes every City Council member a member, so if the City Council members walk in, are you telling me they are going to be banned?"

Ms. Decker answered, "Are they going to be banned. Of course we won't. I don't think we are going to ban anybody."

Chamber President Wheeler added, "We are assured they are not going to show up."

Ms. Decker added that if they do show up it would make it a public meeting. This is what the executive committee [of the chamber] wanted to do."

Your reporter said, "This is an issue of great public concern for everybody, so if I got this right, 'the Executive Director of the chamber spoke with Wendell Johnson and she was assured none of the City Council members would attend." That's what you said, right?"

Ms. Decker answered, "Yes."

Councilman Hill

Your reporter spoke with Councilman Hill again. Mr. Hill said he had heard from Mr. Johnson. Mr. Hill said, "I will be there unless an earth shattering event keeps me away."

Mayor Steve Witt

At 2:30 pm your reporter heard from Mayor Witt. In a brief conversation Mayor Witt said that he had been busy and had been playing catch-up. "I'm going to make sure it's right if I'm there, but if it's not right, I won't be there... Nobody will tell me whether to be there or not. Let me check it out. Thanks for giving me the head's up."

City Manager Johnson

Beginning at 2:21 pm your reporter was in back-and-forth contact with City Manager Johnson regarding the Wednesday morning meeting in City Hall and the LCR Sunday announcement that the City Council members would be attending.

Your reporter mentioned that Councilman Hill said he is planning to attend. The City Manager did not address that issue in any of his emails.

City Manager Johnson said that the meeting announcement in the newspaper does "not constitute or meet the definition of a public notice."

The Attorney General has found that the type of notice that must be given is variable depending on the facts of the situation and the board involved and that "Publication in a newspaper may be necessary." Clearly, the newspaper published it.

The Observer asked Mr. Johnson, "Are you suggesting that the Lake City Reporter made up that the City Council members would be attending?"

Mr. Johnson responded, "No."

The Observer wrote, "I suggest to you from reading the article there is no question what the subject matter of the meeting will be, or the time."

Mr. Johnson responded," The article did not say it was a public meeting. It is not a public meeting it’s a COC (Chamber of Commerce) meeting. They are just holding it at city hall."

Your reporter asked, "You did not answer the following questions: do you plan to share what you have learned from the Chamber business community with the City Council members that are not in attendance?"

Mr. Johnson answered, "Of course I will share appropriate information to the Council; why wouldn’t I?"

If Mr. Johnson shares information from the meeting that will be used in the decision making process of the Council members, he is being used as a conduit. That is frowned upon by both the Florida Attorney General and the Courts.

The Observer: "If the Council members attend the Workshop, will you prevent the public from attending?"

Mr. Johnson: "Council has advised me they are not going to attend. It’s a COC meeting for COC members only."

The Observer: "Have you advised the City Council members to stay away?"

Mr. Johnson: "I don’t give this kind of advice to my Council."

The Observer: "If Councilman Hill attends the meeting, as he suggested he would...., will you ban the public from attending?"

Mr. Johnson: "It’s a COC meeting. Council has advised me they are not going to attend. I don’t have authority to BAN attendance by anyone at the COC meeting."

Epilogue

According to the LCR today, the Chamber's Executive Committee met yesterday and decided to keep the meeting closed to the public.

 Additionally, the LCR reported that it was last Thursday that they had asked the Council members if they were going to attend the meeting.

Lake City/Columbia County: among chicken wing emporiums and new jobs that don't pay a living wage, the legend continues.

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