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Columbia County Observer

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Lake City News

Lake City to Internet Cafe Owners: You Are Guilty Until You Prove Yourself Innocent

LAKE CITY, FL – Recently, Lake City has become a Mecca of non-living wage jobs, chicken wings, fast food emporiums, auto dealerships, shopping malls and Internet Cafes. The Lake City/Columbia County Chamber of Commerce has been leading the fight against Internet cafes – one opened very close to the Chamber's Hdq. -- and caught a friendly ear with City officials. On August 8, 2017, newly arrived City Building Department chief, Rod Hoefert, gave the Community Redevelopment Advisory Board an update on the City's fight against Internet Cafes.

Building Chief Hoefert at the CRAC


Lake City's Chief Building Official, Roddi Hoefert

On August 8, 2017, Rod Hoefert made his first public appearance at a Community Redevelopment Advisory Committee (CRAC) meeting.

Councilwoman Melinda Moses, CRAC Chairperson, introduced Mr. Hoefert, "I want to introduce Rod Hoefert, our new Growth Management Director. This group has talked about the Internet Cafes."

Mr. Hoefert explained, "I'm here 4 weeks and one day. I basically served a letter to all the Internet Cafes in the City limits to cease their business within 10 working days, citing statute 849, which says that if they're not incidental to the business -- the machines -- they're against state statute and we're rescinding their business license. We did that this afternoon and we'll see how many phone calls we get."

Lake City Had Issued Business Licenses

Lake City had previously issued business licenses to the Internet cafes; then had a change of heart.

Mr. Hoefert continued, explaining what he saw as Internet cafes [all of Mr. Hoefert's remarks as spoken]: "Not just a big room full of machines like a casino -- legal to the state. So, since they signed their documents saying they were legal and they're breaking state law, then we're rescinding their license."

Mr. Hoefert did not explain the City's evidence or give any further explanation. No one on the committee asked for one.


City Councilwoman, Melinda Moses

Ms. Moses asked, "So, how long do they have to shut down?"

Mr. Hoefert answered, "10 days."

Ms. Moses responded, "It will be interesting. What do you expect? Has this happened anywhere else that you've talked to, where they've shut down ones that existed?"

Mr. Hoefert replied, "Yes, it has happened, a lot. Sure has. Where? They shut down Jacksonville about two or three years ago -- all of em'. "

"Ocala just recently ran theirs out. City of Gainesville, where I came from -- I was there for about 10 or 11 years, they enacted an ordinance where there is no Internet cafés or gaming, or sweepstakes even allowed."

An unidentified committee member remarked, "Good."

Mr. Hoefert did not explain that in Jacksonville and Ocala it was a combination of law enforcement agencies which shut down certain Internet cafes, not a building department.

Mr. Hoefert continued, "They sort of come and go. They sort of come until people get up -- until they enact some ordinances to get em' out, and then move on to the next town. My plan is to -- if they're not [in] compliance, then they're being shut down."

Ms. Moses remarked, "OK. I think you'll have a lot of support. And there was another robbery, like yesterday, wasn't there?"

City Manager Wendell Johnson Weighs In


City Manager Johnson

Mr. Johnson told the committee, "I came to work this morning. There was two police cars down at -- one at [U.S.] 90 and one down there by the -- just outside the highway patrol station. I don't know if they were there for some issue with the facility or for a traffic stop, but it was two cars there."

Councilwoman Moses remarked, "Wow."

Monday Night at City Hall

Monday night, August 21, City Hall played to a full house and Internet café owners and supporters reacted to the Hoefert letters shutting them down.

Once again the acoustics and sound system in City Hall proved problematic and the attendees had to request the Mayor and Assistant City Manager speak up.

City Manager Wendell Johnson has been ignoring this problem since he arrived in Lake City in 2008, often times making fun of members of the audience when it was pointed out that he and some of the Council members could not be heard.

Mayor Witt began, "I know a lot of people are here about Internet cafés. I think we have something we need to bring up (unintelligible). And I turn it over to Mr. Cason."

City Manager Johnson was reported to be fishing in Destin.


Because the 3 R's of local government (Revenge-Retaliation-Retribution) are alive and well in Columbia County/Lake City, the Observer has redacted the name of the Internet Cafe owner.

Mr. Cason began, "What I wanted to say to everybody is (people in the audience began asking him to speak up). OK. I'll try to speak louder. Can you hear me now? OK. (The City Clerk gave him the portable microphone). To start with I'd like to thank everybody for coming to the meeting tonight. It's great to see a full packed house."

Mr. Cason continued, "What I want to say to you is a little bit of what you already know. The City determined that it is a violation of state law and the City issued a notice to rescind business licenses in the City for Internet cafés. Since that time, I've become aware that there have been a few Internet café owners that have filed for an appeal or hearing and you'll have those."

"I would like to defer to the City Attorney to fill in some more information about the requirements -- where we go from here. Mr. Koberlein."

City Attorney Fred Koberlein Weighs In


City Attorney Fred Koberlein, Jr.

Mr. Koberlein began, "Those who appeal the city administration's decision are entitled to a hearing -- an appellate hearing in front of the City Council itself. That hearing must be heard any time after five days after the notice of appeals have been received and so you have a little bit of time to set a hearing. I would suggest that we do it tonight."

Mr. Koberlein continued his explanation to the Council, "Code enforcement will present evidence to you and anyone that has requested an appeal may present evidence for or against the code enforcement and then you have to decide."

All the Internet cafe license holders in the City appealed the City's decision to shut them down, except three that closed their doors.

Mr. Koberlein said he thought the hearings would take about two hours, but "it could run longer."

The City Council hears and decides the appeals. The Council does not have to make a decision on the night of the hearings, but it can.

Mr. Koberlein told the Council, "I will draft you a memo as the time comes closer. Tell you what type of evidence, what the burden is, and how to proceed."

Mr. Koberlein will advise the City Council. Code Enforcement will prosecute the cases. The Internet café owners, who are the appellants, will have to bring their own attorneys, should they choose to be represented by an attorney.

Mr. Koberlein concluded his remarks, "I will tell you -- the last thing -- the City code. If anyone appeals the City administration's decision, their license continues and they can continue to operate, if they so choose, until a final decision is rendered by the City Council."

The Meeting: the appeals are on the City docket

The usual day for City Council meeting is Monday. Mr. Koberlein told the Council he was busy on Monday, September 25.

The Council agreed to hear the appeals on Tuesday, September 26 at 6 pm.

Epilogue

As of today, August 23, according to Building Chief Hoefert, 12 letters were sent to the Internet Cafes. Three cafes went out of business. Nine Cafes have appealed to the City Council.

Mr. Hoefert said that City Manager Johnson and City Attorney Koberlein are responsible for the letter that went out to the Internet Cafes.

Violations of section 849 of the Florida Statutes are criminal violations. Those violations are prosecuted by the State Attorney. See: Jeff Siegmeister State Attorney for the Third Judicial Circuit of FL: The Big Gun Weighs In

When your reporter asked Mr. Hoefert to email a copy of the letter, he was told that Wendell Johnson and the City Attorney had it, but "Growth Management had a copy somewhere."

Mr. Hoefert did email a copy of the text of the letter, however the letter on the City letterhead with Mr. Hoefert's signature was provided by an Internet café owner.

Comments  (to add a comment go here)

On August 23, 2017, a resident from Ft. White, FL wrote:

The newly hired Building Official / Director of Growth Management certainly stepped in the proverbial dog poo by overstepping his authority. In doing so he has opened the door for complaints against his license, which the city is financially responsible for in providing legal representation. Not to mention the lawsuits that will probably be brought against the city.

Building Officials are governed by Florida Statutes 468 Part XII. F.S. 468.604 specifies exactly the responsibilities of a Building Official. Nowhere in 468.604 does it mention interpretation or enforcement of F.S. 849.

Could Mr. Hoefert been acting in the capacity of Growth Management Director? Certainly, but he did list Building Official as part of his title on the letters sent the cafe owners. One could speculate this was done to intimidate and show authority. Regardless, in doing so he possibly opened himself to complaints against his license.

Now, even if he was not acting in the capacity of Building Official he still overstepped his authority in citing violations of F.S. 849. Under what authority is he making this determination? Is he a Law Enforcement Officer or in the employ of the State Attorney? Not likely.
 
What is likely is that he was following his marching orders to find a way to deal with the cafes and in his haste to impress his new boss he overstepped, grossly. But you really can't blame a guy for wanting to keep his job, can you? I mean if you were in his shoes what would you do? Well, some of us would probably try to keep our shoes clean.
 
I'm certainly not bashing the individual, rather the decisions and ways this was handled. I'm sure he was placed in a difficult position, one he wasn't used to being in working in Gainesville. He's in Lake City now and needs to learn to watch where he steps.
 
Anonymous

 

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