Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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County Special Coronavirus Emergency Meeting Ignores Health Risks to County 5, Staff, & Public

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Ignoring basic common sense, the President of the United States, the World Health Organization and others, County Manager Ben Scott and County Chairman Toby Witt, a medical professional, dug in and refused to change the venue of the coronavirus special meeting to a room where people could spread out to diminish the chance of spreading the coronavirus.


Board office of Columbia County
The County staff works here and the finance department is in rooms through a corridor. The photos were taken about 5 minutes before the special board meeting was called to order in this room. The coronavirus can live on surfaces for hours.

Sometime on Tuesday, March 17, the County announced on its meeting calendar an emergency meeting for the following day at 11 am. There wasn't any purpose given for the meeting, nor was any agenda posted to advise the public of the pendency of issues that the County 5 were to discuss.

By 2:35 Tuesday afternoon, County Manager Ben Scott knew that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss declaring a Local State of Emergency as a result of the coronavirus. That information didn't get posted to the internet until about an hour before the meeting.

The County had scheduled the meeting for the conference room in the Court House Annex, the home of the County 5.

Considering the nature of the meeting and the amount of people that were sure to attend, the conference room, a tight packed space with a dozen people in attendance was wholly inadequate and a virus trap.

At 2:41 pm, this reporter sent a message to County Manager Scott: "... You may also wish, highly advised, to hold the meeting in the TDC/Econ Dev conference room, the big one where TDC meetings are held, so folks have a little more room to spread out. Health reasons."

Mr. Scott did not respond.

On March 18, Wednesday, on the way to the meeting, your reporter contacted the County and asked if the meeting venue was changed. It wasn't, although your reporter was advised that the meeting had been moved from the small conference room to the work area of the county staff, and while larger, it also created a major health risk.

Other people had contacted the County Manager to move the meeting.

The County Manager dug in and refused.

If this wasn't screwy enough, as people arrived and it was clear that the social distancing space was not appropriate, neither the County Manager nor the County Chairman suggested moving the meeting to safer quarters.

The Meeting

Ronald Williams, Joel Foreman, Ben Scott, Toby Witt: violating the rules of social distancing
Left to right: Commissioner Williams, County Attorney Foreman, County Manager Scott, and County Chairman and health professional Toby Witt. County Attorney Foreman stood as far away as possible.

County 5 Chairman Toby Witt called the emergency meeting to order shortly after 11 am.

Shayne Morgan, the County Emergency Management Director explained the emergency authorization and announced that there were "no confirmed cases in Columbia County."

Mr. Morgan said, "FEMA has recognized the state of Florida as being eligible for category B expenses, which are the emergency protective action expenses."

Chairman Witt followed up, "I think it is highly appropriate that we declare a State of Emergency so that we are under that, so if there is, whatever reimbursement may be available from the feds in the future, we are under this and eligible for that."

County Manger Scott read the resolution. It is here.

Your reporter asked, "What are you guys going to do about the remaining meetings that you have? Everybody else in Florida, just about has cancelled meetings."Commissioner Murphy said, "Not to cut you off Stew, but we can adopt this and then I've got some questions relevant to that, too."

Commissioner Murphy turned to County Attorney Foreman, "That doesn't have to be incorporated in this resolution, does it?"

County Attorney Foreman: "This is a separate line of comment. I'll be happy to answer any questions whenever the Chair asks me... It doesn't have to be part of this resolution."

It could have been.

County Commissioner Ronald Williams
Commissioner Ronald Williams wanted the show to go on. Along with Chairman Witt, he was not in favor of canceling the Board meetings.

The resolution declaring a State of Emergency passed unanimously.

Chairman Witt then advised the rest of the County 5, "In regards to cancelling any further meetings, we have a meeting today with the Department of Health. After consulting with them, we will make a decision on whether we're going to cancel our remaining meeting for the remainder of the month."

Your reporter asked, "Where is that meeting?"

The County 5 didn't know where the meeting was.

Chairman Witt asked the County Manager for the location.

The meeting was at the Emergency Operations Center, "EOC."

The County Manager announced, "It's not a public meeting. It's not an advertised meeting."

Chairman Witt Mischaracterizes the Meeting With the Dept. of Health

Chairman Witt said, "It's just me and the Chair; representatives from the Department of Health."

Commissioner Murphy asked, "So we're not privy to it?"

Chairman Witt explained, "It's a meeting that we just called with the Dept. of Health to (unintelligible) this information. Would it make it public? No."

Your reporter followed up, "Is the meeting closed? You said the Department of Health...You're going to be there... Mr. Murphy – sounds like he wants to be there. Is there a reason that the public wouldn't be there?"

Chairman Witt mischaracterized the meeting attendees. The people in attendance were the same folks who would attend had the EOC convened the team that gathers for natural disasters. The Mayor was there, the Police Brass were there; the Sheriff was there, the Columbia County and City Fire Chiefs were there, and others.

It was not, as Chairman Witt mischaracterized, a County "staff meeting."

There was no reason to keep the press or the County Commissioners that wanted to attend from attending.

Chairman Witt explained, "It was a separate meeting already established."

Your reporter followed up, "That's not what I asked."Is there a reason that the public can't be there?"

Chairman Witt said, "We have not advertised it as a public meeting."

Your reporter asked, "If I show up, am I going to get arrested?"

Chairman Witt answered, "I'm not going to have you arrested if you show up."

The 5 was in session and could have declared the meeting open. It didn't.

In the end, it turned out that Mr. Witt may have had your reporter arrested, or just locked the door.

Canceling County Meetings
Turmoil State Wide

The discussion then veered toward canceling the scheduled County Commission meeting.

County Commissioner Ronald Williams
Commissioner Tim Murphy had reservations.

Commissioner Murphy said there was turmoil state wide. "I'm leaning towards canceling tomorrow's meeting."

Commissioner Williams said, "I hate to cancel tomorrow's meeting, we already have the agenda out."

Having an agenda does not mean a meeting has to occur.

County Attorney Foreman said he sent out a memo and explained that "Public record laws are very strict. I think Commissioner Williams point is valid. We do have an agenda out. We will be in a much larger facility... If there is an inclination to cancel meetings, I would suggest you hold those in abeyance for later meetings. There are a lot of items on the agenda tomorrow..."

By this time municipalities across the state were canceling meetings right and left.

Chairman Witt said he wanted to have the meeting.

The County's mainstream print media reporter, Carl McKinney, squeezed in between Emergency Management Director Shayne Morgan and United Way's Jennifer Anchors. The Lake City Reporter was also not concerned about social distancing. Reporter McKinney's photos, which would have shown the County's lack of concern for social distancing, did not appear in print.
The County's mainstream print media reporter, Carl McKinney, squeezed in between Emergency Management Director Shayne Morgan and United Way's Jennifer Anchors. The Lake City Reporter was also not concerned about social distancing. Reporter McKinney's photos, which would have shown the County's lack of concern for social distancing, did not appear in print.

Your reporter said, "You may not see it. You may not feel it, but it's out there. Anyone of us could be carrying it right now in this room and leaving it on Penny's monitor. [the Board's secretary].

Ms. Stanley moved away.

Your reporter said, "Yeah, you can move away, but it's already been out there."

Ms. Stanley announced to the overly occupied room, "You all can step away." (laughter)

Your reporter said, "That is clearly something that needs to be considered."

Chairman Witt said, "I think that is being considered. I think that is why you see all the drastic measures that have been taken across the state."

Chairman Witt did not acknowledge that to stop coronavirus transmission meetings across the state were being canceled.

Commissioner Murphy inquired again, "One more time Toby, what time is that meeting?

Chairman Witt answered, "1 o'clock."

Self Quarantined, Commissioner Nash Speaks Out
"Everybody else is taking the proper precautions"

Commissioner Nash appeared from inside the phone. If he hadn't spoken up, The 5 looked like they were barreling along carefree to another unsafe meeting.
Commissioner Nash appeared from inside the phone. If he hadn't spoken up, The 5 looked like they were barreling along carefree to another unsafe meeting.

Out of the phone came Commissioner Nash, "My opinion is you should cancel the meetings. Everybody else is taking the proper precautions and we're lookin' for ways to continue doin' business as usual. We are not taking the steps necessary to protect the citizens. I didn't see anything on that agenda that can't wait two or three weeks."

In the Land of the County 5, the order of the day is "go along to get along."

One could see Commissioner Rocky Ford itching to speak out. Finally, he did.

Commissioner Ford Speaks Out

Commissioner Rocky Ford. Finally, he had to speak out.
Commissioner Rocky Ford. Finally, he had to speak out.

"I'm just going to go ahead. I tend to agree with Commissioner Nash and Commissioner Murphy. I don't know why we take the chance at this point for a meeting... The CDC and the Health Department is recommending that you not gather in groups over 10 people. Why are we not going to obey that order? We are not settin' the example that we should be settin' for the rest of the community... It don't make no sense to me."

Chairman Witt asked, "Is that your motion?"

Commissioner Ford said, "That's my motion."

Chairman Witt did not ask for a second.

Commissioner Murphy asked, "So we cancel them out Joel [County Attorney Foreman], we still gotta' call a special meeting?

Mr. Foreman answered, "You can do it right now. You're in session right now."

Commissioner Ford said, "There's obviously gonna' be more than 10 people there."

An unidentified person said, "There's more than 10 people here now."

Commissioner Ford said, "We're breakin' it right now."

Chairman Witt said, "I've got a motion from Commissioner Ford."

Commissioner Murphy said, "Second"

Commissioner Williams asked, "Tell me what – I didn't hear his motion."

The motion was clarified that it was only the Thursday County 5 meeting that was canceled.

It was unanimous.

County Attorney Foreman recommended that all other meetings of boards of the County Commission should also be canceled.

They were.


Commissioners Ford and Murphy backed off wanting to attend the meeting "with the Dept. of Health."

Clearly, they had a right to attend.

Too bad they didn't. The two Commissioners might have asked some intelligent questions.

Columbia County, Florida: the legend continues.

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