Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

Real news for working families.  An online news service

County News

Olustee the Monument, April 15: A Dance by Columbia County To Deny Its Real Plan, To Wash Its Hands of the Monument

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – Thursday, April 15, the Columbia County 5 met. On its agenda was an item called "Olustee Park." There was not a scintilla of pre-meeting backup information outlining the evening’s discussion. As of Wednesday evening, April 14, the County Manager claimed there was no material to go with the agenda item "Olustee Park." The public was left in the dark.

The County 5: Did it have something to hide?
April 15, 2021, 5:30 pm: The Meeting, “Olustee Park”
Chairman Ford opened the microphone for public comment
The County 5 Takes Over the Conversation
Commissioner Toby Witt: He listens to the "real people."
• Com Hollingsworth: Demonstrates that white folks are not really good when it comes to dealing with race
Commissioner Tim Murphy stuck to his guns


On January 10, 1861, Florida was the third state to secede from the Union. Its population was 66% slaves.

On February 20, 1864, Southern Confederate soldiers defeated the North in the Battle of Olustee in Baker County.

Just shy of sixty-four years later, in 1928, a monument was erected on land owned by Columbia County to commemorate the Confederate soldiers' lost lives.

On August 10, 2020, the City Council unanimously authorized the City Manager to work with local groups to relocate the Monument in Olustee Park.

On August 21, 2020, City Manager Helfenberger sent a letter to then-County Manager Ben Scott asking the County to issue a quitclaim deed to the City for Olustee Park.

City Manager Joe Helfenberger listens to the Olustee discussion
City Manager Joe Helfenberger listens to the evening's Olustee discussion.

On September 3, 2020, the battle zone moved to the County 5 during its regularly scheduled meeting. The City had asked for a quitclaim deed to Olustee Park. The Columbia County 5 denied the deed.

On March 12, 2021, the law firm of Douglas & Douglas advised that Olustee Park belonged to Columbia County.

On March 18, 2021, County Attorney Joel Foreman advised the County 5 to “give Lake City a deed, and make them say no.” It didn’t.

On April 1, 2021, the County 5 voted not to give Olustee Park, home of the Olustee Monument, to the City.

On April 5, 2021, the City Council met and agreed it wanted the Park.

Last Thursday, April 15, 2021, the County 5 met. One of the items on its agenda was "Olustee Park."

The public was intentionally and unfairly left in the dark about this matter of great public interest and concern.

The County 5
Did it have something to hide?

This part of the story began on April 9, when the meeting agenda for the April 15 meeting was posted to the County website.

The agenda’s first “Discussion and Action” item was “Olustee Park,” for which the County provided no supporting documentation.

Your reporter immediatley called County Manager David Kraus and asked why there was no supporting documentation. He said there was none.

Your reporter asked what action The 5 was considering. He said he didn’t know.

Also asked was why City Manager Joe Helfenberger, and Sylvester Warren, who had asked to be on the agenda, were not on the agenda.

Mr. Kraus said they would be talking under “Olustee Park.”

Mr. Kraus was asked again, “Why aren’t they on the agenda?”

Mr. Kraus answered they would be speaking under “Olustee Park.”

At 4:38 pm, Thursday, April 15, the day of the meeting, a useless map was posted in the County Manager’s PowerPoint presentation. While it couldn't be clearly seen from the audience, it appeared that most of Olustee Park already was owned by the City.

New information claimed that only a section of the Park containing the Monument was owned by the County. Nothing prevented the County from giving all the Olustee Park property which it owned back to the City and keeping the small parcel on whch the Monument resided.

April 15, 2021, 5:30 pm: The Meeting, “Olustee Park”

Chairman Rocky Ford announced “Olustee Park,” and explained: “At this time we are going to ask Mr. Helfenberger to come up, but before he speaks I would just like to say, the Park [Olustee Park] is on the agenda tonight because the City Manager asked to address the board.”

Chairman Ford referenced the map projected on the screen. It was a map of the Olustee Park area. From the audience, the projected map was useless. Mr. Ford explained that the County did not own the whole Park. Not clear on the map was that the County owned the section of the Park on which sat the Olustee Obelisk (the "Monument").

Mr. Ford announced that he didn’t want the Monument or the Civil War discussed.

City Manager Joe Helfenberger addresses the County 5 about Olustee Park

City manager Helfenberger addressed the County 5: “The City of Lake City thought they owned Olustee Park for many decades. The City invested huge sums of money into a number of improvements in the Park over the years. ($800,000 including labor)… if you look at the last 50 years, the City's investment is over $2 million into Olustee Park… The City spent over $10,000 to do the research regarding legal ownership… the City has a large financial and ongoing commitment to Olustee Park. We would love if you would give the Park to the City.”

Mr. Helfenberger also told Chairman Ford that at the last City Council meeting, the Council voted 4 to 1 to accept the Park from the County.

See: Olustee - ‘Second Thoughts’: Commissioner Robby Hollingsworth Shows Up At City Council...

Chairman Ford opened the microphone for public comment

AJ Dariano said, "Let's put a stipulation that the Monument stays where it's at… The Monument stays. They can have the Park, period."

Seber Newsome IIISeber Newsome III said, “If you give the park back to the City, you will be responsible for what happens to the monument…”

Mr. Newsome said that if the Monument is moved, the Olustee Festival will be boycotted.

Mr. Newsome continued, “We are asking the four of you to be honorable men. Do not give in to the cancel-culture. Stay strong on this.”

Chairman reminded everyone that the Monument was not on the agenda. There were snickers in the audience.

Danny Roberts

Danny Roberts said he was 70 years old. He said the Park belongs neither to the City nor the County, but "to the people." He rhetorically asked, 'If I were a judge, 'How would I handle this?' The only way to do this honestly is let the people decide what they want to do with the Park."

Cedric Cray told The 5, “I’ve lived here for forty years in Lake City. You have a duty to do the right thing. I ask, give it to the City. Let the debate happen there because the City has been maintaining it.”

Neil MilesNeil Miles addressed The 5, "When you limit somebody regarding the Park, you're puttin' the cart ahead of the horse. Why give away something that you own? That's the reason all these people are really here. Settle the issue of the thing that you banned tonight from me speaking. Let us find a compromise that would be agreeable to everyone in Columbia County. Passing the quitclaim deed to the City, I'd say you're doing it a little early. That's pretty much the way that people in Columbia County think, not everybody, but most of em'.”

Glenel BowdenCity resident Glenel Bowden said he was 71 years old and remembered the segregation in Lake City, advising that he had graduated from Richardson high school in 1967 when it was segregated. "I went to Vietnam and came back (1969); this community was still segregated. I would encourage you to honor the request from the City. Give them the Park. They have maintained it. This idea that if you donate the Park there's gonna be trouble -- trouble come in all kinda ways. Thank you, sir.”

Mary PhillipsMary Phillips told The 5, “Columbia County resident, District 4. This is history. That Park belongs to the County. You all have the ability to do something that is right, right now. If you give that Park back to the City, you know what their intentions are. You all know better.”

Vanessa GeorgeCity resident Vanessa George took a different approach: “This country is hurting right now. We know why a lot of people are here saying for the County to keep the Park. This is part of the reason why this country is being divided. You have to do the right thing. Just because there is a majority in this room now, this is not how the majority of Americans feel. Do the right thing. This is not your majority. Give the Park to the City."

Kyle GreenCity resident Kyle Green told The 5: “This Monument was never even an issue until late last year and summer when a couple of people in Columbia County like to cause problems made a big deal of it. This Monument has been there for many years. No one's ever cared. No one's even blinked an eye at it until monuments started going down all across America. I ask that you guys make the right decision. Please keep the Monument; keep the land that the Monument is on. Thank you.”

Wayde AlfordWayde Alford addressed The 5: “I’ve spoken to a lot of reenactors across the country. They say they are not coming back here if the Monument is disturbed. We went through this in Putnam County. We kept our Monument. It's divisive. It's hard. It seems to me you're trying to draw this line between the land and the Monument, and then, like Pontius Pilate, just wash your hands of the matter and let it fall on somebody else. The right thing: grow a spine; take care of what's there. Thank you.”

Next up was community activist and businessman Sylvester Warren. Chairman Ford wasted no time and addressed Mr. Warren, “Sylvester, I will warn you, keep it civil.”

Mr. Warren said, “Whoa – you didn’t tell nobody else that. Chairman -- I mean…"

Chairman Ford cut him off, “You got two minutes.”

Sylvester WarrenMr. Warren continued, “Wow -- it kinda shows where some people heart and attitude is. Mr. Chairman, it's unfortunate that you feel that way and think I'm about antics. I'm about unity and equality. It's just unfortunate that you can't see, nor can you understand that, and that may be outside your scope of education.”

Mr. Warren continued, “You said no one is supposed to talk about the Monument. It was all about the Park. What I'm going to do for you, Mr. Chairman, I'm going to respect that. I'm not going to talk about the Monument. Let's talk about the Park.

Mr. Warren mentioned that Chairman had previously said that the City invested for all those years; he thought they should own the Park. Mr. Warren added that the City had gone above and beyond to prove that it wanted the Park.

Mr. Warren said, “This should be about men keeping their word.”

Chairman Ford called Luca Harvey. On her way to the microphone, she was warned by Chairman Ford, “I’m going to give you the same warning. Keep it civil.”

Ms. Harvey said, “What I’m going to say is about the Park. We're not going to mention the other parts of this when we all know that that's what we're all thinking about.” Ms. Harvey then spoke about the Monument.

John HarrisonThe last speaker, John Harrison, spoke about God, history, and slavery:

God respects everything there is about history. He ain't going to cancel no history or no culture. He's not going to cancel anything, but we're all going to have to give an account. And he loves us beyond our scope of understanding.

People in that Park lived and died, that are buried out there, for the freedom of this country -- the South…

Those people that came over here on the Mayflower and brought those black people with em', from where, the continent of Africa. That was gracious. They weren't perfect. They were sinners just like me and you, but they brought those people over here, and what happened to em'?

They were eventually set free by Abraham Lincoln.

The County 5 Takes Over the Conversation

Chairman Ford opened the conversation for the County: “The City and the County have several parcels of land that there are indeed problems with. I don't know if this is a can of worms we want to get into with the City. Two of the commissioners [City Councilmen] have indicated they are willing to take the County Court over this Park. I think it's a battle, that if it does end up in court, we definitely don't win. I know I'm not willing to spend taxpayer money on court battles that I don't think we can win. That's kinda where I'm at on this issue.”

There is nothing in any official record which indicates the City is willing to take the County to Court over the Olustee Park matter.”

It is not clear how Mr. Ford came to his legal conclusions.

County Attorney Joel Foreman
County Attorney Joel Foreman listened intently to Chairman Ford and the commissioners.

There was talk that County Attorney Foreman and City Attorney Fred Koberlein, Jr., had been communicating. Attorney Koberlein was said to have additional information which he shared with Mr. Foreman.

The amout of coaching and/or counciing Mr. Foreman provided to the County 5 before the meeting is unknown. No one volunteered the infomation.

County Attorney Foreman, who has never been bashful, did not come to the microphone and update the public on the most recent Monument-Park information and legal matters.

Commissioner Toby Witt: He listens to the "real people."

Commissioner Toby WittCommissioner Toby Witt weighed in:  “The City has maintained the Park for 70 years. We all know that… We had a vote last meeting. My vote went that way simply because there was no communications from the City… I was not clear on their intentions. If the monument issue is not there, I don't think anybody would say, looking at the history, that you should not give them their Park… I have talked to my people in District 4, and I've had people tell me, 'We don't really see why the Monument needs to be moved. We don't want the Monument moved. I get that sentiment… I'm tired of extremists on both sides.”

Commissioner Witt continued, “Let me tell you who Toby Witt listened to this week. Toby Witt listened to the real people in district 4… You make the best decision for the taxpayers in District 4.”

Commissioner Witt did not explain who the " real people" are in his District or what the "un-real people" represented. Mr. Witt, who claims he believes in less government intrusion, did not address the request by many folks from his District and all over for a vote to let the "people" decide the fate of the Monument, which everyone knows was the real object of the evening's discussion.

Commissioner Robby Hollingsworth:
Demonstrates once again that white folks are not really good when it comes to dealing with race

Commissioner Robby HollingsworthThe 5’s newest member, Robby Hollingsworth, said his piece, "This is a situation of right and wrong. Without the Monument being a part of it, is it right to take this property from the City? I don't think anybody believes that… Leave the Monument out of it because those are two different issues. There is nobody that respects a Civil War veteran more than me… Those men need to be honored… Life’s about compromise.”

Besides not mentioning the Monument by mentioning it, Mr. Hollingsworth then did what confused white people, who claim they are not racists, always do first, mention a black person. In Mr. Hollingsworth's case, it was a black woman who shared with him that the Monument in Olustee Park, the one nobody was supposed to talk about, bothered her.

Mr. Hollingsworth added, “I can't put myself in the place of a black man or woman. I don’t know what my opinion would be… Right is right. The Monument has to come later."

Commissioner Tim Murphy stuck to his guns:

 Commissioner Tim Murphy“I simply stand by my statement that I made in the previous meeting… It's Columbia County's [Monument] as a whole. It's no City; it's no County. It's Columbia County citizens'. It was dedicated to the citizens, and we are talking about statues.

We wouldn't be in this room tonight if that wasn't the point…

This is 2021. Learn by your history; don't do it again… It ain't a black-and-white issue. Quit talking about it. I agree with the chair. This is a land issue. I'll deed the property to the City in a heartbeat. But, I want the City to respect the majority of all citizens of the United States and Columbia County.

Leave the Monument where it is. Quit talking about it. Let's go on to do positive things.”

Mr. Murphy then mentioned a black man gave him advice and counsel, and that man was sitting in the room. The identity of the mystery black man was not revealed.

Veteran Commissioner Ronald Williams gave another of his long homilies. He had made his position clear throughout the Olustee Monument conversation – move it. He said, "If we keep fightin' the Civil War, we ain't never gonna get together.”

Commissioner Murphy followed up, “I say leave the statue right there and fill the rest of the Park up with statues that commemorate each and every one of them.”

Mr. Murphy made a motion to deed the Park to the City with the stipulation that the Monument remains where it is.

Mr. Murphy’s motion caught City Manager Helfenberger’s attention.

Mr. Helfenberger volunteered that some of the Council did not want the Park if stipulations were attached to the deed.

Mr. Murphy said, “Stop right there. He questioned City Manager Helfenberger's previous statement that the Council “wanted the park back.”

Mr. Helfenberger walked it back, saying four of the five City Council members wanted the Park Back.

Commissioner Hollingsworth motioned that a quitclaim deed be given to the City.

Attorney Foreman came to the microphone and said that it would be a "statutory County deed," as the County discovered it owned the property.

Commissioner Witt seconded the motion.

Chairman Ford said, “This is one of those issues [where] we keep gettin’ more and more information. I know this is an important issue to a lot of people. I know its history. But, this Board has a lot of other things that we really need to be doing. I would like to see this matter end tonight on the Park’s ownership.”

Mr. Hollingsworth's amended his motion to include the caveat that the Monument not be destroyed.

Mr. Murphy stuck to his guns. The motion passed 4-1, with Mr. Murphy voting in opposition.


Like the monument or not, it was given to the people of Columbia County. 

The County 5 represents the people of Columbia County.

The 5 did what it set out to do, wash its hands of the Olustee Obelisk and drop it back into the lap of Lake City.

Comments  (to add a comment go here) 

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.


Make a comment • click here •
All comments are displayed at the end of the article and are moderated.