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Columbia County 5 vs. Sheriff Mark Hunter

The School District Was Their Foundation of Self Governance. Now There Is a Public Mess on Display.

Rocky Ford and Mark Hunter
Coluumbia County Observer photo and graphic

COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – At times during the November 16 meeting of the County 5, it was difficult to tell if the bimonthly meeting of the governing body of Columbia County was a campaign rally for Sheriff Hunter or an official meeting of the County 5 – the five men who govern Columbia County. Columbia County is not high on electing women.

County Commission Chairman Rocky Ford grew up in Fort White in the South end of Columbia County, attended Columbia County public schools, went to Columbia County High School, joined a family business, and eventually, in 2018, ran for County Commissioner of District 2 and won.

Columbia County Sheriff Mark Hunter grew up in Lake City, attended Columbia County public schools, went to Columbia County High School, began working in a warehouse, worked his way up into management, and then went into law enforcement in 1994. He first ran and was elected Sheriff in 2008.

The early lives of both men, as well as the rest of the County 5, have similar educational early life stories.

AristotleAristotle Called It

Aristotle said, "Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man."

Since 2006, this reporter has followed the historical inability of Columbia County School District graduates to follow the basic rules of self-government. Yes, while Columbia County's good ole' boy cronyism and backroom dealing is legendary, all the elected folks in power, from the County 5 to the Clerk of the Court to the Sheriff, obtained their foundations of self-government and ethics in great measure from the Columbia County School District.

The recent battles between the County 5 and the Sheriff underscore the effect of the school system.

All County officials had to do was read their own rules, rules which were approved by the County 5, and the recent tsunami between The 5 and the Sheriff could have been avoided.

The Observer did not cover or view this year’s budget hearings and the interaction between the County 5 and Sheriff Hunter. Reports were not so good.

Sheriff Hunter disagreed with how the County handled his budget request and the subsequent results.

The Sheriff's Letter To His Personnel

On September 22, 2023, Sheriff Hunter wrote a one-and-a-half-page letter explaining his side of the Sheriff's budget shortfall to his employees. Sheriff Hunter, “We have worked very hard over the years to remain competitive with our compensation plan. I will continue to request what I feel is needed to do.”

Sheriff Hunter concluded, "It would appear that we are at the mercy of the BCC who has in years past let their own employees go years without any pay increases other than occasional bonuses. So in light of the BCCs lack of support, we are forced to acquiesce to their inconsistent and undependable system of employee compensation.”

Someone gave Commissioner Ford a copy of the Sherriff’s letter. Commissioner Ford was not happy. The letter looked as though it were a screenshot from a phone. It had someone's finger on the page. Why Commissioner Ford did not ask the Sheriff for a copy is unknown.

On Monday at 5:08 pm, October 2, County Manager David Kraus emailed Sheriff Hunter: "Will you be attending the BOCC meeting on Thursday morning? Some of the Commissioners have received copies of your letter to your personnel and disagree with your analysis on the pay raise issue. They indicated that it will be discussed at the meeting.”

Sheriff Hunter emailed Mr. Kraus back a little over an hour later, “I will be at a scheduled event that I cannot get out of. As always any Commissioner that wants to discuss an issue is more than welcome to contact me."

At 7:10 pm, Mr. Kraus emailed back, "Thank you."

The County 5 was set to meet three days later at 9:30 am.

County Attorney Joel Foreman watches the County 5 in action
County Attorney Joel Foreman is the parlimentarian of the Board. He rarely advises them about the rules he cobbled together and the Board approved.

The item never made it onto the October 5 agenda. While it could have been added by The 5 at the beginning of the meeting – it wasn't. The County 5 is famous for this kind of 12th-hour behavior.

Forty-five minutes into the meeting, after all the agenda items had been taken care of, Chairman Ford had a rabbit up his sleeve for the public.

Chairman Ford said, “That's everything on the agenda. Board, I want to read a letter that was brought to my attention Tuesday, I guess, of this week.” He read Sheriff Hunter’s September 22 memo.

The County rules do not allow this “pull the rabbit out of the hat” behavior. Everyone knew or was about to know that Sheriff Hunter would not be at the meeting. Not one of the County 5 said, "This is not right. It's not on the agenda. Let's schedule the meeting when Sheriff Hunter can attend, and everyone in the public can be on the same page.”

After almost 20 minutes of Board discussion, Commissioner Murphy said about the Sheriff's letter, "I'm offended to [sic] it."

Commissioner Ford said the County provided a budget for the Sheriff. Commenting on how the Sheriff spent the money, "It was what he chose to do," Mr. Ford said.

Commissioner Williams said, “Maybe the employees need a new boss.”

Two weeks later, the Legislative Delegation met at Florida Gateway College.

The Legislative Delegation:
While the Sheriff’s Budget Issues Were Causing Heartburn in the Background, Sheriff Hunter Spoke About Budget Issues With Senator Bradley and Representative Brannon.

Columbia County Legislative Delegation: Senator Jennifer Bradley and Repersentative Chuck Brannon
Senator Bradley and Representative Brannon listen to County Chair Rocky Ford. Rather than summarize the County's proposals, he read the broshure word for word.

On October 23, 2023, the Legislative Delegation met in Columbia County. County Chairman Rocky Ford went on and on for twenty minutes, asking the Delegation for everything but the kitchen sink. Representative Brannon joked about “Rocky” taking his “asking to the extreme.”

Sheriff Hunter was waiting in the wings to speak next.

By now, well known in some circles was the Sheriff’s position on the law enforcement special legislative appropriation: the County 5 had supplanted the special appropriation [$331,374], using the money instead to fund the county budget. If the Legislative Delegation knew about the controversy between County 5 and the Sheriff, it wasn't talking.

However, after Commissioner Ford concluded and before Senator Bradley invited Sheriff Hunter to the microphone, the Senator spoke about the importance of the legislative special law enforcement appropriation to fiscally constrained smaller counties. Coming out of the blue, this did not appear to be an accident.

Sheriff Hunter addressed the Columbia County Legislative Delegation as he does every year. This year, he didn't go on and on. Among the things, he spoke about the salaries at the Sheriff’s Office.

link to delegation audio clip

November 2, 2023: Everyone Violates the County 5 Approved Rules. No One Is Embarrassed

The County 5 is homeless. For decades, it had the money to build a meeting center with state-of-the-art broadcast facilities, but chose instead to meet at the School Board Admin. Complex, which had fallen behind the times as the world went virtual. Now, the School District is making an effort to catch up, but The 5 are still at the mercy of the District schedules. Its facility in the Supervisor of Elections complex has demonstrated its substandard audio recording capability, resulting in the public being left in the dark, unable to understand what folks are talking about much of the time.

The County rule concerning agenda preparation is clear, in writing, and approved: Agenda material with backup must be turned in 8 days before a scheduled meeting. Once the meeting is published to the County website (required by the County Charter) the agenda is closed except for emergency items.

The County rules do not accommodate Constitutional Officers. Sheriff Hunter is a Constitutional Officer.

Sheriff Hunter provided two requests for budget amendments for the November 2, County 5 meeting. His requests were well within the County’s published rules. Both requests were copied to the Legislative Delegation.

Neither the Sheriff nor the County provided any backup material before the November 2 County meeting.

However, on meeting day, the County 5 came loaded for bear, never mind the requirement that all backup material “must be turned in 8 days before a scheduled meeting.”

In law, “must” is not a discretionary word. “Must” is considered the “clearest way to express a requirement or obligation.” [plainlanguage.gov]

County management has allowed information on the agenda as long as it arrives before it is published to the County website. While not within the rules, no one had thought this small extension of time was unfair.

County Attorney Joel Foreman ignored the rules completely and provided a memo dated November 1 – one day before the meeting.

County Manager David Kraus ignored the rules, providing a letter to the County 5 dated November 1 – one day before the meeting.

Former County auditor, financial advisor, and consultant (yes, all one person), legendary North Florida "Go To" auditor Dick Powell, was paid to provid a slide deck. Mr. Powell is now only a consultant.

Mr. Powell's information presented at the meeting was misleading, i.e., comparing the County Road Department to the Sheriff's Office. While the Sheriff's budgets are based on zero-based budgeting, which means the Sheriff starts at zero every year, the Road Department carries over its fund balances from year to year. It has other funds that are carried over building up reserves.

Sheriff Hunter also provided a last-minute slide at the meeting. Among other things, Sheriff Hunter said, “The state appropriations which I felt and I think the state intended that money to be in addition to what the County funds public safety.”

The Sheriff’s position was that the County owed him $175,342 of school district funds deposited with the County for the Sheriff’s SRO commitment to the district.

Sheriff Hunter was also requesting $331,374, which he said represented the state-appropriated law enforcement salary monies that the board used to supplant the 5% increase in his personal services budget.

After the Sheriff's five-minute presentation, he asked if The 5 had any questions. It didn’t.

County Manager Kraus came to the microphone and told The 5 that the Sheriff's request for the appropriated law enforcement salary monies was "disingenuous and does not accurately reflect the true state of the adopted budget for the Sheriff's Office." Mr. Kraus also claimed that the County’s adopted budget did not violate the law.

A one sided laundry list

County manager Kraus also went through a laundry list of items that the County claimed supported the Sheriff's Office. The County left out that the upgrades also support other agencies.

An examination of those items shows that the upgrade to the public safety radio system benefited all first responders in the County and those who would come to the County and need those services – not just the Sheriff.

The Sheriff's crime scene/evidence/maintenance/building funding came from the Sheriff's year-end monies and a state appropriation. If this ever gets done, it will benefit the law enforcement agencies in the region.

The improvements to the 911 infrastructure benefit everyone, not just the Sheriff.

Finally, the funds for an additional public safety tower in Suwannee Valley benefit all County and other emergency services.

The only questionable funded item on the County slide was the tower at the Sheriff's office, called "the nub."  The tower is too low to be effective, even if paid with Sheriff's Office year-end funds.

Richard Powell, the County's Auditor for Decades, Suddenly Finds a New Way to Compare the Sheriff's Office to the Road Department

Richard Powell made his presentation. His comparison to the Sheriff's Office failed on many levels. Mr. Powell did not compare budgets, did not recognize the Sheriff is mandated by law to zero-based-budgeting, did not recognize that the Sheriff's Office employs about twice as many folks as the Road Department, that the Sheriff is not a department of the County, and Sheriff's Deputies have a very different job than the Road Dept. employees.

Mr. Powell opined that the Sheriff's unexpended balances could be considered recurring funds. Florida law requires that all "unexpended balances" at the end of each fiscal year be returned to the County for deposit into the County fund from which the money came.

With the recent change in the law, which Mr. Powell did not mention, the Sheriff is now able to move money between his three silos. The amount of money returned to the County diminished between 2022 and 2023, reflecting how the Sheriff budgets and expenses his money. There is no way to tell how much money will have to be returned in future years.

Mr. Powell, The 5’s consultant, did his job to cast doubt on the Sheriff’s budgeting practices. The Powell firm had been auditing the Sheriff’s Office forever. Not once in all that time did Mr. Powell mention problems with Sheriff Hunter’s budgeting practices.

Commissioner Murphy got into a long diatribe about “supplanting.” This word, which the Legislative Delegation picked up, resulted in calls to the County.

After much back and forth between the Sheriff and Commissioners Murphy and Ford, Sheriff Hunter said, "We go that $331k [the legislative appropriation]. I'm just askin' you to give us the 5% that you gave everybody else – the whole 5%. You guys have the authority to say yea or nay. I'm asking you for it. Help us. This is going to help us retain these people at our Sheriff's Office."

After more cross-talk – the County rule is a County Commissioner needs permission to talk from the Chairman – Chairman Ford said, “We’ll put it on the agenda.”

Chairman Ford: "We'll put it on the agenda." He didn't. Instead he took it off.

A little while later, Chairman Ford said, “For him [Sheriff] to say we don't support the Sheriff's office – it's just not right. And frankly, I'm tired of it."

Commissioner Ronald Williams
Long time Commisssioner Ron Williams.

Commission Williams said, “I don't know whether we was accused of doin’ something wrong, but when the state senator call you, and question your budget and your budget process, and about the use of the money that was designated through the Legislature to a physically strained county sheriff department – somebody told somebody somethin’.”

Commissioner Everett Phillips weighed in, "I don't want to see these guys get deprived of what we supposed to be giving them, and I don't know how to correct the problem other than give him the money and somehow or another make him give it to them."

Chairman Ford said, “You can't make him do anything. Let’s move on.”

Commissioner Williams asked, “We goin’ to put that on the next agenda, Mr. Kraus? The budget amendment."

A few minutes before (read up), Chairman Ford said, "We'll put it on the agenda."

Mr. Kraus said, “I was gonna do budget amendment number two.”

From the conversations, Sheriff's budget amendments, one and two, appeared to be headed to the next agenda.

The 5 could have done it by motion to make it official, but they didn’t.

November 3, 2023: The Next Day

Sheriff Mark Hunter
Chairman Ford kept Sheriff Hunter off the agenda. No one can remember a Columbia County Sheriff being kept off an agenda. It is well known in the inner circles that Mr. Ford is backing another candidate in the next election.

On November 3 at 9:00 am, the Sheriff’s Office Finance Director Kim Nikola emailed County Manager Kraus: “The Sheriff is requesting that he be placed on the agenda on the 16th as well to get clarification on our Budget Amendment #1 request.”

Ms. Nikola’s request met all County time limit requirements and was nonnegotiable.

Turning back the hands of time, in December 2010, the County's practice and policy were specific: "Citizens desiring to be placed on the agenda shall request to do so no later than 7 days prior to the meeting agenda on which they desire to be placed. The Chair may waive the 7 day requirement for cause."

The Sheriff's request to be added to the agenda met all the requirements. If the County wanted backup material, it could have inquired. One does not need backup material to be placed on the agenda. One only needs backup material if one is going to use it.

On November 13, the Sheriff finally heard back from the County Manager: “BA #2 is on the Consent Agenda for Thursday night. Unfortunately, the request to revisit Budget Amendment #1 was not included on the Agenda.”

Remember (read up), on November 2, “After more cross-talk… Chairman Ford said, "We'll put it on the agenda." The “it” was Sheriff’s budget amendment one.

This reporter understands that Sheriff Hunter was included on the November 16 agenda, and Commissioner Ford had the Sheriff removed.

November 16 at the County 5: It was more of the same.

Commissioner Everett Phillips
Commissioner Everett Phillips. Lately, Mr. Phillips has been contributing more.

Violating the County's rules is simple, particularly when one doesn't know what they are or, in Columbia County, doesn’t care.

Consent agendas are routine business generally reserved for ministerial acts such as approving minutes. Columbia County has a rule regarding budget amendments: any budget amendment over $20,000 is not considered a ministerial act and goes on the regular agenda.

The November 16 budget amendment for the Sheriff's Office, BA 24-10, was added to the agenda on November 6. The amount was $104,342. The Amendment ended up on the consent agenda.

According to the County rules, the Sheriff's budget amendment should have been added to the regular agenda. It wasn't.

Also, during the November 16 meeting, the Sheriff chose to appear and speak during the public comment segment of the meeting.

It was not pretty. Chairman Ford requested a bunch of financial data from the Sheriff, which, according to the Sheriff's Finance Director, the County already had.


Columbia County meetings are becoming popular on the County’s YouTube channel. Poor audio, cross-talk, and the inability to view presentations are not keeping people away. In some instances, they may be tuning in just to see the latest muck up. While the numbers aren’t staggering, people are viewing Columbia County online.

In many instances, what the public is viewing is not pretty. The County fathers should consider cleaning up their act.

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