Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Lake City

The Race for City Manager Now Down to Style & Substance In a Dead Heat: It's Helfenberger v Judd

LAKE CITY, FL – Beginning at 9 am and ending a little after 6 pm, the City Council soldiered through the five final candidates for the vacated city manager job. The top two finishers, Joseph Helfenberger and Danielle Judd, finished in a dead heat and have been the top two since the first tabulation by the Council. Both candidates are different in style and substance. The final decision will be made at a special meeting on June 19 after the final interviews, which will begin at 1 pm.

Working in the Sunshine
A Sticky Wicket for Ms. Judd

Over forty years ago the FL Attorney General discussed department directors and city manager's having discussions with council members on matters pending before a city council.

The AG wrote in relevant part:

"The spirit, if not the letter, of the Sunshine Law requires official decisions to be made in public after a full discussion by the members of a governmental board or commission. Additionally, it might be noted that after all of the members of the commission have verbally indicated their position on a given matter, the director alone becomes privy to information denied to the general public, i.e., the preliminary decision of the commission. Thus, I am of the view that, whenever possible, the director should refrain from calling each member of the commission separately and asking each member to state his or her position on a specific matter which will foreseeably be presented for consideration to the entire commission in open session." (emphasis added by the Observer)

The AG concluded "that a city manager could meet individually with members of a city council to discuss city business provided he does not act as a "liaison" for board members by circulating information and thoughts of individual councilmen to the rest of the board. However, for the reasons expressed above, a city manager should likewise refrain, whenever possible, from calling each member of the legislative body in order to ascertain his or her position on a particular matter pending before such body."

Of the five candidates, only Ms. Judd did not recognize the limits of private discussions with council members. Her discussion regarding consensus building appeared problematic.

Ms. Judd

When asked about working with 5 different bosses Ms. Judd responded, "I'm used to having 5 different bosses. I hold regular meetings with each member of the council so I have a good idea of where they're at on any given topic."

She continued, "Many times you will have a council member that wants to see a project championed; it may not be the same with the other four. What I do is try to find a way to get a consensus on that... I think one of the characteristics of a good city manager is knowing what you need to do to continue to move the council together as a group..."

Mr. Helfenberger

Mr. Helfenberger recognized those limits and the spirit of the Sunshine Law right up front in his response to the same question.

He said, "I operate on a consensus basis for all major projects. If I have conflicts among council members I bring issues to the council and have them let me know as a whole what the direction I should take on any given issue."

Mr. Helfenberger continued, "One of my core [principles] is transparency and I believe in informing the council, the citizens, business people before during and after major projects... If it's an important issue, I would call and make sure they are informed on it. For routine stuff I would have memos to the council... Communication is the key. You can't do enough of it."

While Mr. Helfenberger, as well as the other candidates, mentioned transparency during their interviews, any mention of "transparency" was absent during Ms. Judd's appearance before the council.

The vote: the lower the number, the higher the score.

What About Your Background
Makes You Suited to be City Manager?

Ms. Judd responded and dropped a name, "You are a full service city, not unlike the community I'm working in right now. I've got a good solid background in budget. A lot of the entities and individuals you work with I've worked with over the years... The city has had a good relationship with our legislative delegation... Our state senator is Rob Bradley and I know him very well."

Mr. Helfenberger's answer was different in tone as he mentioned that he thought his experience was a "very good fit."

Mr. Helfenberger continued, "I'm a team player, but I don't micro manage. I have held proactive press conferences. I like to keep people informed before, during and after all major projects. I've done a lot of infrastructure building – wastewater management and reclaimed water management... Relationships and trust are critical to do almost anything. I've had a very good record getting grants... I've had a lot of experience with enterprise funds... I have a lot of experience with airports and negotiating with unions. I have a high level of integrity."

Mr. Helfenberger concluded, "I provide a vision for the community based on all the input from the city council and the community and get the approval of that and seek to implement it."

The End Game: Beginning June 18

HR Director Michele Greene goes over the scores with the Council.

On June 18, beginning at 5 pm, an hour before the evening's Council meeting, both Mr. Helfenberger and Ms. Judd with be available to answer questions from the public, informally.

The Council members will be keeping an eagle eye on them and will be using that gleaned information as part of their decision making process.

The public will not have a chance to ask the candidates questions in a formal setting, which is where they normally have access to City Managers.

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