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Lake City

Lake City Reporter Gets It Wrong Again: "It wasn't a roadblock," Councilman Jefferson

LAKE CITY, FL – Thursday's June 28, 2018 special City Council meeting was the Friday morning main topic of Columbia County's mainstream print media, the Pravda of North Florida and the self-proclaimed only Columbia County news source that you can trust, the Lake City Reporter. While there were a few rocky moments, in which the only City Manager candidate left standing and ultimate designee Joe Helfenberger was "cool – calm – and collected," Friday's headline accused Councilmen Jefferson and Hill of "trying to throw up a last-minute roadblock."

A look at the facts
Making it up as they went along

The total hiring process to replace retired City Manager Wendell Johnson has been flying by the seat of its pants since the beginning. There were no rules and no written plan approved by the Council. They made it up as they went along.

After the months long process two candidates, Danielle Judd and Joe Helfenberger were in a dead heat for the top spot. While the City had made provisions for alternates in its deliberations for the final 5 candidates, it made no provision for an alternate if one of the two finalists dropped out.

After the Lake City Police Department showed up with guns and badges in Green Cove Springs on June 21 to investigate Ms. Judd, she withdrew herself from consideration.

(The LCPD candidate investigations will be covered in another article).

On June 22, with the dead heat between Ms. Judd and Mr. Helfenberger broken, the third ranked candidate David Kraus technically moved into the second spot.

With the "Meet & Greet" scheduled for June 27, there were some that thought Mr. Kraus should have been invited to that, and to the final round of interviews scheduled for 1 pm the following day.

Unfortunately, there were no rules and City Attorney Fred Koberlein, a self proclaimed municipal law expert, who is not bashful about making suggestions to keep the boards he represents out of trouble, was silent.

With no rules, Mr. Helfenberger was proceeding alone as the only candidate. Imagine one team in the World Series.

However, way back in the beginning, the City Council determined that it wanted two finalists at the end of the process.

Mayor Witt gave Glenel Bowden time to make his presentation.

What really happened during Thursday's special meeting?

After a ten minute appearance by former City Councilman Glenel Bowden, which had nothing to do with the city manager search, the Council got down to the business at hand.

In short order, Councilman Jake Hill addressed the Council, "I'd like to make a motion to bring our third candidate back for an interview since our second candidate or first candidate withdrew from the process. I'd like to make a motion to bring Mr. Kraus back for an interview."

Mayor Witt asked for a second.

Councilman Jefferson

Councilman Jefferson followed up, "I have no problem with that. I second it."

Community Activist Sylvester Warren left the chamber and reentered a short time later.  He walked to the front row of the gallery; whispered something into the ear of Lake City Reporter editor Robert Bridges; Mr. Bridges nodded; and Mr. Warren took his seat.

Mayor Witt asked for discussion.

Councilwoman Moses asked, "Have we talked to Mr. Kraus?"

Councilman Hill said, "I feel he would come back for an interview."

Councilwoman Moses said, "I don't know. I talked to him yesterday."

Councilman Hill replied, "We said we want the City and the County to begin working together. I think this would be a good way to start. Mr. Kraus is right now employed with the County."

Councilman Hill added, "I do feel like he would come back for another interview."

Mayor Witt asked, "But you don't know that? You haven't talked to him since?"

Councilman Hill responded, "I talked to him [last] Thursday. He was still pretty much interested in the job."

Mayor Witt:  (completely unintelligible)

Councilwoman Moses

Councilwoman Moses relayed her version of her conversation with Mr. Kraus, "I had a discussion with him yesterday and he was not -- maybe some other positions."

Councilman Hill stated, "He could tell you."

There was more completely unintelligible discussion. City Attorney Fred Koberlein continued to fail to advise his clients that the Sunshine Law makes inaudible conversations potentially unlawful. Mayor Witt must have asked for a vote because the City Clerk began polling the board.

The motion to bring Mr. Kraus, who was now the second finalist of over fifty candidates, back for a second interview failed 2-3. Mayor Witt cast the deciding vote.

Mr. Helfenberger came to the podium and explained to the Council why he would be good for Lake City. His demeanor was level and laid back and he stood on his past record.

In response to a question by Councilwoman Moses, Mr. Helfenberger said he learned that there are districts in the City that aren't having their needs met.

Councilwoman Moses said, "I'm like Mr. Hill. I think one of the most important things that we want is someone that can get along with the County and get along with other entities in our community. You know -- we had some questions about that... I don't want somebody commin' in forceful and you know, like you say, and will work with the County."

"I'm Willing to be Scrutinized"

Mr. Helfenberger replied, "I'm a change agent and change agents will be scrutinized. I am willing to be under that scrutiny to help the community advance. A lot of managers are not willing to be under scrutiny and do very little. I will advance your projects and issues in a fair and equitable manner and take the community to the next level."

In response to a question from the Council, Mr. Helfenberger said he had to give his present employer 15 days notice.

Once again somebody made a mostly inaudible motion to negotiate a contract with Mr. Helfenberger. It was impossible to hear who it was and most of what was said.

It appeared the motion was to have Mr. Helfenberger negotiate with Attorney Koberlein and then bring back a contract.

Your reporter, after being recognized, brought up the hinky city contract process under Attorney Koberlein, wherein most times final contracts never come back before the Council.

Sylvester Warren announced from the audience, "I spoke with Mr. Kraus. He's on the way. If you would give him an opportunity to speak. He said that that conversation was misconstrued between him and Ms. Moses. He is way more than interested. He's leaving his County office -- should be here in a matter of a few minutes."

Mayor Witt did not recognize Mr. Warren and continued with the meeting.

Mayor Witt: "We have a motion. Ms. Sikes, will you call the roll?"

It was obvious that Mr. Hill was not happy as he fidgeted in his seat. When it came to his vote, Mr. Hill paused, looked over at Mr. Helfenberger, and voted yes.

The vote was unanimous. If the City and Mr. Helfenberger can agree on contract terms, Joe Helfenberger will be Lake City's next city manager.

It Wasn't Over Yet
Attorney Koberlein speaks

Attorney Koberlein asked to have "someone with me to discuss things with Mr. Helfenberger, so that those items can be flushed out and brought back to Council, rather than a back and forth costing the citizens quite a bit of money in special meetings."

Mr. Koberlein did not explain why he thought there would have to be multiple meetings.

Mr. Koberlein said, "The Council would have to designate someone; obviously that person won't have decision making authority."

It was not obvious. The Council has the power to designate the Mayor to negotiate for the Council, which is in effect what he would be doing if designated to represent them.

Mayor Witt asked, "Do we need a motion on that?"

Mr. Koberlein: "Yes."

Councilman Ward: "Mayor, I -unintelligible- that you meet with counsel -unintelligible- assist with Mr. Koberlein on this discussion."

The motion passed. Mayor Witt will be the negotiator. A contract will come back to the City Council for final modification and approval. The meeting was adjourned.

Mr. Kraus Shows Up

Five minutes after the meeting was adjourned, David Kraus showed up.

He and Ms. Moses had a brief discussion. Mr. Kraus told Ms. Moses he did not say he wasn't interested in the job as city manager.

Ms. Moses didn't agree and added that she was worried about the headline in the newspaper.

Epilogue: Post Meeting

Yesterday, Saturday morning, your reporter spoke with David Kraus. He reiterated his thought that Ms. Moses misconstrued his remarks. He continued, "I won't let this affect the way I interact with the City. This is where I live and will do everything I can to help Mr. Helfenberger be a success."

Early Sunday morning your reporter spoke with Councilmen Hill and Jefferson.

Mr. Hill said he was "not trying to roadblock anything" and he thought that the public and the City Council should "have had a choice in the final selection – that would be more than one person." Mr. Hill said he thought that the Mayor may have been swayed by Councilwoman Moses' remarks that "Kraus wasn't interested."

Mr. Jefferson's comments were along the same lines and direct. Mr. Jefferson said, "It was not a roadblock – not an attempt to block anything."

Mr. Jefferson said he thought the Mayor would have gone along with the motion, except for the comments of Ms. Moses.

Your reporter thanked Mr. Jefferson, who then said he was going off teach Sunday school.

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