Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

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Lake City News

City Attny Koberlein vs. City Manger Helfenberger: Which Way Will the City Council Go?

LAKE CITY, FL – Tucked away on Monday night's City Council agenda was the issue of paying a road contractor for work completed on time and on budget. City Manager Joe Helfenberger said it was "a job well done" and the bill should be paid. City Attorney Koberlein said, 'don't pay the bill'.

The Players

City Manager Joe HelfenbergerCity Manager Joe Helfenberger: unflappable, knowledgeable, wants to do things by the book, follows the Sunshine Law, straight up, answers questions, looking to move Lake City forward with open government. Mr. Helfenberger is hired by the City Council and is responsible for hiring all City employees except the City Clerk and the City Attorney.

Lake City, City Attorney Fred Koberlein, Jr.
City Attorney Fred Koberlein, Jr., listens to the speakers.

City Attorney Fred Koberlein, Jr.: Mr. Koberlein is a self proclaimed expert in municipal government. His faux pas are ignored by the City Council. He has a short fuse, but can also be friendly. Many times he cannot be heard, which is a violation of the Sunshine Law. There are times when he seems unprepared. He may be lobbying the City Council members, or at least some of them. The City Attorney is hired by the City Council. Mr. Koberlein is also the attorney for the Lake Shore Hospital Authority, which is a conflict.

The City Council: there are four district council members and the mayor, who is elected at large.

The Issue & Facts

Sections of four City streets were excavated; water and waste water (sewer) pipes were replaced due to the crumbling of terracotta pipes, lead pipe water supply lines feeding the Lake Shore Hospital, and other issues.

The excavations were close by the Wilson Park redevelopment project. Curt's Construction was already on that job and Public Works Director Thomas Henry attempted a change order to include the adjacent road repairs.

The change order was rejected and Mr. Henry put out a request for quotes from three contractors: Curt's Construction, Boone Construction, and Anderson Columbia.

The quotes were returned. Curt's Construction (quote date July 10, 2019) was the lowest at $54,790.64. C.A. Boone Construction came back with a quote (August 13, 2019) of $56,720. Anderson Columbia, which may be Florida largest road construction company, came back with a quote (undated) of $96,000.

The City's Procurement Policy (revised 4/26/2018) states in relevant part: "For purchases of $20,000 or more, formal bids or solicitations shall be obtained."

Lake City Public Works Director Thomas Henry
Public Works Director Thomas Henry listens to the proceedings.

Public Works Director Thomas Henry did not abide by the City approved Procurement Policy.

The City Council Meeting

Forty-seven minutes after the meeting began the payment for the road construction came before the Council.

City Manager Helfenberger told the Council:

"If you're looking to consider paying this bill though the CRA, this would have to be sent to the CRA because otherwise we would be kind of acting improperly if the CRA is supposed to consider it - according to the City Attorney (Koberlein). If not, you can go ahead, but the CRA I believe has some funds there that could cover the bill or the majority of the bill. My recommendation, if you do decide to pay the bill, is to pay it out of the CRA. I think we want to do it as soon as possible, so I wouldn't put it off any longer than the very next meeting -- at the beginning of the meeting we have a CRA meeting, if you wanted to go that route."

City Councilman Jake Hill was recognized, "I agree that we move it to the next meeting, but was the paving satisfactory?"

City Manager Helfenberger responded, "Yes, it was done well."

Mayor Witt asked, "Does anybody have a problem with doing that?"

There was no motion to postpone or table the discussion.

City Attorney Koberlein ignored the situation and the generally accepted rules for laying something aside for a later date. (See: Janice Strand's (professional registered parliamentarian)  Parliamentary Pointers for postponing and issue.)

Mayor Witt then opened the floor for discussion from members of the public.

Members of the Public

Barbara LemleyBarbara Lemley addressed the Council:

"I have known Thomas Henry for several years in a public capacity. I have no reason to question what he did. I think he thought what he was doing was for a public purpose and to the best of my knowledge he has always put the residents of the City first... When a project involves the underground you do not know what you will find until you uncover it and dig in."

Glenel Bowden addressed the Council:

Glenel Bowden"I rise to talk about how we got to this point... Just to say we are going to pay this bill and pass it on to the CRA. Those of us who get the copy of the agenda know there is more to it than that... That need to be explained in some detail as to how that is going to be addressed going forward... I've never seen $50k quotes... The process clearly has not been followed."

Mr. Bowden said that if the job had gone out to bid, "it might not have been completed on time, but at least it would have been open and transparent."

Mr. Bowden completed his presentation by telling the Council, "It just don't smell good. I'll leave it at that."

In his October 30 letter to the City Council, City Manager Helfenberger wrote, "The work was done well and there are no outstanding issues. The right thing to do is to pay the bill. There is enough money remaining in the CRA Fund designated for Wilson Park to cover the bill."

However, earlier in his correspondence, City Manager Helfenberger wrote that the roads that were paved were "not part of the Wilson Park Improvement Project."

At this time, it is not clear if the Wilson Park Project funds are dedicated, restricted, or as a result of the bond issue can only be spent to improve the park.

In a letter dated October 17, City Attorney Fred Koberlein wrote that he had received an invoice for work completed by Curt's Construction.

Mr. Koberlein wrote, "The invoice was sent to us with the request that we prepare a resolution for its payment after the work had been preformed."

The letter did not say who had sent the invoice.

The City Council did not appear to know who sent the invoice for the road project to Mr. Koberlein and Mr. Koberlein was not volunteering any information.

Sylvester Warren and Vanessa George
Community Activist Sylvester Warren and former City Council candidate Vanessa George review the agenda. Mr. Warren sent a scathing email to the City regarding the road paving process. He chose not to speak. However, he told the Observer, "Thomas Henry was trying to do the right thing and got it wrong. I discussed the issue with the City Manager and was satisfied with his actions."

The Road Project

The road project was clearly done for a public purpose. The word on the street was that Public Works Director Henry was reprimanded. However, the City Manager did not make any public statement regarding that issue.

Last Thursday, when your reporter reviewed the agenda with the City Manager, he said the roads would have been torn up around the Park for three months had the project gone out to bid and that it probably would have cost more.

He also mentioned that if the City refused to pay the contractor, he believed the City would lose in court had Curt's Construction sued the City for its money.


On November 18, the City Council will decide which one of its direct employees will rule the day.

Will it be City Manager Joe Helfenberger, who recommended paying for "a job well done" because "it is the right thing to do?"

Or, City Attorney Fred Koberlein, Jr., who recommends not paying the contractor because the City can "claim Sovereign Immunity;" there was no written contract; and Curt's Construction "was familiar with government contracting."

Stay tuned.

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