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Lake City & Columbia County Finally Smoke a Utility Peace Pipe. Agree to Cooperate

City Councilman Todd Sampson and Commissioner Rocky Ford
City Councilman Todd Sampson reads his amended "cooperation" reslolution. County Chairman Rocky Ford speaks in support.                                         Columbia County Observer Photos

LAKE CITY, COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL – A milestone was reached by the City Council last night when it reconfigured its Utility Advisory Committee to include two County commissioners and two high-ranking County staff members, giving the County equal footing on the committee.


Back on January 7, 2021, the Utility Advisory Committee met and approved Councilman Todd Sampson’s proposal (6-4) to reconstitute the Utility Advisory Committee with the following voting members: 2 City Councilmen, 2 County Commissioners, the City Manager, the County Manager, the City Utility Director, and the County Economic Development Director.”

Also, at the January 7 meeting, the committee passed another Sampson proposition, which was a simple motion stating, “The City and County will work together to develop a five-year strategic plan for countywide utilities."

Councilman Jake Hill, Lake City
Councilman Jake Hill listens to Councilman Sampson's motion.

On January 21, 2021, Vice Mayor Chris Greene appeared at the meeting of the County 5 and got into an hour-long debate-discussion with the County commissioners. After Mr. Greene took his seat, County 5 Chairman Rocky Ford asked for a motion to appoint two County commissioners to the Committee.

The County unanimously appointed Chairman Ford and Commissioner Murphy.

A Utility Advisory Committee meeting was scheduled for February 11. However, before the meeting could take place, Councilman Greene canceled the meeting. It is not clear what authority he used for the cancelation or why he canceled it.

On February 18, Councilman Todd Sampson appeared before the County 5 with his take on the City-County utility situation.

By March 1, City-County utility issues were coming off the rails. Trash talk, innuendo, and local mainstream media reporting had the utility seas roiled up.

County Chairman Rocky Ford and County Manager David Krause were holding steady to the proposition that the best way forward was for the County and City to work together, with both telling this reporter that the County had not changed its mind and wanted to serve on the City Utility Advisory Committee.

Councilman Jake Hill also shared that he thought the best way forward was for the City and the County to be at the table “working out their differences.”

The City Council Monday Night: City Utilities

The first item on the City's agenda for Monday night was a resolution declaring the City Utility Advisory Committee's makeup.

This resolution ignored the January 7, 2021, Utility Advisory Committee proposal and eliminated all County involvement on the Committee.

Councilman Eugene Jefferson, Lake City
Councilman Eugene Jefferson listens to Councilman Greene.

County Chairman Rocky Ford made a surprise visit to the meeting and addressed the City Council when the resolution came up.

Chairman Ford said, “I just wanted to explain that the Board of County Commissioners voted to put two commissioners on your utility board.”

At the last meeting, I understand that there were a few that didn't get that memo or didn't understand that or for some reason they didn't know. I’m just here to tell you tonight that if you all want to extend that to the County Commission, we are interested in being on your utility board, and we have two commissioners willing to serve.”

Mr. Ford concluded, “I’m just putting that opportunity back out there tonight if you all want to address that and include the County.”

Councilman Sampson Walks it Back

Councilman Todd Sampson was recognized to speak, “I’d like to make a motion to approve City Council resolution 2021-025 with the following amendment.”

“I'd like to strike out and replace the proposed members with the following members. I'd like 2 City Council members, 2 County Commissioners, the City Manager, the County Manager, the Executive Director for the Utilities for the City of Lake City, and the Columbia County Economic Development Director.”

Councilman Hill seconded the motion.

A surprised Mayor Witt asked for clarification.

Mr. Sampson clarified, “This goes back to a motion that was made at a Utility Committee meeting on January 14, and it's the same motion that I made at that meeting.”

Councilman Chris Green, Lake City
Councilman Chris Greene.

Councilman Greene was opposed, “I don't support the motion as presented by Mr. Sampson. I do support the resolution as it is drawn up. I think we vote on Mr. Sampson's motion and see where we go after that. Every time we come up here, we change the makeup of the committee. I think the time for changing the makeup of the committee has ended.”

Mayor Witt: He was always in favor of County participation – recognizes the need for a strategic plan

Mayor Witt said, “I’m in favor of the County being on... I would recommend just adding them, too.”

Councilman Jefferson followed up, “I thought that at our last meeting when we approved it, we left it open that if the County were, or we found, that they were interested, we would entertain it.”

Mayor Witt said, “Exactly. That's the way I remember it…”

Mr. Sampson followed up, “Mr. Mayor, I think it's obvious by the comments Mr. Ford made that they are interested in being involved, and at their meeting, they said as much."

Lake City Mayor Steve Witt
Mayor Steve Witt was always in favor of cooperation.

Mr. Sampson continued, “One of the main things that came out of that meeting, January 14, is a five-year strategic plan for the Countywide utilities. It's crucial we get into that planning stage, and until we meet, we can't do that. I think it's obvious that having the City and the County at the table, as we previously discussed, is the intelligent way forward. This is an opportunity to work together to encourage economic development because obviously, we're all wanting the same thing in the long run. We want to create jobs for the greater Lake City in the Columbia County area so that our kids can have a place to work… I think it makes sense for us to work together.”

Commissioner Ford came back to the microphone: “I heard it said at the last meeting that you are elected to represent the City of Lake City. That's a fact - there is no doubt about it. And I'm elected to the Board of County Commissioners. But the City is in the County; usually, what benefits the County, benefits the City, also. I think it would be beneficial for us to be on a board with the City on the utilities; that way we are in the same room talkin’.”

Mr. Ford continued, “Stuff like that happened at the last meeting, where you all didn't even know the County Commission had voted to put two members on the board wouldn't happen if we were in the same meeting and we met regularly for utilities... We can't do that avoiding each other. We can't do that takin’ sides. All of Columbia County needs to be on the same page when we are trying to attract economic development.”

Lake City City Clerk Audrey Sikes
City Clerk Audrey Sikes records the vote.

Mr. Ford concluded, “I urge you all – let's get together... Let's work for a better future for Columbia County and the City of Lake City and put these petty differences aside.”

The Clerk called the role. The vote was 4-1, with Mr. Greene voting “no.”

A short while later, Councilman Greene surprised everyone, “I think it’s prudent that I resign as the chairman of the Utility Committee. I think that I probably don't share the vision that the City Council shares. It's important that the Council has somebody on the Utility Committee who shares their vision moving forward. I'm probably not the person to chair that or be on that committee. I would request to be removed from the Utility Advisory Committee.”

Mayor Witt responded, “OK.”

Epilogue: Relief

After adjournment, there was a palpable sense of relief, and the exchange of smiles as the utility train finally seemed back on track.

Later in the evening, City Manager Joe Helfenberger told your reporter, "The City and the County have an opportunity to plan for future infrastructure needs. Cooperation is essential to have the most cost-effective water and wastewater utility infrastructure for the City and the County."

County Manager David Kraus told your reporter, "This is very good that we are working together. Successful economic development requires everyone to be on the same page. Working together, we will be able to bring industry and high paying and high-quality jobs to Lake City – Columbia County.”

County Chairman Rocky Ford said, “I can’t wait to get started.”

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