Stew Lilker’s

Columbia County Observer

Real news for working families.  An online news service

Lake City News

City Manager Joe Helfenberger Terminates HR Director. Other Directors Ask Him to Reconsider: Public Records and IT Security the Issues

Photo: Arek Socha via Pixabay |  Columbia County Observer graphic

LAKE CITY, COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL –  This past Thursday, June 10, on his third try, City Manager Joe Helfenberger Terminated Ami Fields, Lake City’s new HR Director. Mr. Helfenberger gave this reason, “I…have determined that you are not a good fit for our City.”

This is the fifth significant personnel loss since Joe Helfenberger became City Manager in August 2018.

After seven months on the job, Mr. Helfenberger forced former Assistant City Manager Vince Akhimie, his personal choice for Assistant City Manager, to resign.

On March 22, 2021, Mr. Akhimie’s replacement, Dan Sweat, was forced to resign. City Manager Helfenberger had a false start with that termination, and the talk in the City's inner circles is that Mr. Helfenberger is blaming former Lake City HR Director Michele Greene for not doing a proper background check on Mr. Sweat.

In March 2021, City HR Director Michele Greene left to pursue 'greener pastures,' but many say she didn't want to go, but for the circumstances.

Then, on April 21, the City’s IT Director, Mandy Rand, was forced to resign and said adios to the City after Mr. Helfenberger flip-flopped and publically humiliated her in front of the entire City Staff. The circumstances surrounding Ms. Rand’s departure were so egregious that the City did not contest her unemployment.

On Thursday, June 10, on his third try, City Manager Helfenberger terminated HR Director Ami Fields, writing, “You are not a good fit.”

There is not a lot of trust between City Attorney Fred Koberlein (right) and City Manager Joe Helfenberger (left).

Ami Fields: Highly Qualified and Experienced

Ms. Fields came to Lake City educated and experienced.

She has a bachelor's degree in human services management and an MBA. She has been working in HR since 2010.

City Manager Helfenberger, who was on the HR ranking and rating committee, the committee that rates candidates, ranked Ms. Fields the highest among the candidates he evaluated, giving Ms. Fields a perfect score in “Teambuilding/Interpersonal skills.”

Chief Gilmore, also on the committee, scored Ms. Fields one point less than a perfect score.

What Happened? What’s the Problem?

This reporter could find no one who disliked Ms. Fields or thought she was doing a bad job running the City's HR department.

Ms. Fields was thought of as a no-nonsense manager and wasn't afraid to speak out when it came to policy or the City's safety.

The big trouble began after the departure of former IT Director Mandy Rand and the appointment of Adam Boatright, first as IT Director and then as "Interim" Director.

During the previous year, the City Clerk's Office was falling behind in producing minutes. There were no minutes for almost a year, and the City's outside auditors were breathing down the City's neck to produce them.

Also, the City’s sterling record of Public Record Access was taking a big hit as the City Clerk’s Office was falling further and further behind on producing public records.

Two major issues were surrounding the public record issues.

For years, the City HR Director, the former deputy city clerk, was doing the required statutory redactions.

The City Clerk also required Directors to redact records before sending them to her office, where the Clerk's staff reviewed the records for redaction and redaction errors.

Directors never liked this policy, and there were complaints.

This came to a head when new HR Director Fields questioned the process. The City has no written public record redaction policy.

Concurrent with that issue was the issue of who has access to the City email servers.

For years, City Clerk Audrey Sikes had unlimited access. HR Director Fields, who also had a military background, thought security integrity demanded only IT access to City email servers. It is not clear why Ms. Fields also recommended the City Manager have access.

In a memo to City Manager Helfenberger, dated May 20, 2021, with the subject “IT Security,” Ms. Fields advised the City Manager that she was “collaborating efforts with Interim Director of IT, Adam Boatright in developing Policy and Procedures and Standard Operating Procedures for IT.”

Ms. Field recommended restricting access to employee emails, with only the IT Director and City Manager having access.

Ms. Fields wrote, “This will assist in alleviating some of the risks associated with security and electronic threats.”

Mr. Helfenberger approved the new change in access on May 24.

On May 25, City Clerk Sikes balked, emailing the City Council and others: "This deactivation eliminated a critical tool that is used frequently to comply with public record requests, lawsuits, and to conduct other research necessary to successfully perform my job responsibilities. Professional courtesy was not extended to me to advise this was being discussed or even considered or that it had been deactivated. I had no opportunity to respond or participate in the decision-making process or share my knowledge on the topic.”

On May 26, City Manager Helfenberger flip-flopped again, sending out a memo reinstating “email archive access for the City Clerk’s Office.”

Ms. Sikes sent a copy to Mr. Boatright and others, but did not include a copy to HR Director Fields.


City Clerk Audrey Sikes
City Clerk Audrey Sikes

While all this was going on, there was a war between the Clerk’s Office and HR on who should be redacting public records.

The Clerk Sikes thought it should be the HR Department and any other department's responsibility to redact records before sending them to the Clerk's Office to check the redactions.

The HR Department said it was too busy and redaction was not its responsibility.

The City Manager went to Attorney Megan Logan of Douglas & Douglas for an opinion on who should be doing redactions.

City Attorney Koberlein didn’t know this request was made until it was complete.

The City Manager could have gone to the Attorney General for an impartial opinion, but he could not be sure of the response.

Attorney Logan said 'everybody' was right, and everybody was responsible for redacting public records.

Then Ms. Logan bought into the unwritten policy (this is called a practice) of having the HR Department do initial redactions and having them reviewed by the Clerk.

In the inner circles, it is known that Douglas & Douglas want to be the next City Attorney if Fred Koberlein is successful in a run for Circuit Court judge.

With all the chatter going back and forth about public records, the public suffered. Public record access became problematic, with this reporter still waiting for access to records that were requested almost two months ago.

June 8, 2021: Fields Termination a No-Go

City Manager Helfenberger rounded up Growth Management's David Young to witness his termination of Ms. Fields.

When Ms. Fields didn't take her termination 'sitting down,' the City Manager reconsidered and changed his mind.

Later on that day, according to Ms. Fields, Interim IT Director Boatright came into her office and resigned as IT Director.

Lake City IT expert Adam Boatright
IT expert Adam Boatright. After his security concerns were ignored and his integrity challenged by the City Manager, he resigned.

Ms. Fields said Mr. Boatright advised her that the City Manager asked him to "write a memo stating there were no IT concerns or issues."

Mr. Boatright purportedly refused. Mr. Boatright had concerns because "there were still too many people with access to the email archive.”

Mr. Boatright made a written record, and on June 8, he resigned as interim IT Director, noting, among other things, "I request to return to my position as Systems Administrator effective immediately and a Director of Information Technology be hired as soon as possible."

Somewhere in this mix, Mr. Boatright's immediate supervisor, Utility Director Paul Dyal, resigned as supervisor over IT. He did not make a record.

According to Ms. Fields, Mr. Boatright refused to speak with the City Manager, and he wanted his resignation letter to go directly to the City Council.

Your reporter mentioned that the letter needed to go to the City Manager.

Ms. Fields said, “I know. He doesn’t want to talk to him. He doesn’t want anything to do with him. It was his idea to send it to the City Council.”

Ms. Fields explained that she had spoken with Mr. Boatright late in the afternoon on Tuesday and that she reached out to the City Manager on Wednesday morning before she left for work.

Ms. Fields said, "I called Mr. Helfenberger to tell him what was going on. It wasn't until maybe the afternoon, or mid-afternoon, I can't remember what time, that I sent it to the Council. That was after I talked to Paul Dyal, who is technically the second in command. I hadn't sent anything on my own until I spoke to Paul.”

“I told him [City Manager Helfenberger] what Adam said. He knew everything.”

Your reporter asked, “Did he know you were going to send the email?”

Ms. Fields said, “I told him that he wanted it to go to Council. Yes, I told him everything.”

Your reporter asked, “Did he say not to do it?”

Ms. Fields said, “No.”

On Thursday, June 10, City Manager Helfenberger lassoed Fire Chief Randy Burnam to witness his termination of HR Director Fields and escort her out of the building.

Your reporter asked Chief Burnam why he didn't ask the City Manager to get the Police to escort Ms. Fields out of the building, mentioning that his job is to lead people out of burning buildings.

Chief Burnam said, "I was surprised. If I had a do-over, I would respectfully decline."

Chief Burnam added, "The politics is the worst I've seen it in my 30-year career."

Almost immediately after Ms. Fields was led out of the building, City Manager Helfenberger emailed the City Directors: “As of the afternoon, Ami Mitchell [Fields] is no longer an employee with the City of Lake City. Please refer HR matters to me until arrangements can be made.”

City Director’s Speak Out

Link to Duncan emailTwo hours later, Finance Director Donna Duncan responded to Mr. Helfenberger's email.

She wrote that “Ami Fields has been a breath of fresh air…she is highly qualified…she has the highest ethical standards and utmost integrity.”

Ms. Duncan concluded, "I hope you will reconsider your position and bring Ami back as we NEED her knowledge, skills, and mostly her integrity for this City to survive what is ahead."

Link to Chief Gilmore emailLCPD Chief Gilmore also asked Mr. Helfenberger to reconsider. Chief Gilmore wrote: “Please reconsider your decision and let's work together to have a harmonious unit of City Directors where all of our goals and objectives are to serve the citizens of Lake City. I believe Ami will work toward this as well. We work better together.”

Utility Director Paul Dyal weighed in, writing to Mr. Helfenberger, “I do not propose to add more to what Chief Gilmore and Ms. Duncan have already expressed, as I believe they offer great council.”

On Friday, June 11, your reporter asked Fire Chief Burnham, “Do you think that the City Manager should reconsider his termination of HR Director Ami Fields?”

Fire Chief Burnam said, “Yes.”

Your reporter spoke with Growth Management Director Dave Young, who two days earlier was recruited by City Manager Helfenberger to witness Ms. Shields' termination. Mr. Helfenberger changed his mind and did not terminate her.

Your reporter asked Mr. Young if he thought Mr. Helfenberger should reconsider his termination.

Mr. Young said, “No. It’s up to him to reconsider.”

At about 7 pm on Friday, your reporter spoke with City Councilman Jefferson, asking him if he took offense to receiving an email from Adam Boatright?

Mr. Jefferson said, “It’s OK with me. If they want me to have it, send it to me. I appreciate getting it from the source.”

Your reporter reached out to City Manager Helfenberger and left a message on his City Cell phone requesting a call back regarding the Ami Fields situation.

Mr. Helfenberger did not respond.


The facts surrounding the Fields/City Clerk/IT situation aren’t pretty.

People at the highest levels of City government, including the City Manager, City Clerk, and the City Attorney, the three who work directly for the City Council, are involved.

The City Charter allows the City Council to find out the facts. Section 307 Investigations states the following: “The Council may make investigations into the affairs of the City and the conduct of any City department, office or agency and for this purpose may subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, take testimony and require the production of evidence. Any person who fails or refuses to obey a lawful order issued in the exercise of these powers by the Council shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and punished by a fine or imprisonment or both.”

With Lake City imploding, it is time the Council did its job.

Comments (to add a comment go here)

This work by the Columbia County Observer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

Meeting Calendar
No need to be confused - Find links to agendas and where your participation is welcome.

Make a comment • click here •
All comments are displayed at the end of the article and are moderated.