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City Manager Joe Helfenberger Suspended for 45 Days Pending a Final Resolution for His Removal

ugene Jefferson reviews his notes before the meeting. City Manager Helfenberger does the same.
Eugene Jefferson reviews his notes before the meeting. City Manager Helfenberger does the same.

LAKE CITY, COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL –  On Monday night, Lake City City Manager Joe Helfenberger was suspended for 45 days, pending a final resolution for his removal. City Manager Helfenberger has the right to ask for a public hearing. If he doesn’t, the City Council can adopt a final resolution removing him.

Lake City Mayor Steve Witt
As the meeting got underway, Mayor Witt was feeling the heat. 

The City must deliver to the City Manager a preliminary resolution stating the reasons for his removal within three days of the resolution’s preparation. The resolution was supposed to have been prepared by City Attorney Fred Koberlein sometime on Tuesday, after he listened to the remarks of City Councilman Sampson.

City Manager Helfenberger has five days after the resolution is delivered to him to file a written request for a public hearing. If he requests the hearing, it must be held between 15 and 30 days after the request is filed.

If City Manager Helfenberger doesn’t respond to the preliminary resolution within five days after it is delivered, or at any time after a public hearing, the City Council may adopt a final resolution removing him.

Off to a Shaky Start

City Clerk Audrey Sikes
City Clerk Audrey Sikes. She got the meeting notice requirements wrong.

Monday’s 5 pm special meeting was properly noticed after Councilmen Todd Sampson and Jake Hill joined in calling for the special meeting.

A special meeting requires the concurrence of two council members. City Clerk Sikes wrongly claimed three council members were required. Mayor Witt seemed to take the Clerk's advice when he said the meeting was not properly called because three council members didn't concur.

It is not clear if City Attorney Fred Koberlein weighed in.

The special meeting was joined with the regular meeting and began a little after 6 pm.

The Public is Heard

Mayor Witt asked folks to respect the three-minute time limit.

Sylvester WarrenSylvester Warren was the first to the microphone: “Thank you for this opportunity. I’ll be brief… we feel strongly that Ms. Ami Fields was treated wrongly in the way in which she was terminated…” Mr. Warren also mentioned that the “community” had lost confidence in City Manager Helfenberger. "I would hope and think that the Council has lost confidence…Mr. Helfenberger is not a good fit for the City."

B Faithful CokerBea Faithful Coker spoke in support of Mr. Helfenberger. Ms. Coker thought that the Council members violated the City Charter by criticizing the city manager in public. Ms. Coker said, "I trust the Charter…I trust the City Manager."

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Glenel BowdenFormer City Councilman Glenel Bowden said: “I am disappointed. Two and a half years ago, when Mr. Helfenberger came on board, I had some confidence and thought the City was going to move forward… for the past year and a half, I have seen things going downhill.” Mr. Bowden also did not support the termination of Ami Fields. “I think it’s time to replace him and bring in someone who can bring the City together."

Julia May Page addressed the Council. She seemed to be in support of City Manager Helfenberger.

Vanessa GeorgeVanessa George told the City Council: “A city manager does not go around bragging about not speaking to his citizens; blocking phone calls from citizens.” Ms. George took exception to the City Manager writing that Ms. Fields was not a "good fit.”  Ms. George asked, “Where is the paper trail?”

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Shaun HogrumShaun Hogrum addressed the Council: "Thank you for letting me speak. I'm here to represent the over 10,000 people that aren't here tonight, who are probably very satisfied with Joe Helfenberger's service." Mr. Hogrum mentioned that he was a personal friend of City Manager Helfenberger.

Former HR Director Ami Fields

Ms. Fields read from a prepared statement asking that it be included in her file. She spoke about her qualifications and experience in the job she was doing for the City Manager, her direct boss.

Among other things, Ms. Fields disputed the written remarks of City Manager Helfenberger that she wasn't “a good fit.” Ms. Fields had this to say about that.

Ami Fields addresses the city councilI believe how I was terminated was intentional. Mr. Helfenberger and the City of Lake City have damaged my professional relationships, and this will cause me economic harm in the future.

I have been humiliated in front of my peers, major city directors and suffered intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The City Manager’s claim that I am “not a good fit” was not privileged information, not true, and will follow me wherever I go in the future and be an impediment to my career.

In the City's notice of termination, City Manager Helfenberger memorialized for all time that I am “not a good fit." The City's [Mr. Helfenberger's] statement is false and defamatory. It is not true. It lowers my reputation in the community and deters third persons from association with me.

I believe the City Manager retaliated against me because I revealed deficiencies with City practices and policies that are against the public’s and the City's best interest.”

Ms. Fields' complete remarks are here

Councilman Todd Sampson Addressed the City Council

Councilman Sampson also read from a prepared statement.

City Councilman Todd SampsonMr. Sampson said: "Let's look at the performance of the City Manager. Since he has been here, Mr. Helfenberger hired two assistant city managers, an IT Director and an HR Director. They are all gone."

He continued, “The most recent hire, HR Director Ami Fields, while she didn’t have recent government experience, has a wealth of business experience and an MBA. That didn’t work out either.

Mr. Sampson added, "City Manager Helfenberger has missed crucial meetings with the County in which the City was harmed by his not being in attendance. When the County called a meeting regarding the industrial park proposal, according to City Attorney Koberlein, both Mr. Koberlein and Mr. Sweat were told not to attend. Mr. Koberlein attended anyway but was not authorized to speak for the City. This has damaged our relationship with the county."

Mr. Sampson concluded, “It’s time for us to make a hard decision. It’s time for us to move forward. It’s time for us to make a change and move in a direction that brings people together, instead of tearing things apart.”

Mr. Sampson’s complete remarks are here.

Mr. Sampson said, “I would like to make a motion that we remove the City Manager and put him on a 45-day suspension immediately, as is called for in the charter.”

Councilman Jake Hill seconded the motion.

Mayor Witt invited Mr. Helfenberger to reply before he opened up the discussion.

City Manager Helfenberger

The noise of the air handler, which makes the soft-spoken sound like they are speaking into the exhaust of a jetliner, made it difficult for everyone the hear Mr. Helfenberger. For decades, the City Council has refused to address this problem.

Mr. Helfenberger spoke:

City Manager Joe HelfenbergerAs far as the directors. It's a fluid process. If it wasn't working out, you can't continue to keep that person.

The IT director… Mandy Rand, she resigned. She quit on our own. I never asked her to leave. In fact, I had two meetings with her prior to her leaving. I was working with her and just had Paul Dyal to get the workflow going…

I just think that we can't go ahead -- as far as rejections -- she had refused to do redactions. I went and got an attorney (inaudible) whose decision was agreed to by Mr. Koberlein, and then Ms. Fields said she didn't agree with that and she was going to seek her own legal opinion.

With regard to the scheduling of meetings, it's important that we schedule meetings with directors (inaudible). The city manager needs to be leading that effort. And, if a meeting needs to be called, I need to be consulted and approve it ahead of time. You can't just go ahead and call a meeting.

With regard to some other things… there was kind of an extreme situation with the meeting. She had scheduled many meetings with the fire department and with the police (inaudible). There's a lot of concern there because (inaudible) basically they are required to be at these meetings…

There was an attorney request outstanding (unintelligible) by deadlines (unintelligible) except for public information requests with the entire department.

There's a number of other things there, but it's not all -- I try to -- this was a probationary employee. I tried to make sure that I put the memo out there when I have to terminate somebody because I've got to preserve their reputations.

As far as meetings with the County. (With the air blasting from the air handler, most of what Mr. Helfenberger said was unintelligible).

The Blanche. The situation there was that it -- there is concern -- if you go ahead and sue them, you'll wind up like the (unintelligible) lawsuits, where you won the lawsuit, but it cost the City over $700,000. With the Blanche, the safest way to go about (unintelligible) was to come up with a negotiated amount to reduce some of the payments the City was going to. [Mr. Helfenberger ended the sentence there]

Regarding staff, I would say that (unintelligible - Mr. Helfenberger mentioned the “systems analyst position”]

Those are just some of the things I just wanted to address.

City Councilman Sampson followed up: “Mr. Mayor, may I make a comment, please.”

Mr. Sampson said that he had asked Mr. Helfenberger to schedule a utility meeting, and he didn’t notify the Clerk to schedule the meeting. “This is a recurring issue. With the employees, the morale sucks, but that he changes his mind from time to time. We have multiple times where there is a memo written.”

Mr. Sampson discussed competing memos between employees. Mr. Sampson said his conversation with IT’s Boatright was different than Mr. Helfenberger's characterization.

“We have a lot of issues. We have to start working on repairing them,” he said.

Everyone Was Waiting to Hear Councilman Jefferson

Councilman Jefferson:

City Councilman Eugene Jefferson“My concern is this. A lot of this information that was revealed to Council today has been -- some of it is my first time hearing. I know that there was some issues and that they needed to be corrected and that they needed to be attacked.

I looked at the city manager as -- for leadership and for issues internally. And if there are some things that Council need to know about, the Lake City City manager needs to bring those things to Council's attention so that they can be properly addressed.

But during my personal conversation and investigation, that wasn't done to my satisfaction. And some of these things I've talked to the City Manager about. Some of the things that I saw as problems or as issues. But, it seems as though there are lots more that I was not prejudice to and wasn't aware of. Otherwise, I would have addressed some of those with the City Manager as well.

But we do have some issues here, and again I look to the city manager for leadership and for (unintelligible) in managing the internal affairs of the City and with the employees. And that was not done and has not been done to my satisfaction.

Thank you.

Mayor Witt Addressed the Council

“You know, this is not a small organization. It's very big, it's very complex, and we've talked about gettin' evaluations -- we haven't done it… we need to do it. We need to evaluate everything that's going on -- we need to evaluate Mr. Helfenberger and every part of the City. Doing knee-jerk reaction from last week to this week, just to remove somebody with no backup plan that I know of -- there will just be a plan with no guidance. I think we need to ask Mr. Helfenberger for assurances that he'll move forward and do the right thing for his evaluation. We need to see that there is progress made and should be made in the next few months. We should do a plan and do it the right way, and if it doesn't work out, then we can move forward in an organized way.

To do it today like this, I have no idea where we'll be tomorrow.

Councilman Sampson followed up: “I could take an empty chair and be in a better space tomorrow, so this is not a knee-jerk reaction. This is something, in my opinion, this needed to be done from since before I was even elected. And it's not a new thing to hear from the County. We are a laughingstock, and it's ridiculous. It's time for us to take a stand, do what's right, and move forward…

Mr. Sampson spoke about the lack of the City Manager's evaluation and the lack of a report about the resignation of former IT Director Mandy Rand, which was requested at a City Council meeting.

Mr. Sampson mentioned that the terminated HR director was qualified to act as City Manager and the core directors had enough confidence in Ms. Field to ask the City Manager to reconsider his decision to terminate her.

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

City Councilman Jake Hill
City Councilman Jake Hill

Mayor Witt asked for other comments from Council. There were none.

Mayor Witt asked the Clerk to call the roll on the motion. No one repeated the motion.

[Mr. Sampson’s motion: “We remove the City Manager and put him on a 45-day suspension immediately, as is called for in the charter.”]

Mayor Witt: “Ms. Sikes, will you call the roll.”

“Mr. Sampson: Yes”
"Mr. Hill: Yes"
"Mr. Jefferson: Yes"
"Mr. Green: "No"
"Mayor Witt: "No"

City Manager Helfenberger took his papers and left the dais.

An Interim City Manager

Mr. Sampson said: “Mr. Mayor, I’d like to make a motion that we install Ami Fields as the interim City Manager and that we go with “Range Riders” as a backup to help us out, and in addition, we open up a full search for a future city manager to lead us in the right direction.”

Mayor Witt asked, “Does she have the right credentials?”

Mr. Sampson answered, “I have her resume here.”

(Mr. Sampson explained she “has an MBA” and a "military background as well."

Mr. Sampson said, “Let’s not have a vacuum. Let's start moving forward as we look for someone.”

Mayor Witt asked:  “Is that a motion?”

Mr. Sampson answered, “That’s a motion.”

City Councilman Chirs Greene
City Councilman Chris Greene's only comments on Monday night were "no."

After some discussion, Ms. Fields was hired as the Interim City Manager. The vote was 3-2, with the Mayor and Councilman Greene opposed.

After some more discussion, Ms. Fields' salary was agreed upon ($120k, which was the starting salary of City Manager Helfenberger). The vote was again 3-2, with the Mayor and Councilman Greene opposed.

The final issue was a motion allowing Ms. Fields to sign checks, payroll checks, and all the others.

Only Councilman Greene opposed that. He did not give a reason.

Epilogue

Three of the five Lake City Council members determined that former HR Director Ami Fields was a "good fit."

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