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City Manager Helfenberger Responds to City Council Allegations: He Will Not Litigate if City Honors His Contract

City Manager Joe Helfenberger with copy: City Manager Joe Helfenberger Responds
City Manager Joe Helfenberger at the June 21, 2021 City "special" session.   (Columbia County Observer photo and graphic)

LAKE CITY, COLUMBIA COUNTY, FL –  Tuesday afternoon, June 29, City Manager Joe Helfenberger responded, through his attorney, to the City Council’s allegations which suspended him for 45 days, pending a final resolution of termination.


On June 21, the City Council met in a special session, which due to confusion about City meeting notice requirements, morphed into its regularly scheduled meeting.

During the June 21 meeting, City Councilman Todd Sampson read a laundry list of allegations against City Manager Helfenberger, and called for Mr. Helfenberger to be suspended for 45 days, pending termination.

Mr. Helfenberger had the right to request a hearing within five days of receiving a resolution providing written notice of the “reasons for removal” [§ 402, City Charter].

Mr. Helfenberger’s contract requires that he be paid 12 weeks of salary and 12 weeks of benefits upon agreement of termination. Mr. Helfenberger’s present salary is $129,000.

In return, Mr. Helfenberger releases all claims against Lake City.

Introduction to the Allegations Against Mr. Helfenberger

City Attorney Koberlein took liberties with the approved elements of the City Council resolution, (see:  City Attorney Fred Koberlein Took 'Poetic License' with City Manager Joe Helfenberger’s Suspension Language. How Much Is Too Much?).

Mr. Helfenberger's attorney, “Tad” Delegal, III, responded to the resolution, the aim of which was to terminate City Manager Helfenberger.

Mr. Delegal wrote: “It appears that members of the City Council have cited various personal justifications for terminating my client, and my client strongly suspects that a majority of the Council will vote to terminate his employment.”

Mr. Delegal explained that as long as the City was going to abide by Mr. Helfenberger's termination agreement, which provided for severance pay, Mr. Helfenberger was not going to request a hearing.

Mr. Delegal responded on behalf of Mr. Helfenberger to the City Council allegations in its preliminary resolution.

Koberlein vs. Sampson comparisonResponse to the Allegations

The exit of top administrators

Allegation (a): city manager Helfenberger hired four administrators and none remain.

Mr. Delegal (a): Mr. Delegal wrote that Mr. Helfenberger has hired a number of other administrators who continue to work for City. Mr. Helfenberger denies that “he acted improperly.”

The Termination of Ami Fields

Allegation (b): “the most recent hire, a [sic] HR Director, was qualified for the position and, nonetheless, terminated without any specific reasons.”

Mr. Delegal (b): “The human resources director was terminated for specific reasons, and those specific reasons can be identified and addressed, if necessary, should a hearing be required. Mr. Helfenberger can provide written documentation as well as the testimony of witnesses to support his decision...”

Commentary: City Attorney Koberlein’s rendering of the allegation (b) was ‘not’ what was purported by Councilman Sampson. (See Spread Sheet) Mr. Sampson never mentioned that HR Director Fields was “terminated without any specific reason.”

Interim IT director quits

Allegation (c):  the interim director of IT abruptly resigned the interim position by requesting a demotion and was so disenchanted that he refused to speak with the city manager and forwarded his resignation directly to the City Council.

Mr. Delegal (c): “This matter involves personnel issues about which Mr. Helfenberger can provide information and testimony should he be required to do so.” Mr. Helfenberger does not want to discuss this in a public document. “Mr. Helfenberger did not engage in any misconduct…”

Commentary:  This is another instance where City Attorney Koberlein added additional information to Mr. Sampson’s remarks. Mr. Sampson did not mention, nor did the Council vote on anything regarding the interim IT director “requesting a demotion.”

Atty Koberlein's 'made up' "timely update" deflected the issue on the resignation of the former HR Director

Allegation (d):  “Prior to the hiring of the most recent HR Director, the City’s prior long-time HR Director resigned, and a timely update was not provided by the City Manager causing many people to conclude that she abandoned the City.”

Commentary:  Councilman Sampson actual remarks: “Before Ms. Fields was fired, the City’s long time City HR Director resigned. Many people thought she abandoned ship.” Mr. Sampson said nothing about a “timely update” “causing” anybody to conclude anything.

Mr. Delegal (d): Mr. Delegal’s response is mostly a reaction to City Attorney Koberlein’s made up addition (“a timely update was not provided by the City Manager causing many people to conclude that she abandoned the City”) to Mr. Sampson’s statement. In part, Mr. Delegal wrote, “Mr. Helfenberger is not obligated to provide updates to anyone about personnel matters… It is difficult to understand how Mr. Helfenberger could or should be responsible for unnamed individuals reaching inaccurate conclusions.”

Allegation (f), that Mr. Helfenberger did not provide requested information for his evaluation, had Mr. Delegal stating that Mr. Helfenberger understood the evaluation was to "take place by August."

Allegation (g) regarding missing a meeting with the County was again reported inaccurately by Mr. Koberlein. Mr. Delegal, addressing the allegation, wrote in relevant part: “Mr. Helfenberger had met with both Columbia County and Niagara representatives previously and had worked to address the situation, but simply did not believe that attending the scheduled meeting in question was appropriate because the City was not in the position to agree to Niagara’s likely demands.”

The Blanche: a big deal in Lake City
Atty Koberlein leaves out the name

Allegation (i) left out both the name of the project (the Blanche) and the developer (IDP). Neither of these are secrets and are in the public record. Both were included in Councilman Sampson’s remarks, prepared statement, and vote of the Council.

The ‘Koberlein’ Allegation (i) also claims that “when asked to elaborate on his reasoning for recommending to the City Council that the city settle a breach of contract claim against a developer [,] the city manager did not provide the written legal opinions…”

Commentary: While it is true that City Manager Helfenberger [during the Blanche agenda event] never provided “written legal opinions and memoranda,” Mr. Sampson’s June 21 statements never mentioned anything about, Mr. Helfenberger being “asked to elaborate on his reasoning…”

Mr. Delegal (i): Having no choice but to respond to Mr. Koberlein’s rendition of Mr. Sampson’s remarks, Mr. Delegal explained Mr. Helfenberger's reasoning, adding, “It is difficult to understand why a recommendation regarding ligation settlement would be alleged as misconduct… Mr. Helfenberger did his job by providing an honest and fair evaluation.”

Morale: many would say Mr. Helfenberger "improved" it

Allegation (j): morale among the city workforce is at an all-time low.

Commentary: This is not what Mr. Sampson said, which was, “morale among the city workforce is at the lowest I have ever seen it, and I’ve lived in the City a long time.”

Mr. Delegal (j): “Mr. Helfenberger is unaware of any surveys or evaluations of morale among the city workforce, or any comparison of such alleged morale with morale on previous dates. It is true that substantial divisions exist within the city and many of those same divisions are reflected in the recent efforts to terminate Mr. Helfenberger’s employment. While Mr. Helfenberger certainly wishes to maintain and enhance the morale of city employees, he cannot possibly respond to such a vague and ill-defined allegation. Mr. Helfenberger believes that many City employees would say that he improved morale, and he has taken many steps to improve the City’s relationship with employees.”

City directors opposed termination

Allegation (k): several of the city’s department directors opposed the termination of the most recent HR Director and requested of the city manager to reconsider his decision

Mr. Delegal (k): “…The fact that various department directors may have opposed the termination of a city official or requested reconsideration of the city manager’s decision does not suggest that the decision was wrongful or improper or otherwise a basis for Mr. Helfenberger’s termination.”

City Manager demonstrated poor leadership

Allegation (l): the city manager demonstrated poor leadership and managerial decision-making during recent issues related to the access and security of the city’s email server causing unnecessary dissention and controversy among employees.

Commentary:  the ‘Koberlein’ Allegation went far astray from Mr. Sampson’s remarks, eliminating any mention of the City Clerk and the phrase “another instance where the City Manager showed that he is incapable of making a decision and standing by it.” Also eliminated by Mr. Koberlein were the specifics regarding resignations and “bad management practice.”

Mr. Delegal (l): After a brief rendition of City Clerk access to the City’s email server, Mr. Delegal continued. “… Mr. Helfenberger understands that some individuals did not agree with the decision making, and further understands that some members of the City workforce were not pleased with the fact that the Clerk was granted a large raise recently and believes that dissatisfaction with the Clerk’s access stems from the backlash over the Clerk’s salary increase.”

Emails: Atty Koberlein's 'refry' obfuscated the issue

Allegation (m): “the city manager refused to check or use his emails due to fear of hacking but failed to request an investigation by the IT staff.”

Commentary: the ‘Koberlein’ allegation omitted the following from Councilman Sampson’s remarks, “…there was a time…when the City Manger refused to check or use his email because he thought it was being hacked.” Mr. Sampson was not concerned about anytime, but a ‘specific,’ although undelineated time.

Mr. Sampson also said, and wrote in his prepared statement: “This calls for an investigation and a reason from the City Manager on why he did not ask for one…”

Mr. Delegal (m):  “…Mr. Helfenberger has regularly checked his emails and understands that doing so is part of the job. He has never been advised or directed to make greater use of emails and the allegation does not seem to suggest that he has failed to appropriately communicate. I am unsure as to why this allegation was raised when it does not appear that Mr. Helfenberger’s communication has been alleged to be deficient or inadequate.”


City Attorney Koberlein’s unauthorized restatement of the City Council’s reasons for suspending City Manager Helfenberger and Mr. Helfenberger’s responses through his council shined a different light on the events surrounding the resolution to suspend and remove Mr. Helfenberger.

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