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Fire Chief Calls a Truce With City Clerk, Withdraws Complaint, No Investigation: “I didn’t want to put that burden on the taxpayers.”

Photos of City Clerk Audrey Sikes and Fire Chief Randy Burnham with copy: Fire Chief Drops Complaint Against City Clerk
Columbia County Observer photos and graphic

LAKE CITY, FL – City Clerk Audrey Sikes, once the apple of most folk’s eye in Lake City and Columbia County, has come under heightened scrutiny lately by her coworkers and the public. The most recent issues: public records access and City agenda preparation.


In 2005, Ms. Sikes was appointed City Clerk. Since that time, she has received numerous awards and accolades and was selected as Clerk of the Year. (See: Lake City, City Clerk Audrey Sikes: Independent, Responsible, Busy, "Willing to go the extra mile" )

Hired on August 1, 2018,  after a year and a half of City management, City Manager Helfenberger could not manage to get the City agendas to the public and the City Council any earlier than late Friday or Friday evening before the Monday Council meetings. He tried, but something always seemed to be holding up the agenda preparation.

In October 2020, a city ordinance required that the agendas be available six days before the meetings.

In October 2020, City Manager Helfenberger handed over the agenda reigns to City Clerk Audrey Sikes. At that time, she told this reporter that she had set up a schedule and would have no difficulty getting the agendas out on Tuesdays by 12 pm. The Council meetings were six days away on the following Monday. (See: Lake City Finally Gets Its Agenda Act Together: City Clerk Takes Over, Sets the Rules & Deadlines)

The promise of getting City Council agendas distributed by noon on Tuesdays quickly faded into non-performance.

Also, in October of 2020, a City ordinance required that the minutes of a Council meeting be available three days before the next meeting. Clerk Sikes could not produce the minutes (eventually falling just about a year behind and putting the City audit in jeopardy).

In March 2021, the City Council, for whom the Clerk works directly, changed the City ordinance. The new language, unanimously approved by the City Council, reduced the time of agenda distribution to “as far in advance of the meeting as time for preparation will permit.” So much for the six days before a meeting and the Clerk's deadlines.

The City Council did not care to have its agenda or minutes any earlier.

The JustFOIA public record platform, which has proven to be problematic at its best and a disaster at its worst, was never approved by the City Council, nor was the Council asked.

Controversy - Turmoil - More Controversy

With the April 5, 2021 hiring of HR Director Ami Fields, public record redactions became an issue, and after much turmoil, Ms. Fields was terminated by City Manager Helfenberger, who was terminated by the City Council, which hired Ms. Fields back as Interim City Manager on June 23, 2021. (See: City Manager Joe Helfenberger Suspended for 45 Days Pending a Final Resolution for His Removal)

Lake City Fire Chief Randy BurnhamThe Burnham Complaint

Chief Burnham complained that during a June 15 staff meeting held by then-City Manager Joe Helfenberger, Ms. Sikes said that failure to copy emails that “directly affected her office” was “an unacceptable practice.”

Chief Burnham claimed that the emails Ms. Sikes referenced were at “the root of the reason the IT Director, Adam Boatright stepped down as the Director and was also a contributing factor to Ami Fields [then HR Director] termination.”

Chief Burnham’s complaint continued. He was miffed at being excluded from an email and didn’t like the Municode JustFOIA platform.

Regarding a June 24 staff meeting held by now Interim City Manager Ami Fields, [yes, the former HR Director], Chief Burnham wrote: “I asked if we could look into a more user-friendly public record request platform other than the current one being used by the Clerk’s office. Ami replied “absolutely.”

Chief Burnham continued: "The very next day, June 25, 2021, at 11:22 am, I received a call from Audrey [Sikes] blasting me for making such a request… Audrey stated several times that all I did was pour fuel on the fire…This went on for 51 minutes…I believe what happens [happened] next was an act of retaliation.”

The Chief stated that Clerk Sikes sent an email with the subject "Fire Department Items for Agenda" and did not include him in the email.

Chief Burnham claimed that Clerk Sikes's behavior was "undermining and deceitful behavior from a top official of the City of Lake City" and that it was "very toxic and creates a hostile work environment.”

Clerk Sikes RespondedCity Clerk Audrey Sikes

On July 15, Ms. Sikes responded, claiming she learned of Chief Burnham’s complaint on July 12 and received a copy on July 13.

Ms. Sikes stated that the emails Chief Burnham referenced in his complaint were actually "two memorandums" and that the Chief's conclusion that the memorandums were the "reason the IT Director stepped down” or were a “contributing factor to Ami Fields' termination” were incorrect.

The facts are that after City Manager Helfenberger removed Ms. Sikes from having access to the email servers, he changed his mind after interacting with the Clerk. Shortly after that, IT Director Boatright stepped down from his position of IT Director, and Ms. Field's was terminated.

The Observer could find no one in the IT field that thought anyone other than the IT Director should have access to the City’s email servers.

Ms. Sikes never mentioned in her complaint response that she was removed from accessing the email servers, instead calling it a "critical research tool."

Access to the City’s email server gave her access to every email sent and received by every Lake City employee other than those in the Police Department.

Ms. Sikes response to Chief Burnham’s complaint about the Clerk instituted email platform by Municode, called JustFOIA, was a long rambling response about how the Chief didn’t know how to use the platform; that he was instructed in its use; and that after instruction in the use of the JustFOIA platform he didn’t “have any issues.”

The facts are that apparently, nobody other than the City Clerk likes the JustFOIA platform. It is unclear if Ms. Sikes learned just enough about the platform to get by, or it just downright sucks.

The way Clerk Sikes utilizes the platform is in clear violation of at least one section of Florida's public record law, and original email or other requests are not filed on the platform.

Chief Burnham’s claim that he was not included in the email regarding his agenda item was not denied.

Ms. Sikes admits that she sent the email to every interested party except the Fire Chief, who she wrote thought this was an “emergency” item.

Ms. Sikes explained, “As Fire Chief, Mr. Burnham has no role with regard to completion of the agenda and the inclusion of emergency walk-on items.”

Ms. Sikes concluded, “There was nothing about this action that was intended to undermine or deceive Mr. Burnham or anyone else.”

With That Backdrop, the City Council Was Gaveled to Order

Link to Chief Burhham MemorandumUnknown to the public, Chief Burnham had met with the Clerk and the Interim City Manager before the meeting. In a memo provided to the City Council, Chief Burnham wrote: I have met with Interim City Manager Ami Fields and City Clerk Audrey Sikes. We have worked through the issues and resolved my concerns. I wish to withdraw my complaint dated July 2, 2021.

Councilman Sampson made a motion to remove item 14, the last item on the agenda: “Discussion and possible action – Complaint by Fire Department Chief on City Clerk.”

Councilman Greene weighed in, telling the Council that he had concerns about removing the complaint. He said he thought it could have been handled “well before the meeting.”

The Council voted 3-1 to remove item 14, with Mr. Greene against.

Post Meeting – Chief Burnham

Your reporter asked the Chief why he pulled the complaint.

He said, “I didn’t want to put that burden on the taxpayers. They were going to send it to a full outside investigation.”

Your reporter asked, “How did you know that?”

Chief Burnham answered, “I was told that was going to be the process.”

Your reporter followed up, "They have all these processes. Where does that come from?"

Chief Burnham answered, “Nobody has anything in writing. I asked for it. They [the City Council] would not make a decision. They would hire somebody from the outside. They would do a full investigation. That’s just a waste of taxpayer’s money.”

Your reporter, “What was the process that brought you all together?

Chief Burnham answered, “We got together, the Interim City Manager, the Clerk, and me. We sat down and discussed the issues.”


And that was that.

The City Charter, section 307, gives the City Council the power to investigate “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.

The City Council couldn’t even do that.

It is not clear how many of them have read the City Charter.

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