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Lake City News

Interim Lake City, City Manager Stays Put: Coup Fizzles After Mayor Admits All He Has Is “Hearsay”

photo of Lake City Interim City Manager Ami Fields with caption: Interim City Manager Ami Fields watches the coup against her fizzle.
Columbia County Observer photo & graphic

LAKE CITY, FL – On Tuesday night, once again, Lake City played to a packed house. Residents and City Council members alike witnessed the drawing back of the sheets on what seemed to be a well-orchestrated plot to unseat Interim City Manager Ami Fields.

The evening's business got underway under heightened police security. While the usual contingent of police at a City Council meeting is the Chief, the Assistant Chief, and one officer in the front of the chamber keeping their eye on the proceedings, this meeting had the police everywhere.

Everyone in the room thought that the evening’s proceedings once again would rest on the vote of veteran Councilman Eugene Jefferson. It didn't.

In the end, like a limp noodle, the coup fizzled, and there was no vote to terminate Ms. Fields.

Lake City City Council Chambers filled up to over capacity.
At 6 pm the Council chamber was filling up with onlookers and police. By 6:30 every seat was filled, it was standing room only, and the police would not let anyone in.

Tuesday Night In City Hall: The Run-Up

The run-up to Tuesday night’s City Council meeting was not pretty.

Ms. Fields had let it be known before she was hired as the Interim City Manager that she had no experience in government.

Many people thought this was a good thing until she began shaking some trees. What fell from the branches was making some very uncomfortable.

Alleged issues at public works led Columbia County Sheriff Mark Hunter to call in FDLE to investigate. FDLE's findings have been turned over to the state attorney, and the word is that he will be bringing the case to the Grand Jury.

Factions in the City blamed Ms. Fields for the fallout. Accusations were flying all over.

On August 17, in what appeared to be an effort to embarrass Ms. Fields and her administration, Councilman Greene, supported by Mayor Witt and Councilman Jefferson, led the charge to cancel the evening’s City Budget Workshop.

On August 30, the City finally had a budget workshop. This was another confused City Council meeting.

This time, the City Finance Director and her staff were left in the lurch as the Council tried unsuccessfully to reach a consensus on the extent of the City raises.

The City Clerk, the keeper of the City minutes, was unable to bring clarity to the wishes of the Council, leaving the finance director to fend for herself.

Tuesday Night
A budget hearing and a 12th hour move to remove Ms. Fields

Tuesday evening's City Council meeting had the Council Chamber packed to the rafters. So many people attended that the police removed some to the lobby to meet the room capacity requirements.

With COVID running rampant and the COVID deaths of the Fire Chief and the Assistant Airport Manager in the past week, masks and social distancing were not required.

Kelton Ficklin urges people to wear masks
Kelton Ficklin urged people to wear masks.

The only person who mentioned the lunacy of folks not wearing masks was Kelton Ficklin, who told the Council, "Our former fire chief…why do we dishonor him by not doing something simple in this room – is putting on these masks? This man just died from this monster, and we don't put on no dog-gone mask. The police – the guy that came here and did the headcount, a fireman, didn't have on a mask…good gracious.”

As the general business of the meeting got underway, the word on the street was that there was a faction on the City Council that didn’t want to pass the budget.

That didn’t pan out; cooler heads prevailed; Finance Director Donna Duncan presented the budget, and the budget hearing opened.

Former City Councilman and Community Activist Glenel Bowden said he had no comment and then commented that the Council had previously suppressed the rights of the public.

Vanessa George commented about the pay of the Finance Director and Utility Director.

Sylvester Warren reminded the Council, "You're spending our money."

Shaun Holgren, the frontman for a group of "concerned citizens," gave his take on the tentative budget.

After Mr. Holgren's remarks, Finance Director Duncan stated the millage rates necessary to comply with the Florida statutes. The required resolutions were read into the record, and the Tentative City Budget was approved unanimously.

The Coup: Item 18
Discussion and Evaluation and Possible Action – Evaluation of Interim City Manager

The contentious item on the agenda was item number 18: “Discussion and Evaluation and Possible Action – Evaluation of Interim City Manager.”

Item 18 was the reason the house was jam-packed to the rafters, turning the event into a COVID super-spreader.

The meeting agenda became available on Friday, September 3, thirty-three minutes before the beginning of the Labor Day extended weekend.

While various Facebook pages spoke about a coup against Ms. Fields earlier, the 12th-hour agenda put the rumors to rest.

Kelton Filkin told the Council he was born on Washington Street, just north of the downtown business district. “Some of this stuff here is crazy. This is ridiculous. All this tryin’ to be sneaky – and some people I’m just ashamed of… It hurts. It really hurts.”

Former City Councilman Glenel Bowden mentioned racial overtones.
Former City Councilman Glenel Bowden addresses the City Council.

A few minutes later, after more confusion generated by Mayor Witt, Mr. Bowden told the Council, “There’s a certain group of people in this community that’s gonna blame Mrs. Fields for everything. Mrs. Fields did not hire herself... for all my indications she is doin’ a decent job.”

Mr. Bowden mentioned that a petition in a private business in the community had information about an ex-husband of Ms. Fields being the ex-president of the NAACP.

Mr. Bowden said he thought this had racist overtones. The business was Fishheads.

usinessman and community activist Sylvester Warren was not happy with the lack of information
Businessman and community activist Sylvester Warren was not happy with the lack of information

Mr. Bowden asked, “What in the hell does Ms. Fields ex-husband got to do with this particular process?”

Sylvester Warren followed up: "In the past, you didn't evaluate no city managers. Now, all of a sudden, here we come – we wanna evaluate Ms. Fields.”

Mr. Warren asked, "How are you gonna present a case, and you don't have any supporting documentation?"

Mayor Witt responded:

“I have received a lot of communicatin' from the public. A lot of accusations have been made. The reason I didn't attach em' is because they were hearsay, and I'm very careful about things like that, and I didn't want to put them in the agenda packet. But basically, the gist of most of them was conflicts; there was never a background check done that I am aware of with Ms. Fields; and there's a conflict that a lot of people have been raisin' and documents have been flyin' around town, and they need to be looked into, and they need to be looked into properly.

I think they are serious enough that I think they have to be, and I think they have been brought to all of our attention.

I think those need to be looked at by a separate outfit, and so that's where I’m bringing this to Council today for.”

Derrick Snead came to the microphone: “Where are these things that you just talked about?”

Councilman Chris Greene listens to the evening's proceedings
Many thought Councilman Greene was the coup leader.

Councilman Greene objected to Mr. Snead talking.

Mr. Snead said, “I want my three minutes.”

The Mayor countered, “I’m sure everybody’s aware of what I’m talking about.”

This reporter wasn’t aware and the mainstream media's reporter said he wasn't aware.

Pandemonium.

Interim City Manager Fields Finally Speaks

Ms. Fields spoke for one of the few times in the past two months: “Normally, I don’t say anything unless I have to… I have prepared a speech, but I’m almost embarrassed to even say my accomplishments for the last two months that I have been Interim. But I'll go ahead and say it for the record."

Ms. Fields read off a laundry list of her accomplishments. She did not make a copy of her speech available.

She said she had “accomplished in two months what the previous administration had not accomplished in three years… It’s obvious that you don’t want me here…not one councilman (referencing Mayor Witt, Councilmen Greene and Jefferson) has called me (about negative reports they had been receiving).

Utility Director Paul Dyal said if the Interim City Manager was gone, he would be, too.
Director of Utilities Paul Dyal let it be known if Ms. Fields was gone, so was he.

Ms. Fields mentioned former City Manager Helfenberger, "I'm still cleaning up his mess."

Utility Director Paul Dyal came to the microphone. "That's my leader right there…She is tryin' to do more in the last three months than Helfenberger did in the last three years…If this is the direction this Council wants to go, then I don't have no reason to work for the City no more."

Director of Water Mike Osborne said [as spoken], “I tried to get the utility information back to the utilities from a previous utility director, who took it with him when he left and cleared all the files, which Ms. Fields had finally stood up to him and got our information back to keep it from leavin’ with him when he left the city.”

Finance Director Donna Duncan said the Council needed to keep Ms. Fields going.
Finance Director Donna Duncan said the Council needed to keep Ms. Fields going.

Finance Director Donna Duncan said about Ms. Fields that she was the first city manager "whoever listened to what we actually had to say."

Ms. Duncan said, "The only way to be a leader is sometimes you have to make decisions that are hard. And that's what happens, and that's what she's had to do…At this point, all of her hard work is starting to pay off.”

Growth Management Director David Young said, "I will back her 100%. I tried that with the previous regime and got left out in the cold. There is stuff that has gone on in this City that she is trying to clean up that only the previous City manager knew…We need to keep her going."

Growth Management Director David Young said he supported Ms. Fields 100%.
Growth Management Director David Young said he supports Ms. Fields 100%.

Steve Brown told the Council that Ms. Fields was the only City manager "who had ever taken the time to learn our industry and how it works…She had done more for us in two months than the last two City managers have done with us, and I've been here thirteen years."

After County Commissioner Ronald Williams addressed the Council, Bea Coker came to the microphone. She told the Council that a provision in the Charter was overlooked that “would have allowed him to recommend for appointment an interim City manager.”

This is not true. There is nothing in the Charter that mentions an Interim City Manager at all.

Vanessa George addressed the charges by some that a background check was not afforded Ms. Fields before she was hired. Ms. George said, “The City manager who hired Mrs. Fields had to do the background check.”

HR would usually do a background check on newly hired employees. Nothing was presented to the City Council that ever showed HR did not do a background check on Ms. Fields.

Ms. George mentioned that certain people want Ms. Fields gone because she is uncovering political corruption in the City, making some people "nervous."

Shaun Holgren went through a litany of reasons for removing Councilman Sampson and what went wrong with the removal of former City Manager Helfenberger.
Shaun Holgren addresses the City Council.

Shaun Holgren went through a litany of reasons for removing Councilman Sampson and what went wrong with the removal of former City Manager Helfenberger.

Mr. Holgren concluded, "While there may have been some very glowing reports from directors here today, most of those people were given 18 to 30% increases in their budget…I feel that only after they've been caught with their own little cabal…have they been held accountable for their misdeeds or, in her case, her lack of experience…I don't believe that she is half as good as these people said she is."

Now, Back to the City Council: Discussion, Evaluation, and Possible Action – Evaluation of Interim City Manager

Mayor Witt was the first to abandon the idea of removing Ms. Fields.

Mayor Witt said the allegations against Ms. Fields should be vetted. “It’s what we should have done before. If there is nothing there, there is nothing there. It will clear it up for the public and Ms. Fields.”

Councilman Jefferson said that there were multiple complaints from the community and employees – some good, some bad. Mr. Jefferson said he was not getting the information to give answers, and he was "not going to discuss specifics."

Mr. Jefferson said, "When I see more than half our directorship come up before the Council and make the statements that they made about the leadership of their leader…I do think some things need to be cleared up…I find it difficult to ask this Council to terminate her knowing what I just heard from the department heads."

Mr. Jefferson concluded, “I have a different turn than what I was thinking before.”

Councilman Jake Hill said he thought Ms. Fields was doing an outstanding job.
Councilman Jake Hill thought Ms. Fields was doing an outstanding job.

Councilman Hill said he thought Ms. Fields was doing an outstanding job. “I tried to reach her several times, but so much for that, but overall the reports I get when I do talk to her – they’re great.”

Mayor Witt said, "All right, let's wrap it up. What's the pleasure of Council?"

Councilman Hill made a motion to keep Ms. Fields as Interim Manager. It was met with silence.

Councilman Sampson said he didn’t think there needed to be any action.

Councilman Greene said the head hunter would take care of the city manager issue.

Epilogue

After two hours and fifty minutes, in the end, like a limp noodle, the coup fizzled, and there was no vote to terminate Ms. Fields.

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