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Lake City News

Vacated City Council Seat Filled By Secret Ballot: 'Good Ole' Boy' Stephen A. Douglas Gets the Nod

Photo: Kristina Flour via Unsplash | Columbia County Observer graphic

LAKE CITY, FL – Last night, the Lake City, City Council left residents shaking their heads in disbelief as it hemmed and hawed its decision to fill the Council’s vacated seat. After almost no debate, the Council gave up the issue and resorted to a secret ballot as City Attorney and the Council’s de facto parliamentarian, Fred Koberlein, the wannabe circuit court judge, stood by and let the secret ballot happen.


The meeting's agenda was scripted by City Clerk Audrey Sikes, whose job is to prepare the City's agendas. Ms. Sikes collaborated with Interim City Manager Mike Williams on the Council's questions. It is not clear if the Mayor or City Attorney contributed to the agenda.

The five candidates  were whittled down to four when Ken Bochette dropped out.

In alphabetical order, the candidates were: Abbie Chasteen, Befaithful Coker, Stephen A. Douglas, and Ricky Jernigan.

Off to the Races

Councilman Jake Hill
Councilman Jake Hill was the only Councilman who went off script with a riviting question.

None of the candidates was asked to wait outside. The Council scrapped the original plan, and they were called from the audience to the microphone.

Each gave their two-minute introduction, which wasn't much different than their filed letters of interest with the Clerk.

Only City Councilman Hill and Councilman Jefferson veered from the Sikes-Williams script.

Councilman Jefferson made a follow-up question with Ms. Coker about her community involvement, and Councilman Hill asked each candidate, “How do you feel about the relocation of the monument, the Confederate monument, in our City Park?”

The Council Discussion: It wasn't pretty.

Q: Can the City Council Choose a City Councilman By Secret Ballot? Ans.:  No

In 1971, an Attorney General Opinion prepared by Deputy Attorney General Stuart L. Simon, discussed a secret ballot to elect a chairman of a school board. Mr. Simon wrote:

“Election of a school board chairman by secret ballot is illegal.”

“The relevant language of s. 286.011, F.S., is to be found in subsection (1) thereof which states: "All meetings of any board or commission . . . at which official acts are to be taken are . . . open to the public at all times…." (Emphasis supplied.)”

“The phrase "at all times" indicates that the meeting shall be open to the public and the news media continuously during the period of the meeting. If at any time during the meeting the proceedings become covert, secret, or not wholly exposed to the view and hearing of the public and news media, then that portion of the meeting becomes violative of the statutory requirement imposed by the phrase "at all times." A secret ballot conducted at an otherwise open meeting constitutes a violation of the sunshine enactment, since the public and the news media are denied the right to know who voted for whom, and the meeting cannot therefore be regarded as "open to the public at all times." (Emphasis-ed.)

Subsection (1) of the Sunshine Law [286.011, F.S.], declares that no formal actions taken by any board or commission in violation of the statute "shall be considered binding."

In order to void the City Council’s secret ballot action, the Council would have to be brought to court by a person with standing to sue the City Council.

While this is not likely to happen, it doesn’t make the City’s secret ballot right.

City Attorney Fred Koberlein at Wednesday's special meeting.








The City Council began trying to select one of the candidates to fill the vacancy. It was not a pretty sight.

Audience members were snickering, laughing, and in awe of the ineptitude of its elected leaders and high placed public officials.

As ususal, there was no plan or contingeny plan, so they all winged it.

The Rules: Really

The practice and policy of the City Council is to memorialize its rules by ordinance. It did that earlier in the year, and its refried ordinance (2021-2178) made chop meat out of the original.

The City’s rules require a motion and second to move an item into debate (or discussion). This rule parallels Robert's Rules which "govern the deliberations of the council."

In plain English, this means the Council can't start talking because it feels like it.

They did it anyway. The Council hemmed and hawed until City Attorney and de facto parliamentarian Fred Koberlein, Jr., jumped in.

Mr. Koberlein recommended that the Mayor “check to see if there were any other motions.” There were none.

Then Mr. Koberlein opined: "Being a small board, you’re allowed to have some discussion before there is a motion and a second on the floor.”

City CouncilmanTodd Sampson at the "pick a councilman" meeting.
City Councilman Todd Sampson has five daughters. Your reporter filed a question for the Council to be asked to the candidates: "Do you think a woman should be on the City Council?" No one asked the question.

Neither the City’s rules nor Robert’s Rules allow for this. These are the rules the City goes by. There is no "small board" rule.

Mr. Koberlein continued, "Based on what I've heard already, that may or may not [unintelligible]. You also may suspend rules. It requires a second. And it requires a two-thirds vote… It sounds like you may need to go to a different evaluation system, which you'll need to discuss and vote on, and then implement that evaluation system…."

With the Council flopping around like a fish out of water, the Council might have picked up on that. It didn't.

Mr. Koberlein continued, “Even without waiving the rules, you may have discussions before there is a motion and a second.”

Mr. Koberlein doubled down on his previous bogus conclusion. The Council did not inquire.

Ricky Jernigan asked, “Can I speak.”

Mayor Witt looks to City Attorney Koberlein for guidance.

Mayor Witt said, “No.”

There was whispering going at the dais, a clear violation of the Florida Sunshine Law. City Attorney/Parliamentarian Koberlein ignored the whispering.

Dennille Decker asked that folks be heard.

She was just ignored.

Stephen Douglas asked if the Council wanted to hear from them [the candidates].

He was ignored.

The Secret Ballot

City Councilman Jefferson concentrates.

The Council began filling out secret scoring sheets without waiving any rules, although it was not clear if everyone or the Councilmen knew what was going on.

Mr. Koberlein asked that the ballots, [the secret ballots], “Have some initials or name on them.”

Councilman Sampson asked, “Is the idea that at the end of this, this would be the pick?"

Mayor Witt answered, “Yes.”

Mr. Sampson said he was not in favor of that. “I think we need to discuss it and get three people on the same team… We need to collectively discuss it,” He said.

Mayor Witt volunteered, “The two I can go along with is Ms. Coker and Mr. Douglas – would be my first two.”

Clerk Sikes asked Mr. Jefferson how he was ranking the candidates.

Mr. Jefferson didn’t seem sure. He was filling out a scrap of paper with his picks.

Mayor Witt told Mr. Jefferson, “Four will be your favorite.”

Sylvester Warren asked, "Mr. Mayor, do those [the secret ballots] become public record?"

Mayor Witt answered, “Yes.”

Clerk Sikes and Interim City Manager Mike Williams tally the secret ballots.
Clerk Sikes and Interim City Manager Mike Williams tally the secret ballots.

City Clerk Sikes and Interim City Manager Williams tallied the secret ballots.

After they were gathered up, Clerk Sikes announced the results: “We’ll go in alphabetical order. Chasteen: 9; Coker: 9; Douglas: 12; Jernigan: 10.”

Mr. Sampson, who a little while before was in favor of collective discussion, immediately made a motion to appoint Mr. Douglas.

Mr. Jefferson, who earlier named Bea Coker as his first pick and Ricky Jernigan as his second, seconded the motion.”

Stephen A. Douglas
Stephen Douglas as the City Council meeting got underway.

Your reporter asked for the results to be read again.

The Mayor announced the results and asked for discussion. There was none. The public was not invited to comment on this proposition before the board, a right guaranteed by Florida statutes and misunderstood by City Attorney Koberlein.

Councilman Hill voted against the results of the secret ballot.

Mayor Witt announced, “You've chosen Mr. Douglas, and that completes that process.”


Lake City: it is troubling times.

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