Stew Lilker’s

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Befaithful Coker Sues Lake City for Sunshine Law Violation & Other Things: Does It Understand?

Photo of the Marx Brothers on the phone with the caption: Lake City Florida - Is the City Council Listening? Is Anyone Taking the Council Seriously?
Photo: Wikimedia Commons - The Marx Brothers | Columbia County Observer graphic

LAKE CITY, FL – Monday afternoon, October 18, 2021, Befaithful Coker, a candidate for the vacated City Council seat of Chris Greene, sued the City. Ms. Coker claimed that the City Council violated the Florida Sunshine Law by doing a secret tally of the ballots of the Council members and illegally voting to award the vacated seat to Stephen A. Douglas.

Ms. Coker also claimed that the City Council violated the City Charter and the Rules of the City Council when it voted to award Mr. Douglas the vacated seat.

Scheduled at the top of Monday’s meeting agenda was a resolution appointing Mr. Douglas as a Council Member.

Link to resolution awarding Stephen Douglas a city council seatA look at the upper left-hand corner shows the resolution is dated October 13, 2021. This date would be the date that the City Attorney or his firm would have penned the resolution.

It is unclear whether the resolution was available at the October 13 meeting and was not pulled out of a hat at the last minute.

While the resolution was dated the 13th, the same day as the meeting, it was not made available until 1:05 pm on the afternoon of Monday’s October 18 meeting.

At the Monday, October 18 meeting, your reporter asked, "The resolution dated the 13th. At one o'clock this afternoon, that resolution got added to the City agenda. How is that possible?

There was no response from the City Council or the City Attorney.

Yesterday afternoon, October 19, the Clerk said the resolution appeared in the Clerk’s Office on Saturday, October 16, at 12:14 pm.

The Monday Meeting
The Coker Law Suit Gets Added to the Agenda, Sort Of

Befaithful Coker and Victoria at the City Council (2010)
Befaithful Coker, fighting for good Lake City government, with her daughter by her side. (2010)

As the meeting got underway, Mayor Witt said, "It's my understanding there is a matter that needs to be addressed as item number three, with that amendment to the agenda. Is there a motion to approve the agenda?

The Mayor did not explain the amendment.

The Council did not inquire.

City Attorney Koberlein interjected, “I did not hear when we placed it, but it would be the lawsuit that was filed. It would need to be addressed immediately before number three.” (Three was the resolution adding Mr. Douglas to the City Council)

Mayor Witt said, “OK –unintelligible-“

The amended agenda was approved.

Befaithful Coker, one of the candidates for the vacated City Council Seat, was recognized by the Mayor to address the Council. Before taking the microphone, she handed the City Council copies of the lawsuit she filed earlier in the day against the City.

Ms. Coker told the Council, "I would ask for the City Attorney to make a recommendation to the Council. That's it. Thank you."

After listening to other members of the public, Ms. Coker's lawsuit was addressed.

City Attorney Koberlein Addresses the City Council

Mr. Koberlein:

“A lawsuit has been filed this afternoon. It has not been served on the City. It is titled Befaithful Coker vs. City of Lake City, Florida. City Council… the summons was filed at 2:34 this afternoon.”

“I was able to reach out to some of you all, as well as the opposing counsel that filed it on behalf of Ms. Coker. [There seems to be some question regarding who reached out to whom. It appears Ms. Coker’s attorney reached out to Mr. Koberlein]. The complaint makes two broad allegations, I’m sorry, two broad requests for relief. The first is a writ of mandamus to hold the evaluation process of the currently vacated City Council member seat over. And two: a declaratory ask for --  declaratory relief finding -- that Ms. Coker’s position is correct, and that the Sunshine Law was violated last Wednesday during the Council's consideration of filling the currently vacant council seat.”

City Attorney Fred Koberlein addressing the City Council“Those two broad complaints are based on allegations that I’ll summarize as number one of two things is that when the Council ranked the four applicants that was considered a secret ballot.”

“Number two, that the rules of city Council meetings were violated because there was not a motion and second on the floor, prior to the Council discussing the rankings, as well as other discussions.”

“I can tell you that whether or not the rankings were a secret ballot would be a factual decision for the Circuit Court. The Council, at least one member, was adamant that the rankings would not be binding on the Council when they were calculated and that we recount the other Council members deferred to that.”

“Once the rankings were made public, then the Council considered a motion to appoint Stephen A. Douglas, and it was passed 3 to 1.”

Mr. Koberlein continued:

"But the rankings were not binding. It was another form of evaluation just as you had done earlier in the evening, but a court will have to determine whether or not those rankings were secret ballots, in fact, or simply rankings as you might -- unintelligible -- in your meetings."

 “The second is that the Council did pass rules earlier this year. In those rules, the Council must comply with Robert's rules of order. You do not have to look far into Robert's rules of order, although they are hundreds of pages long to find that small boards are afforded much more leniency. You don't have to look far, because it is in the very first rule. And that a small board is a board consisting of less than 12 members and that discussions are permitted also, for example, the chairperson's allowed to make a motion, or second and vote. And one other, among many other leniencies, are that you don't have to stand up and be recognized in order to speak and go from your seat.”

Was It a Secret Ballot?

Clerk Sikes and Interim City Manager Mike Williams tally the secret ballots.
Clerk Sikes and Interim City Manager Mike Williams tally the secret ballots on October 13.

Councilman Jefferson, Hill, and the Mayor wrote down their first choice and others on pieces of paper provided by the Clerk. Mr. Sampson used his own slip of paper.

Each Council Member wrote down their picks from one to four. They were not made public before the tally, and after the meeting, they were packed up by the Clerk and carried away.

The latest edition of Robert’s Rules is clear: Section 4:56 states in relevant part, “If the presiding officer is a member of the assembly or voting body, he has the same voting right as any other member…however – unless the vote is secret (that is, unless it is by ballot) – the chair protects his impartial position by exercising his voting right only when his vote would affect the outcome…

Rober's Rules: Secret Ballot

The Councilmen wrote down their votes by ballot.

The City Attorney and Robert’s Rules.

1968 cover of Robert's RulesThere are numerous editions of Robert’s Rules. City ordinance 2021-2178 has been updated numerous times since its inception in 1968. However, the section of the City Rules which states that “Except in conflict with the provisions of this section, Robert's Rules of Order, Newly Revised, shall govern the deliberations of the council,” has not been revised to include any language updating the 1968 version of Robert’s Rules.

If the Council were to claim that it follows the latest edition, then Mr. Sampson's and the City Attorney's quoting of the Rules are not coming from the latest edition and neither Mr. Sampson nor City Attorney Koberlein state which edition of Robert's rules they quote from.

This is another City mess.

City Attorney Koberlein:
Was He Telling the Truth? Did Ms. Coker's Attorney Concede?

As the evening's meeting got underway, Steven Douglas' name was in the dock. At the end of the meeting, it was still there.

Mr. Koberlein said, “The opposing counsel and I had a very constructive conversation this afternoon, and he concedes that in order for the Council to cure any alleged defects, the Council would simply need to hold another open meeting; recognize that it would need to be noticed, properly published, and you would evaluate the candidates over again."

Ms. Coker spoke with your reporter after the meeting; she said she spoke with her attorney: "I gave him Fred's cell number. He didn't concede anything."

Mr. Koberlein explained his take on what Ms. Coker was asking for in her law suit, "The Council would simply need to hold another open meeting; recognize that it would need to be noticed, properly published, and you would evaluate the candidates over again."

Mr. Koberlein continued:

City Attorney Fred Koberlein“You don't have to admit that you did anything wrong. Or you can admit that something was improper. Either way, you would simply have another public meeting to cure those defects."

 "Alternatively, you can defend the lawsuit and seek the court's approval of your procedures. That would look like something taking several months to get through the court system."

 "We would have an emergency hearing on whether or not the Council would be enjoined from seating anyone until the case was heard by the Circuit Court. You would then ask the insurance carrier to defend the Council's proceedings. I'm not certain the insurance carrier would take up that defense because there is no claim to monetary relief. Generally, there has to be some claim for compensation."

"If the insurance carrier did not pick up the defense, the Council or the City would have to pay for the legal defense."

"Those are your options to defend the suit or to consider having another public meeting and going over the items again. ..”

The City Council Speaks

Councilman Hill made a motion to table the resolution installing Mr. Douglas.

Mr. Koberlein advised the Council would have to wait until the discussion about Ms. Coker’s lawsuit was finished.

link to secret ballots
These ballots were not available to the public at the meeting.

Councilman Sampson said he never saw what happened as a secret ballot, “which is why I was against it from the beginning, well not particularly, but – I – It was a ranking system like we've used many times.”

Since Mr. Sampson has been on the Council, it has not ranked  anything "like we've used many times."

He continued, "If it is what it takes to save us from spending money to win a lawsuit … it's unfortunate, but although I think it would, in my opinion, win.  ... We definitely follow Robert's rules. If you read Robert's rules page 1, you would understand that… I’ll probably go with whichever way it is cheapest for the City...”

After Mr. Koberlein read the resolution to install Mr. Douglas, Councilman Hill motioned to table it. Mr. Jefferson seconded the motion.

Mayor Witt listens to Attorney Koberlein.
Mayor Witt listens to Attorney Koberlein.

Mayor Witt opined, "My comment was because we just got handed it [the lawsuit] tonight; I agree with tabling it. I disagree with making a decision to have another interview or to defend the lawsuit. I think we need time to look into it. And our attorney to look into it, and maybe decide what direction we want to go…."

Mr. Sampson weighed in again, “I have a question for the attorney. If we table the motion, but we decide to move forward, could we have a special litigation meeting?”

Mr. Koberlein replied, “We’ll need to wait until we are actually served with the lawsuit before we go into a litigation session.”

The City Attorney was served electronically with the lawsuit. The City had a copy of Ms. Coker’s request for a restraining order. This was enough for the City to be on notice and immediately go into a “shade” meeting to discuss its litigation strategy.

The City had 60 days from September 9 to fill the vacated City Council seat.

Councilman Hill wanted another interview. Mr. Sampson said “if there is another interview, the line of questioning should be a little different.”

Mr. Hill’s motion to table the installation of Mr. Douglas failed on a 2-2 vote, with Mayor Witt and Mr. Sampson voting against.

Mayor Witt asked for another motion:

Mr. Sampson asked, “If we don't choose someone to sit in that seat, what’s the repercussions?”

Councilman Jefferson listens to Attorney Koberlein.
Councilman Jefferson listens to Attorney Koberlein.

Mr. Koberlein answered, “You could be the recipient of another writ of mandamus.” [another lawsuit]

Mr. Sampson announced, “From my perspective, it was a legal process."

Mayor Witt reiterated that it should be tabled and considered at a special meeting “and get our bearings.”

Mr. Sampson asked the Mayor if they would have to have two special meetings if they didn't decide on a process tonight. The Mayor said they would need two meetings.

Mr. Koberlein entered the conversation: “I think that right now you should consider whether or not you're going to move forward with the resolution that's on the agenda… You will not need two meetings to vet out what your evaluation meeting is going to look like. I'll remind you, that we had the item on an agenda a few meetings ago about how the evaluation process was going to look. And what was determined at that meeting is not the evaluation process that resulted in an appointment last Wednesday. You do not have to have a clearly defined evaluation process…."

Councilmen Sampson Swings for the Bleachers

Councilman Todd Sampson wanted to bulldoze Stephen Douglas into the vacant seat, disregarding Ms. Coker's lawsuit against the City.
Councilman Todd Sampson wanted to bulldoze Stephen Douglas into the vacant seat, disregarding Ms. Coker's lawsuit against the City.

It wasn’t clear if Mr. Sampson understood the lawsuit. It appeared he did speak with Mr. Koberlein after Mr. Koberlein received the lawsuit. Mr. Koberlein did not divulge with whom he spoke. Generally, he rarely does.

Out of nowhere, Mr. Sampson said, “I’d like to make a motion that we approve City Council Resolution 2021-154.” (The resolution installing Mr. Douglas)

There was no second.

Councilman Jefferson said something that was totally unintelligible.

Mr. Jefferson said he thought there was a motion.

Mr. Sampson made a motion to table and "discuss further action at the end of the meeting."

This motion passed.

Back to Item Three: the installation of Mr. Douglas

Mr. Sampson said, “I think we have to have a special meeting.”

Mayor Witt said Tuesday, October 26, was good.

The City Clerk asked the purpose of the special meeting.

Mayor Witt said, “That’s what I was going to ask Mr. Koberlein. We can discuss it. Could we actually take action that night?”

While the discussion continued, Steven Douglas sat quitely taking notes.
While the discussion continued, Steven Douglas sat quitely taking notes.

Mr. Koberlein responded, “You could advertise it just as you did or very similar to the last agenda of October 13. The item could be almost verbatim. The bigger question is how will you all conduct your evaluations. I can tell you it's legally sufficient to draw names out of a hat. That leaves you with little direction from your attorney…."

The Clerk asked about the meeting notice.

Mr. Sampson waited for a second to discuss the motion. Waiting for a "second" has been the practice and policy since this reporter has been covering the City (2006).

Mr. Sampson talked about the process of the October 13 Council meeting, the cause of Ms. Coker’s lawsuit:  “I think we were extremely fair last time when we followed the rules that needed to be followed. So from my perspective, I think we completed the process. I think what happened thereafter is then we were served with a lawsuit, and rather than put the City on the hook to defend that lawsuit and win it, we’re going to revisit the process. That’s the way I see it.”

link to motion for Oct 26 special meetingThe Clerk read the motion into the record:

"Motion to have a special meeting on October twenty-sixth at 6 pm for the purpose of discussion and action by the City Council – selecting a City Council member for District 14 – revisiting of October 13, 2021, previously filed applications."

The motion passed unanimously.

The Mayor adjourned the meeting.


Get your popcorn and get ready to tune in on October 26 at 6 pm.

Lake City, Florida: the saga continues.

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