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Judge Squashes City’s Third Bite at the Apple: Orders City to explain why Befaithful Coker should not take her seat on the City Council

Photo of apple with bites missing and caption: Judge to Lake City: Stop! No more botes of the apple. The City couldn't get that right, either.
Photo via Pixabay | Columbia County Observer graphic

LAKE CITY, FL – The two-month saga of the Lake City City Council to fill its vacated seat continued on Monday evening. Once again, the Court got involved as Lake City’s City Attorney-Parliamentarian and candidate for Circuit Court judge, Fred Koberlein, Jr., guided the City through the process.

On September 9, 2021, City Councilman Chris Greene resigned from the City Council. In most of Florida, it would not be a big deal to fill the vacated seat. In Lake City, the City Council continues to flop around like a beached fish gasping for air as it tries and tries again to figure out what to do.

At 6 pm on Monday evening, November 8, Mayor Stephen Witt gaveled the Specially Called City Council meeting to order.

The purpose of the meeting was to again select a person to fill the vacated City Council seat.

The Council's Plan: ignore everything that had gone on before; throw three of the candidates back into the pot; and begin and conclude the process that evening.

Befaithful Coker with her attorney Natalie Kato as the meeting got underway.
Befaithful Coker (right) with her attorney Natalie Kato as the meeting got underway.

There Was Trouble in “River City”

widget_the-writEarlier in the day, 12:41 pm to be exact, Befaithful Coker filed a Petition for a Writ of Mandamus.

Cornell Law explains that a writ of mandamus is “deemed necessary when the actions or inaction of government bodies or corporate officials are so inappropriate or egregious that immediate, emergency action must be taken by the legal system.”

Ms. Coker’s writ asked the Court to enter an order to do the following:

 • Prevent the City Council from issuing any resolution to seat a Council member in District 14 other than Befaithful Coker;

• Set an immediate hearing date;

• Require the City Council to seat Befaithful Coker as a voting council member at the November 8th special council meeting.

The Court reviewed Ms. Coker's petition, and at 05:15 pm, the Court ordered that the City "Show Cause within 20 days" why Ms. Coker's petition should not be granted.

Additionally, the Court ordered the following:

All pending City Council proceedings related to filling the District I4 seat on the City Council are stayed pending this Court’s final resolution of the Verified Petition for Writ of Mandamus.

Cornell Law explains a “Stay of Proceedings” as a ruling by the Court to stop or suspend a proceeding temporarily or indefinitely.

That did not happen: it’s Lake City, where stop does not necessarily mean "stop."

In the days before the special meeting, black social media had a call to arms, endorsing and requesting that anybody and everybody that knew candidate Ricky Jernigan come to the meeting to sing his praises and convince the City Council to install him in the vacated seat.

Steve Smith endorsing Stephen Douglas twice.
Chamber of Commerce member Steve Smith added some humor to the meeting when he changed identies from a citizen to a Chamber of Commerce member by putting on his Chamber badge, and then endorsing Stephen Douglas twice.

Did the City Councilmen Know About the Lawsuit?

That is hard to say in the world of Lake City. Court documents show that both the City Attorney and City Clerk were served. The Certificate of Service states: "I hereby certify that on November 8, 2021, a copy of the foregoing [the petition] has been filed with the Clerk via the e-Portal, and I have caused a copy to be furnished electronically to the following." (emphasis added)

The "following" were City Attorney Koberlein and City Clerk Sikes.

The Certificate of Service was executed by Natalie Kato, Ms. Coker’s Attorney.

As had happened with the prior Sunshine Law violation litigation, the City Council appeared clueless, although Councilman Sampson announced he knew of the litigation during the October 18 meeting.

The Special Meeting Begins. Does Anybody Tell Lake City What to Do?

6 pm: Mayor Witt gaveled the special meeting to order.

Mayor Witt invited public comment. All the comments were about the candidates.

Speaker after speaker came to the microphone to campaign for their chosen candidate.

Chamber of Commerce representative Steve Smith came to speak for Candidate Stephen Douglas claiming he, Mr. Smith, had two identies, one as a Chamber of Commerce representative and one as a regular civilian. He endorsed Mr. Douglas twice.

A couple of people came to the podium to speak for Ms. Coker.

Candidate Ricky Jernigan had a trainload of endorsers. An independent analysis of Mr. Jernigan's speakers showed that most of them lived outside of District 14.


Attorney Natalie Kato Explains the Lawsuit to the City Council

Ms. Kato came to the microphone:

“My name is Natalie Kato; I am the attorney for Befaithful Coker. Earlier this afternoon, as you well may be aware, we filed in Circuit Court a writ of mandamus, compelling this body to exercise their ministerial duty and to seat Ms. Coker as a member of this Council.

For those not familiar, a writ of mandamus is a well-recognized legal remedy to require a public official to discharge their duty.

Respectfully, I submit to you that that is the duty you have before you right now.

That motion is still pending before the Court, and we do intend to ask for a hearing on that motion tomorrow, but I am hopeful that we will not have to ask for that hearing…"

Ms. Kato explained that on November 1, Ms. Coker filed her notarized oath of office with the City Clerk. Ms. Kato continued:

"Under a plain reading of the law, specifically, your Charter, that action of taking her oath; notarizing it; signing it; and handing it to the Clerk is the only action that matters. That is basically the magic formula that vested her with the right as a council member."

Ms. Kato said Ms. Coker complied with the City Charter when she filed her oath with the City Clerk.

"Beyond your own Charter, the law in Florida is clear. Taking that official oath is an indispensable ingredient; some would say the magic ingredient, I would, that makes someone assume that office." [Ms. Kato mentioned the 1955 Florida Supreme Court case of Tappy vs. State. Her legal brief went back as far as 1803 in referencing the seminal U.S. Supreme Ct. Case of Marbury vs. Madison].
"I urge you to follow the plain language of your own Charter, which is also supported in Florida statute and the case law. Use this meeting to approve the resolution affirming Befaithful Coker, who in the eyes of the law is already a councilmember from District 14.”

Ms. Coker came to the microphone and asked the Council to affirm what it had already done.

Mr. Jernigan came next and began to speak.

As Mr. Jernigan spoke, City Attorney Koberlein signaled Ms. Kato over to his seat and handed her his laptop. She stepped away for a few moments, read the screen, smiled for the first time of the evening, and handed the laptop back to Mr. Koberlein.

On Mr. Koberlein’s laptop screen was the Circuit Court Order staying the proceedings.

The Order was emailed to both Mr. Koberlein and Ms. Kato at about 5:15 pm. Ms. Kato was in her car driving to the meeting. She did not open it, believing it was a letter of recusal from the Court.

City Attorney Fred Koberlein and his laptop
City Attorney spent the entire meeting, as he does all meetings, with his eyes mostly glued to his laptop.

Mr. Koberlein is constantly checking his email. He knew of Ms. Coker's lawsuit against the City when the meeting was gaveled to order at 6 pm. The Stay Order should have arrived in his in-box at around 5:15 pm. He announced neither.

Stay Order in hand, Mr. Koberlein watched Mr. Jernigan complete his presentation. Mr. Jernigan told the Council he, Ricky Jernigan, should be its choice because he had run for the office before and that during the last election, he finished in second place.

The City Attorney Interrupts the Meeting With an Announcement

Mr. Koberlein speaks: “Your Honor, I'm sorry to interrupt. The Court has issued an order this afternoon at five-eleven. The primary judge recused, was recused and a substituting judge, Judge Darrin Jackson, issued an order granting a stay in the proceedings, finding that the petition filed today by Befaithful Coker was legally sufficient to stay of proceedings and ordered the City to show cause within 20 days, why the petition should not be granted… In other words, the Court has told us to stop our proceedings in filling this vacant District 14 seat and file a response to the action within twenty days instead of proceeding."

"At this time, I would encourage you to Recess the meeting rather than adjourn it, and we'll come back at a later date."

Mayor Witt announced, “We'll be in Recess until the court makes its ruling.”

City Clerk Sikes asked, “Do you need a motion on that Fred [City Attorney Fred Koberlein]?”

Mr. Koberlein didn’t answer.

The City Council was still at the dais.

City Attorney Koberlein: Is He Thinking?

Had Mr. Koberlein read Robert's Rules for Dummies by C. Alan Jennings, he would have found that the "motion to Recess" provides a short break in the proceedings.

The latest version of Robert’s Rules, which Mr. Koberlein has claimed he uses, explains a Recess as "a short intermission in a meeting.”

To answer the Clerk’s question: a motion to Recess “must be seconded.”

According to Robert's Rules, Monday's Special Meeting should have been adjourned and continued “at the call of the chair.” This motion would have also required a second and a vote.


After the meeting, Ms. Coker told your reporter, "What nobody is talking about or seems to be worried about is that District 14 still doesn't have a representative."

Lake City, Florida: devolving into one popcorn moment after another.

The City that doesn't get embarrassed.

*update November 11: added judge's order

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