High Springs sees continuing turnover and tumult
Published: Wednesday, January 25, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 25, 2012 at 7:30 p.m.
It’s a time of political tumult and continuing turnover in High Springs.
For the second time in five months, the city needs a police chief.
Earlier this month, former City Attorney Tom DePeter resigned after city commissioners had put the wheels in motion to terminate him. On Tuesday, a divided City Commission voted 3-2 to hire a new attorney amid some discord.
This week started with Interim Police Chief Bill Benck giving two weeks notice and a brief letter of resignation on Monday. By Tuesday afternoon, he had submitted a lengthy email detailing areas of dispute with Interim City Manager Jeri Langman, who oversees the police department.
In an email also sent to commissioners, Benck wrote to Langman that he had “several serious issues with the way you have treated this department and some of its employees.”
“I understand he had a disagreement with the city manager about his hours and how he was to operate the department,” City Commissioner Bob Barnas said.
In email exchanges and memos leading up to Benck’s resignation, Langman pressed him to form a task force to address issues of young drivers “partying and racing” with four-wheelers and pickup trucks along a roadway in the city and “to implement a directive” that all officers should proactively enforce the city’s noise ordinance.
In a Jan. 18 memo, Langman also requested that Benck inform her when he leaves the city limits for more than one hour during working hours and that he either be in his office or on patrol during the working day.
By memo and email, Benck offered his retort to each concern raised. Law enforcement agencies established task forces to address multi-jurisdictional crime issues and a “problem with ATV riders and young drivers on a roadway near your neighborhood” did not warrant such a move, he wrote. On the noise ordinance, he wrote that the city’s officers are instructed to be “proactive” in all duties and that Langman’s request to focus on the noise ordinance “came after an incident involving one of your friends and the Great Outdoors restaurant” in downtown High Springs. He said his job takes him out of town for meetings or trips to the Clerk of Courts or State Attorney’s Office and had “no normal office hours.”
Benck also objected that Langman did not allow him to move forward with the termination of an officer who was still in the probationary period of employment.
“As a law enforcement officer for 30 years, I am comfortable taking orders,” Benck wrote. “Orders however should be based on experience, knowledge of the subject and well thought out. If the person giving the orders lacks any of these components, then more qualified persons should be consulted, the orders revised and then issued.”
Langman’s own hiring in late November was not free of controversy. Langman was a former office manager with an insurance firm who had no previous government administration experience. She was hired 3-2 to replace City Clerk Jenny Parham as interim manager.
Wednesday, Langman said if Benck had an issue taking direction from a supervisor with no law enforcement experience, “I can understand that.”
“My only request to Chief Benck was that he work at least 40 hours a week and be in his office or on patrol,” she said. “I do not try to run the police department. But I do have to be responsible for the police department, so everyone has to pull their weight.”
Benck, who declined comment while still a city employee, had a lengthy career with the Gainesville Police Department before former High Springs Police Chief Jim Troiano hired him as a lieutenant in December 2010. He has been acting chief since late August, when Troiano’s contract was terminated in a budget-cutting move.
Langman said Wednesday that she would likely ask the Sheriff’s Office for permission to put in place an interim chief from its ranks.
City Commissioner Eric May also spoke in support of that move.
“Given the political climate right now, I think that the best option is bringing in someone from outside to unify the department,” he said.
Meanwhile, on Tuesday, commissioners voted, with Mayor Dean Davis and Commissioner Linda Gestrin in dissent, to select Raymond Ivey of the Gainesville firm Scruggs & Carmichael as city attorney. The selection of Ivey over Brent Baris, an attorney based in High Springs, was not without some verbal sparring. May said “at a time when political turmoil is running rampant,” commissioners should select Ivey not only because his hourly rate was lower but because Baris and his family members had supported some commissioners’ campaigns.
When Langman was hired in November, May, who voted against the move, noted that she and her husband had supported some commissioners’ campaigns, including his own.
His comments Tuesday prompted Gerstrin to question if Ivey had not done legal work with Langman and her husband, Ron Langman.
Ron Langman, who was at the meeting, then announced from the audience that his wife would resign as interim manager if Gestrin persisted with such talk.
Moving ahead, commissioners will have to reach an accord on the hiring of a permanent manager, which the city has been without since former Manager Jim Drumm resigned under pressure in October 2010.