Political turmoil continues to bubble in High Springs
Published: Sunday, September 30, 2012 at 8:41 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, September 30, 2012 at 8:41 p.m.
It was quiet in High Springs on Thursday night, from the empty sidewalks and darkened storefronts to the surprisingly cordial City Commission meeting.
Calm and stability have been the exception in recent years at City Hall.
High Springs has gone through two city managers since October 2010; the city clerk is now on a second stint as an interim manager.
The city has had three police chiefs since August 2011 and two city attorneys this year. At Thursday’s meeting, city commissioners had no attorney to offer legal advice.
The turmoil has extended to the rank and file, as employee pay has been cut 6 percent.
Two recent lawsuits — including a wrongful termination suit filed by a former employee of the year — allege that Mayor Dean Davis, Vice Mayor Bob Barnas and Commissioner Linda Clark Gestrin routinely vote together to ignore the city’s charter and the rules of procedure for meetings.
Last week, a number of residents decided to fight back against what they see as a dysfunctional government by forming Concerned Citizens for a Better High Springs — a self-described, nonpartisan, nonpolitical group.
“This isn’t political,” Sharon Yeago said. “This isn’t personal. The facts are our government isn’t running well.”
The discord is being reflected not just in public perceptions but in actual costs to residents.
An example: The city carries public official insurance, which covers claims against a city for the actions of its elected officials and employees. The premium to renew the policy has gone from $13,764 to $121,816.
The reason? More lawsuits are expected.
“It is a direct result of the current situation at the city,” a representative of the Public Risk Insurance Agency wrote in an August email to the city’s finance director.
“The underwriter believes large claims are imminent.”
Lawsuits filed in August and September allege that the commission majority routinely ignores the city’s charter and rules of procedure for board meetings.
Christian Popoli, the city planner from June 2006 to April 2012, sued in September saying he lost his job because he would not go along with efforts to circumvent rules, including building code and permit requirements.
“Mr. Popoli was trying to do the right thing by having them abide by the rules and (commissioners) were trying to oust him because he was standing between them and what they wanted to do, which is not follow the rules,” said Linda Rice Chapman, the attorney for the plaintiffs in both recent suits.
Popoli, who was the 2008 employee of the year, lost his job when the commission majority eliminated the position from the budget in favor of a city engineer. That engineer resigned in early September.
Barnas said Popoli was laid off, not fired, and that the motivation was not retaliation. Instead, Barnas said, the commissioners wanted an engineer with planning experience.
He said the engineer turned out not to have that mix of experience, which he blamed on recently dismissed City Manager Jeri Langman.
Much of Popoli’s complaint is focused on Mayor Davis, who could not be reached for comment.
Popoli alleges that Davis targeted him for termination because he enforced the building code and permit requirements on downtown properties Davis owned, managed or served as the owners’ “self-styled go-between” with the city.
The lawsuit also notes Popoli’s cooperation in a state ethics complaint alleging Davis “misused his position to confront City staff regarding permits and inspections of properties.” The Florida Commission on Ethics dismissed that complaint in April 2011.
The suit also alleges that Davis targeted Popoli because he would not recommend approval of an application for a tax abatement from an assisted living facility. The facility, Plantation Oaks, did not create the required 25 jobs listed as one criteria in the economic development incentive program.
The suit alleges that Davis pushed for the abatement because he served as a “facilitator” when the company purchased its property in High Springs and received a fee for that service.
During a March 20 commission meeting, Davis said the city needed to find a way to grant the company a waiver from the requirements of the tax abatement ordinance since it purchased a property previously off the tax rolls, generating more than $50,000 annually in tax revenues. “I don’t mean break the law,” he said at that meeting. “I never did. I mean help the person find a way to meet the law but in a nice way.”
At that time, Davis said he would abstain from voting on the application for a tax abatement to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.
“I worked with them a little bit and helped them to buy it ... I do not work for them. I am not on the payroll,” Davis said at the March 20 meeting. “I will abstain from voting to avoid the appearance of impropriety.”
But Davis did vote at a May 24 meeting when commissioners voted 4-1, with Davis in the majority and Commissioner Scott Jamison dissenting, to pass a resolution to grant a waiver from the requirements of the tax abatement program and move the application ahead.
Popoli’s lawsuit also looks at the decision in 2011 to bring in Jeri Langman, a political supporter of Barnas with no prior government experience, first as interim and then full-time manager.
The suit claims that the commission set out to “recruit an inexperienced, uneducated, unemployed former office manager ...for the specific purpose of doing their bidding.”
The second suit involves the commission process for approving a charter referendum that goes to voters next month. It would prohibit the city from borrowing more than $1 million without a 4/5 approval of the City Commission and approval in a referendum.
The plaintiff in that suit is Ross Ambrose, who filed the ethics complaint against Davis that was dismissed in 2011.
The ordinance to schedule the referendum was publicly noticed with a $1 million cap on borrowing. At a July 31 meeting, the commission majority approved it with a $2 million cap.
After the vote, City Attorney Raymond Ivey, who had already noted he would resign because of the number of special meetings commissioners call, said the ordinance should be re-advertised and voted on at later public hearings because the increase in the borrowing limit was a substantial change.
Commissioners said they did not have time to do so to get it on the ballot. Barnas, who had left the meeting, then returned and commissioners voted to reconsider the prior vote on the ordinance.
After the majority passed that motion to reconsider, former City Attorney Thomas Depater stepped forward to say that the city, by its rules of procedure, could not vote up or down on the ordinance until a subsequent meeting.
The majority then waived the rules and approved the ordinance at the original $1 million limit. As Ivey and others discussed legal concerns, Barnas moved to adjourn the meeting and the majority voted to do so.
In an interview, Gerstrin defended the decision. “The rules are just the rules, and it says in our charter we may run our meetings as we see fit,” she said. “The rules, sometimes they’re helpful and sometimes they’re not. You can get more caught up talking about the rules than accomplishing the city’s business.”
As it stood last Thursday, High Springs was still searching for qualified people to lead the city’s operations — and dealing with questions about whether the city can attract the necessary talent.
There were 16 applicants for the vacant city manager’s position and two for city attorney. The budget for the city manager’s position called for a salary of less than $52,000, no money for a car allowance and budgets of $500 for both training/travel expenses and professional dues and memberships.
City Commissioner Scott Jamison wondered if High Springs could get the type of professional manager it needs to “steer us through troubled waters.”
“That’s not going to cut it,” he said. “We’re not going to get a professional city manager in here for these numbers.”
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