HIGH SPRINGS – The City of High Springs may ask its citizens during the upcoming special election on April 10 to approve a change in the City Charter that governs the city and the commission-employee relationship.

During the Thursday, Feb. 23, meeting, Vice Mayor Bob Barnas suggested amending the charter so that the commission does not have to go through the city manager to delegate tasks to employees.

Charter Section 2.06 states: “…nor shall the Commission or any of its members give orders to any employee other than Commission orders to a Charter Officer.  The Commission or its members shall deal on all matters through the appropriate Charter Officer.”

Currently, High Springs operates under a city manager form of government, which requires that commissioners go through the city manager to give any direction to another city staff member.

“It seems ludicrous that we can’t talk to an employee,” Barnas said. He said his requests would get done either way – through him directing the city manager or through talking directly to the city staff – and he feels that it hinders the city for him, and other commissioners, to be required to jump through those hoops.

In a recent instance, Barnas said he instructed High Springs City Manager Jeri Langman to inform an employee on a certain matter, and 30 seconds later, Langman was sending an email to the employee. In the future, he said, it might not always be so easy to get in contact with the city manager.

Thomas DePeter, the City of High Springs former attorney, came to the podium during citizen’s comments and asked if the commission would be telling everyone who works for the city that they now have six bosses, instead of one.

Barnas would like to see a referendum on the upcoming election ballot that asks the High Springs voters what they think about changing the charter.  When asked by Alachua County Today to comment further on his decision to move toward changing the charter, Barnas declined.

He did say that if the request to place the referendum on the upcoming charter is denied due to time constraints, he would definitely like to see it on a ballot in the next election, which will be held in November.

Commissioner Linda Gestrin agrees with Barnas, but takes it a step further to say that the commission should consider eliminating the city manager form of government all together.

Adjusting the current charter, Gestrin said, would simply be a band-aid. She would like to see a restoration of checks and balances.

Commissioner Sue Weller is against a restructure of the charter and a change of government form. With a form of government that enables commissioners to direct city employees, Weller said it opens the potential for one commissioner to direct staff one way and another to direct him or her in a different way.

“It opens it up to cronyism,” Weller said. Weller added that with five individuals handling day-to-day city activities, the government can end up favoring a certain individual or company. In addition, commissioners would become responsible for hiring and firing of city employees, which could lead to the commission selecting friends for staff positions.

Weller told Barnas to consider the possibility that he orders a city employee to do something illegal, which would set the city up for liability issues. It was then suggested that commissioners direct only department heads, such as the police chief and the fire chief, in an effort to eliminate the possibility of ordering an employee to violate the law.

Mayor Dean Davis did not voice an opinion whether he agreed or disagreed with Barnas’s proposal.

“Our charter is not very concise,” Davis said. “It’s convoluted.”

The commission will take up the matter again on Saturday, March 10, at the commission retreat at the Civic Center from 8 a.m. to noon. The meeting is open and the public is welcome to attend.

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Mill_Creek_DSCN4932_copyWith more than 130 horses on 265 acres in Alachua, the Retirement Home for Horses at Mill Creek Farm shells out some $800 on hay per week.

ALACHUA – When US Army Sgt. First Class Possum retired, he faced an uncertain future.

During his 14 years serving, he performed at parades, rodeos, cultural and community events for the Fort Carson Mounted Color Guard in Colorado. But despite his hard work and dedication, the United States Army doesn’t provide much of a retirement plan to aging horses.

Lucky for him and his fellow Color Guard, Master Sgt. Houdini, a space was available for both of them at the Retirement Home for Horses at Mill Creek Farm - a place where neglected, abused or overworked horses can retire in peace, roaming over 265 acres of green pastures.

The two arrived at Mill Creek Farm with certificates of appreciation signed by the Commander-in-Chief Barack Obama, thanking them both for their service. Houdini has since passed away, but Possum still calls the farm his home.

He can thank Peter and Mary Gregory, who spent $1.5 million from the sale of their hotel to open the retirement home. Most horses that retire from police departments end up being auctioned and eventually slaughtered, Peter said.

Today, Mill Creek Farm, which is located at 20307 NW CR 235A, Alachua, survives because of private donations from people who support the cause.  On March 24, the farm will hold its only fundraiser, the Fourth Annual Spring Sale. In yard-sale fashion, the farm sets out 25 tables laden with donated goods, such as jewelry, cookware, tools, pet items and much more.

Mill Creek Farm is currently accepting items from the community until March 19. After that, volunteer Georgia Crosby will work to categorize, price and pack away the items until the day of the sale.

“It’s for the horses,” Crosby said. “That’s why I do it.”

Annually, it takes approximately $2,200 to care for a horse at the farm, and Mill Creek has 131 horses. Crosby hopes to raise $5,000 this year at the spring sale. Last year, they had an estimated 400 visitors and raised $3,500.

For those interested in donating to the spring sale, the farm is unable to accept items such as clothing, bed linens, computers, printers, exercise equipment and large furniture. Cash donations are always welcome, and each donation is tax deductible.

According to the website, donations are down, but the price of hay is up due to the drought. Peter said approximately $800 a week is spent on hay.

To keep the farm running year round, Peter estimated that it costs $250,000. However, the Gregorys no longer have to spend their own money to keep the place in business. They donated the land to the Retirement Farm for Horses, Inc., which places a conservation easement on the land and ensures that it will always be a place for horses to retire. Retirement Farm for Horses, Inc. is a non-profit that promises the horses who find their way to Mill Creek that they will never be ridden or worked again.

In a golf cart piled high with his dogs, the other four-legged residents at Mill Creek, Peter drives around the farm doling out carrots to the horses. He knows each horse by name, easily recalling the sad story that brought them to Mill Creek. The farm is home to previous show horses, circus horses and horses that were used in scientific experiments – all pushed beyond what they could handle.

When the horses do pass away, they are buried in the “Field of Dreams,” and a tree is planted in their honor.

“I would rather do something like this in my old age than sit at home, waiting to die,” Peter said.

According to the Mill Creek website, the farm is open to guests every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. The price of admission is two carrots. After all, the retirees love them.

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HIGH SPRINGS – Qualifying for a special election in the city of High Springs opens Monday, March 5.  Anyone wishing to seek a seat on the High Springs City Commission must fill out the necessary documents in the qualifying packet available from City Hall, and submit them before the March 9 deadline

Any registered voter in the City of High Springs may seek a seat on the commission.

Set for Tuesday, April 10, the special election was scheduled after former commissioner Eric May resigned from the commission on Jan. 31.

The winning candidate will serve the remainder of May’s term, which is set to expire November 2012.

Qualifying documents must be submitted while City Hall is open between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. from March 5 through March 9.

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HIGH SPRINGS –Mayor Dean Davis wants to restrict public comments and ban filming at commission meetings.  That’s according to an email Davis sent Feb. 22 asking City Manager Jeri Langman to pass his sentiments on to the other three commissioners.

“I feel that citizen input should be only for items not on the agenda,” Davis wrote in his email to Langman.  “We have tried to allow input during the agenda items, but it has turned into a time to bash all decisions made by the commission, and city manager,” he said.

Davis added that allowing public input has lengthened meetings and, “…is certainly not fostering civility nor open discussion.”

The mayor seems to admit that many of the comments come from people who disagree with actions of the commission, writing, “I have found much of the input to be a time to vent the obvious contempt for the present commission and city manager.”

Davis goes on to take aim at media coverage of meetings.  “The unnecessarily negative blogs by people that put their spin on it has raised the question of responsible journalism in my mind.”

But Davis doesn’t stop with public comments and media coverage.  In the email, he stated his intentions of putting an end to people filming the meetings.

“I will request that all private filming during commission meetings be prohibited,” he wrote, suggesting that he obtained legal opinions confirming that such a ban could be implemented.  He said his reason for seeking the filming prohibition was his concern that the filming was disrupting the meeting and causing conversation in the audience.

He wrote that the filming is “Being used to further a political agenda that is not compatible with the will of the commission.”  Davis added, “Much of the information being put out as fact is in reality fiction.”

In an email response to Davis, City Manager Langman stated that it is the opinion of the Florida Attorney General that the City cannot ban “videoing or recording” of the meetings.

She also addressed Davis’ suggestion that citizen comments only be permitted on items not on the agenda.  Langman wrote, “This is something that was addressed during a meeting and there was a consensus to allow public comment after each agenda item both new and old business.”

Langman said eliminating public comments is a matter that should be discussed and decided by a majority of the commission before it is changed again.  As a means of addressing some of Davis’ concerns, Langman recommended that he remind speakers to stay on topic when addressing the commission.

When contacted by Alachua County Today for further clarification about why he wanted public input eliminated and filming banned, Davis said he had no comment.

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NEWBERRY – Newberry resident Matt Hersom said he had to yell to have a conversation with his neighbor over the fence to be heard over the music from a nearby restaurant.

Though he’s been told in the past to keep in mind that local businesses are trying to make a living, that is no excuse for the loud music, Hersom said at Monday night’s city commission meeting.

“I don’t think excessively loud music is necessary for this to occur,” Hersom said.

Newberry’s noise ordinance wasn’t on the evening’s agenda, but there was some discussion about the matter. City Attorney Scott Walker said he was hopeful that the first draft of the noise ordinance rewrite would be available at the next commission meeting.

Commissioners debated whether the phrase “plainly audible” would be included in the ordinance. Walker believed that if there was not a definitive, qualitative measurement, it would be difficult to prosecute based on the subjective language of “plainly audible.”

Alachua County Sheriff’s Office Sergant Kaley A. Behl said her office has filed sworn complaints relating to the noise problem in Newberry. These sworn complaints were given to the City, which can not act upon them because of the subjective nature of the current ordinance.

Commissioners also expressed concern over using a decibel meter because there is only one meter at the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office. Though there is a decibel reader in Newberry, there is a limited number of people who can operate the machine in both the sheriff’s office and the city.

Commissioner Alena Lawson believes that law enforcement and city officials should be given more options to enforce the ordinance.

“It’s going to defeat the purpose if they don’t have at least two or three options,” she said.

Though there were no definitive results at the commission meeting about the ordinance, which Walker calls a “work in progress,” citizens’ comments showed that the issue is a problem.

Some people just want results.

“We have complained and complained and complained and complained and we’ve had no results,” Newberry resident Martha Palmer said at the meeting.

On the other hand, the owner of Rocky’s Place, Rocky Voglio, said that he is doing everything he can to accommodate the existing ordinance. The family-style restaurant was found in violation of the ordinance on a recent Friday night.

Voglio said he has spent $200 to order a decibel meter that he hopes to have in by this week. Despite his efforts, Voglio said he still thinks there will be complaints even when keeping within the noise limits because citizens have “zeroed in” on certain individuals.

“That’s all I can do is try,” the restaurant owner said. “But I don’t think it’s going to matter.”

Further discussion about the noise ordinance will take place at the next commission meeting on March 12.

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Robbery_2-25-12 Police are looking for a masked robber (left) and another man (right) belived to be connected to a robbery at gunpoint Feb. 25.

ALACHUA – A man wearing a black ski mask was responsible for an armed robbery at the S&S Food Store at 13820 NW 140th Street, Alachua, police officers say.

The robbery reportedly happened around 10 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25, just steps away from Irby Elementary School.  That’s when, Alachua Police Department (APD) detectives say, a black man entered the convenience store, pointed a black semi-automatic pistol at the store clerk and demanded cash from the register.

The clerk was not harmed during the robbery, but an undetermined amount of cash was taken.

The man was described as wearing a black hoodie style sweatshirt, dark colored jeans, and a black ski mask with a blue skull printed on the face, APD Detective Jesse Sandusky said.

Police believe the man may have left the scene in a white minivan with another person.  That minivan was reported to have driven north on NW 140th street.

A second man, who may have served as a distraction, is also wanted for questioning in relation to the incident.  Police have released still images from surveillance video of both men.

Sandusky is requesting anyone with information to contact his office at 386-462-1396 or remain anonymous by calling the Crimestoppers hotline at 352-372-STOP.

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ALACHUA COUNTY -- Repairs to both northbound and southbound lanes of Interstate 75 in Paynes Prairie are scheduled for Wednesday night and early Thursday morning with up to two lanes closed just south of mile marker 379, or about five miles south of Gainesville, according to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT).

 Beginning at 8 p.m. Wednesday, weather pending, the southbound middle and outside lanes will be closed while about 400 feet of the pavement is removed and replaced. A small section of the outside paved shoulder will also be resurfaced.

 After the southbound lanes are completed, asphalt crews will move to the northbound lanes to resurface about 150 feet of the middle and inside lanes. Both sides of the interstate should be completed before 6 a.m. Thursday.

 The repairs are needed after the pavement was burned and gouged in a series of crashes that took place Jan. 29.

 Anderson Columbia Company of Lake City was hired by FDOT to make the repairs at a cost of $69,000. In the event of rain or unexpected colder temperatures, the work will be postponed until a later date.

 This section of I-75 from Gainesville south to the Marion County line is not funded for resurfacing in the next five years.

 The speed limit will be reduced to 60 mph during the lane closures and motorists are reminded to slow down and use caution in the area when workers are present.

 US 441 is an alternate route that motorists may use between Williston Road (State Road 121) (Exit 382) and County Road 234 (Micanopy) (Exit 374) during the lane closures in the event traffic backs up.

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