Cites pending lawsuits, bad decisions

HIGH SPRINGS – John Glanzer, who previously served as the mayor of Newberry as well as Archer’s interim city manager, respectfully declined a Sept. 24 invitation by the High Springs City Commission to step in as interim city manager.

Citing the City’s legal problems as his main concern, Glanzer said that, on advice of attorneys he consulted, it probably was not in his best interest “to step in, in an interim format, especially as a manager in a city that is experiencing legal difficulties.”

“I notice that all of you are subject to being involved in lawsuits,” Glanzer said.  “Any of your appointed officials that are constitutional, are subject to being involved in lawsuits, whether they had any basis in the decisions that were made prior to, or decisions that they make.”

Glanzer said further, “I cannot expose myself to any potential legal issues at this point in my life.”

“Based on that and in discussions with my wife,” he explained, “I respectfully decline the opportunity to help the City, although my heart says I want to.”

Glanzer’s advice to commissioners was that they “need a strong city manager.”  As a multi-million dollar business, “you don’t need amateurs running that for you,” he said.  “I’m not saying that I couldn’t do it.  I’m just saying that I’m not in a position in my life where I want to do it.”

He further noted, “You guys did a barebones budget.  I would hope that the cutting that was done [was done] on the basis of knowledge of expenses that are going to be generated; not just on the hope we won’t spend that money…because at the end of the year,” he said, “you might find yourselves a little bit backwards on that.”

Another thing that was glaring when Glanzer reviewed the budget was “the drastically increased insurance costs for this commission…$12,000 to $120,000.”  “That speaks to actuary history and I think that it says there probably…were bad decisions made and there is a fear on the part of the insurance company that they are at risk.”

Glanzer further advised, “Any manager or interim manager that comes in here needs to be given the authority to manage this community with a minimum of interference from the commission.”  “Anybody that comes into this position is going to have to have your trust and not your questions,” he said.

Additional Business of Note

A final public hearing will be held on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012, to receive input regarding the City’s budget.  This is the last time citizens can comment on the proposed budget prior to approval by the Commission.

Commissioners appointed City Clerk Jenny Parham to act as interim city manager for two weeks until an interim city manager can be located and installed in her place.  Commissioner Linda Gestrin provided the only dissenting vote.

Lee Vincent, former city manager of Starke and also Port St. John, will attend the regular commission meeting on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012.  He is one of five people suggested as an International City/County Management Association (ICMA) Range Rider who could step into the position as interim city manager.  Range Riders are retired city managers who can act in a temporary capacity to help cities out whenever a vacancy arises.

Interim City Manager Parham was instructed to notify the City’s insurance company that a lawsuit had been filed against the City by a former employee, Christian Popoli.

The City received one application for the city attorney position from Lake City.  Attorney Crystal Patterson Talley, assistant state attorney for the Third Judicial Circuit in Hamilton County, submitted her application for consideration.  No action was taken during the Sept. 24, 2012 meeting on the matter.

High Springs is also serving notice to contractors that effective Oct. 1, 2012, the City’s building department hours will be reduced to Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 8 a.m. to 12 noon.

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HIGH SPRINGS – The City of High Springs, which continues to find itself embroiled in one legal battle after another, was slammed Sept. 21 with a lawsuit from former City Planner Christian Popoli.  The suit alleges that the City wrongfully terminated his employment earlier this year and that City officials violated state public records and Sunshine laws.

At the heart of the lawsuit filed by Attorney Linda Rice Chapman on behalf of Popoli is the claim that Mayor Dean Davis and Vice Mayor Bob Barnas sought Popoli’s ouster in retaliation for the city planner refusing to bend state and other laws.

Specifically referenced is a March 2, 2010 telephone conversation in which then Commissioner Dean Davis allegedly threatened Popoli with his job.  That conversation was reportedly in reference to state building codes that Davis hoped to have overlooked on one of his buildings or a building he was managing.

The incident did result in an ethics complaint against Davis.  The State ethics commission conducted a preliminary investigation, but determined that the evidence wasn’t sufficient to support a claim that Davis used his position as a commissioner to secure a special benefit to him or others.

Earlier this year, Barnas, Davis and Commissioner Linda Gestrin seemed to become frustrated with Popoli when the commission sought to provide tax abatement to Plantation Oaks retirement home.  There was fierce disagreement as to whether or not the property met the criteria for the tax abatement.  The lawsuit quotes Davis as saying, “It’s a problem and we got to find our way to get around it…Our city staff doesn’t feel like we need to do that.”

Also in the lawsuit are gripping details about how certain commissioners reportedly asked then Interim City Manager Jeri Langman to fire Popoli during her first days on the job.  But when Langman refused, those commissioners looked to other ways to push Popoli out, the complaint alleges.

It goes on to assert that Mayor Davis, Vice Mayor Barnas and Commissioner Linda Gestrin illegally used the City’s budget as a mechanism to manipulate the City administration and staff, particularly writing Popoli’s position out of it.  The Commission narrowly adopted a mid-year budget amendment that inserted an unfunded City Engineer position.  Just weeks later, the Commission changed the budget to move funds from Popoli’s position as City Planner to the City Engineer position.

Davis and Barnas are named dozens of times throughout the case, alluding to instances in which commissioners used their power to intimidate staff.

In one such instance, now former City Attorney Ray Ivey wrote in an email that he was “concerned about whether Plantation Oaks met the criteria [for tax abatement].”  Just days later, Barnas wrote back to Ivey, “I felt we had a product that would get Planation Oaks a tax rebate or abatement…you backed off and stated you basically could not do this because of the ordinance…should anything that you are not sure will fly when presented…inform the Manager…that the item should be farmed out…”

The implication in the lawsuit is that Barnas was threatening Ivey that if he didn’t go along with something the commission wanted, they would simply find another attorney who would.

The lawsuit also notes that Popoli, who was hired by the City in 2006, was also named Employee of the Year in 2008.  It cites Popoli’s personnel file where performance evaluations described him as “clearly outstanding” and “exceeds expectations.”

The 45 page complaint is backed by several exhibits and also alleges that the City is violating public records laws as minutes for meetings since February 2012 are largely nonexistent.  That, the lawsuit says, is because the Commission meets so frequently that City staff cannot keep up with the workload.

Perhaps more disturbing is the claim that the Commission meets at times inconvenient for certain commissioners and the general public.  Additionally, the legal case charges that without prior notice, commissioners take official action on issues at special commission meetings and other meetings although such matters had not been advertised to the public.

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LaCrosse church celebrates 106th year


Celebrating the 106th Anniversary of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church in LaCrosse, Rev. Jerome Able spreads the good word to parishioners attending a recent Wednesday evening Bible Study.

LACROSSE – It started with a half-acre of land.

In 1903, W.S. Roberts donated a plot of land to the members of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church. The church opened its doors three years later in 1906.

More than a century later, St. Paul Missionary is still thriving.

The church observed its 106th anniversary in a celebratory service Sunday. The service theme was “Standing on the Promises of God.”

“Hallelujah” and “Thank you Jesus” echoed through the crowd as St. Paul members gave thanks for the church’s endurance. An organ played lively music that filled the building, and the church’s choir led the congregation in songs of praise.

The church spent time honoring its oldest member, Mary Dell. Dell, 94, first attended St. Paul when she was 12 years old. She’s still a member 83 years later, although she no longer attends due to health issues.

“She may not be here physically, but she is here.” church member Shirley Washington said of Dell.

Church mother Annie Madison has been a member at St. Paul since 1950. She said her parents, sons, grandchildren and brother have all attended St. Paul at some point. She estimated attendance for the anniversary service to be between 50 and 60 people.

“We were expecting a large crowd, and we think we got what we expected,” she said. “It was well attended.”

Madison said she values St. Paul because of her history there.

“When I go to church, I can look over and see where my dad used to sit and almost see him sitting there,” she said.

St. Paul also dedicated a section of the program to retelling the church’s history. Like Mary Dell and Annie Madison, many church members have attended all their lives.

The church has had 11 pastors during its 106 years, and in 1906 the church counted 32 members. During those years, dues ranged from 5 to 25 cents.

By 1945, the church had nudged its congregation up to 43 members, and the dues were 25 to 50 cents. Between 1945 and 1950, the church experienced a boom in membership, and it soon had 157 members.

Between 1950 and 1959, the growing congregation chose to build a new church. Members worked toward making renovations and improvements for the next several years.

Over the next 40 years, the church purchased new furniture, added a fellowship hall, P.A. system, new lights and replaced the roof of the fellowship hall.  For a period of several years, between 2009 and 2011, the church was without a pastor.  The Rev. Jerome Able was appointed on Sept. 16, 2011.

“He and his wife are very strong leaders,” Madison said about the Ables. “We call them godsends.”

In the past year, the church has appointed two church mothers, two Sunday School teachers and a youth minister. Madison said St. Paul currently has between 20 and 30 members.

She said the church hopes to grow again and reach the numbers it once had, but it’s harder to have large numbers in a small community.

“We want to think positive,” she said. “We’d like to see it where it is a few years ago.”

Madison said the church’s size brings everyone closer together.

“When you have a small setting, it’s more like a family,” she said. “If the pastor doesn’t see you on Sunday, you know you were missed.”

Madison said that’s something that doesn’t happen often in megachurches.

Deacon Joel Allen has been at St. Paul for nearly his entire life. He said he was baptized into the church at 8 years old. Allen has been a St. Paul deacon for 27 years.

“We’ve had pastors that have come and gone,” he said. “What draws people here is we’re all about winning souls for the Lord.”

Allen said the church’s openness is a part of the reason it’s done well.

“This church has been on a solid foundation for 106 years,” he said. “We’re open to everybody. Come on in and praise the Lord.”

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W_-_Newberry_Railroad_DSCF7201_copyAt the request of Florida Northern Rail Road, this railroad crossing at NW 2nd Avenue in Newberry is being considered for closure.

NEWBERRY – There may be one less railroad crossing in Newberry as Florida Northern Rail Road looks to close the crossing at NW 2nd Avenue.  At issue seems to be safety at the crossing, which does not have bells, lights and gates.

At the Newberry City Commission meeting on Sept. 24, the safety manager for the rail company, Matt Schwerin, laid out some troubling statistics. Last year, Florida was 15th in the nation for highway and rail-grade crossing collisions, and 12th in the nation for fatal collisions.

Because the trains that pass through this area move at just 10 miles per hour, the concern is that motorists overestimate the safety of the situation and race to beat the slow-moving train. And because NW 2nd is known as a “passive crossing,” where no lights, gates or bells exist and most train collisions occur around 30 miles per hour, the railroad views the NW 2nd crossing as serious threat.

From the perspective of the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT), the main concerns are safety, the ability to use the alternate routes in a timely fashion and the impact on emergency rescue, said Janice Bordelon, rail specialist with the department.  The application from the railroad company showed an average of 186 trips per day on NW 2nd Avenue. An FDOT timing study found that with the proposed closure, shifting that traffic to the NW 1st Avenue crossing still produces a suitable timeframe for motorists to cross the tracks.

FDOT officials say they are still in the information gathering process and will continue communicating with local law enforcement and city fire services to assess the impacts of the closure.  Those findings are to be incorporated into a final analysis for the commission.

The FDOT will also supply pictures of other closed railroad crossings that have been improved with aesthetic landscaping, which includes trees and bushes to camouflage the industrial rail line and appropriate signage.

The road improvements projects that are taking place in Newberry influenced the proposal to close the railroad crossing in conjunction with other rail crossing improvements and a large-scale sidewalk project.  Still, the proposal to close the NW 2nd Avenue railroad crossing brought confusion and concern among some Newberry commissioners.

They were specifically concerned with whether or not the emergency services were accurately informed, as well as the impact on the school buses and churchgoers who may use NW 2nd Avenue and will have to deal with the uptick in traffic at NW 1st Avenue.

The discussions about the NW 2nd Avenue crossing sparked major concern among some commissioners about habits of some motorists to go around the crossing gate on SW 15th Avenue. Although illegal, motorists apparently do so because the crossing gates at that location reportedly stay down for several minutes, even after the train passes through.  Additionally, children being released from the nearby schools often go around the crossing gates, and cars follow suit, Newberry commissioners say. Rail company officials at the meeting were alarmed to hear about the practice and promised future action to curtail it.

FDOT and Florida Northern Railroad will be back in front of the commission to propose alternatives and improvements for Newberry’s railroad crossings in greater detail, said City Manager Keith Ashby.

The City will advertise about future hearings to alert residents who may wish to address the issues surrounding the proposed closure of the NW 2nd Avenue crossing.

The City expects to hear about the traffic impacts in greater detail as well as changes to church and school routes, said Lowell Garrett, city planner. Also expected is an analysis on the impact of the additional traffic on NW 1st Avenue and whether there are further improvements needed at that crossing as a result of the additional traffic that is likely.

The other crossing improvements underway may include additional safety features, but they will have no immediate cost to the City.  The City may, however, be required to take on maintenance of the improvements in the future.

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ALACHUA – Motorists who travel Interstate 75 between Alachua and Gainesville may want to make alternate plans next week, as a portion of Interstate 75 will be closed Tuesday.

According to Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) spokeswoman Gina Busscher, the Alachua/High Springs off-ramp, Exit 399, will be closed because a crew will be working in the area.

A sinkhole that was recently discovered near the exit has been sealed, but there is additional work to be done.

Busscher said survey crews will be drilling to investigate how far down the sinkhole goes. Officials aren’t sure how long the drilling will take, and Busscher said it depends on what is found.

“They’ll push a hole through the ground and see how far they go before they hit rock,” she said. “That tells where the void around the ground fills.”

Busscher estimated the exit would be closed from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

She said if traffic starts to back up, officials will do what they can to release the traffic.

Busscher recommends that residents who usually use Exit 399 take Exit 404 at County Road 236, which is five miles north, or Exit 390 at 39th Avenue to US Highway 441.

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HIGH SPRINGS – The proposed firing of High Springs City Manager Jeri Langman served to embroil the City Commission in a series of skirmishes over the wording to be included in the City’s formal notice to Langman.  During the September 20, 2012 special commission meeting, the Commission struggled to formulate a resolution to provide notice to Langman of intent to terminate her employment in 10 days.

Due to lack of agreement among commissioners and input from residents, the wording changed often enough that Mayor Dean Davis called for four 10- to 15-minute breaks to allow City Attorney Ray Ivey to change the wording and bring the updated resolution back to the commission for review.

This was done despite the fact that Ivey, who was scheduled to resign from his post the following day, brought with him three different versions of Resolution 2012-R(A)1, which he said he wrote based on comments from different commissioners as to their reasons for Langman’s termination.

Confusion ensued as commissioners sorted out the three separate resolutions, with Ivey’s help, trying to decide which was the most appropriate.

Time and again, when commission agreement on wording seemed to have been reached and Ivey updated the resolution, commissioners altered it again, sending Ivey back to the drawing board for further updates.

Following suggestions by audience member John Glanzer, who previously served as the mayor of the City of Newberry as well as the interim city manager of the City of Archer, that commissioners consider wording indicating Langman was removed without cause, the Commission voted to list that “the city experienced a change in direction of goals in management.”

Glanzer suggested the change in wording would allow Langman to apply for unemployment compensation, and also help heal the split that naturally occurs when residents support either the city manager’s or Commission’s point of view.

The fifth and final alteration to the resolution occurred when City Clerk Jenny Parham pointed out that the commission was amending a resolution, requiring that the resolution be referred to as Resolution 2012-R(A) instead of 2012-R(A)1.

The final resolution was passed by a 3-2 vote with Mayor Dean Davis, Vice Mayor Bob Barnas and Commissioner Linda Gestrin voting in favor and Commissioners Sue Weller and Scott Jamison dissenting.

Earlier in the meeting Weller suggested the resolution should be handled at a regular city commission meeting and not at special commission meeting scheduled for discussion of the City’s annual budget.

Jamison objected to the whole procedure stating he believed there was “enough blame to go around.”

According to Section 3.03 of the city charter, on which the resolution was based, Langman, as a charter officer, “must accept the offer of a public hearing or file a written response within ten (10) days of the adoption of the preliminary resolution or the resolution becomes final at the expiration of this ten-day period” and she is terminated on that date.

Langman has not commented publicly during the proceedings.  However, in a letter received by commissioners at a Sept. 24, 2012 special commission meeting, Langman requested a copy of any documents, “declarations or public notices of the change in goals and direction of the city of High Springs” as indicated in Resolution 2012-R(A).

Vice-Mayor Bob Barnas indicated his intention to contact Langman’s attorney personally as the letter indicated a copy of the letter had also been sent to her attorney.

No other action was taken during the meeting to address the request.

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W_-_Langman_-_City_pic_P1030869_copyHIGH SPRINGS – The legality of a resolution approved Monday night, Sept. 17 by the High Springs City Commission that gave High Springs City Manager Jeri Langman 10 days notice of the commission’s intent to terminate her employment has been called into question. The termination notice was made only days after Langman was suspended with pay during the Sept. 13, 2012 special city commission meeting.

Resolution 2012-R was approved in a 3-2 vote with Commissioners Sue Weller and Scott Jamison dissenting.  Approving the measure were Mayor Dean Davis, Vice Mayor Bob Barnas and Commissioner Linda Gestrin. Jamison and Weller objected to the timing of the action, and requested that the item be voted on during a regular commission meeting instead of during the Sept. 17 meeting.

The Sept. 17 meeting agenda listed “Discuss and Consider Options Regarding the City Manager Position” and made no mention of a pre-termination resolution.  Jamison stated he didn’t think residents were properly notified of the action by the way the item was listed on the agenda.

Mayor Dean Davis disagreed citing this method as the method used with previous city manager terminations and said he had checked with City Clerk Jenny Parham prior to setting the agenda item to make sure it was properly listed. 

Also hotly discussed was Section 3.03 of the High Springs Charter which states that to remove a charter officer, “the Commission shall adopt a preliminary resolution stating reasons for the intended removal…”  No reasons were listed in the proposed resolution.

Previous High Springs City Attorney Thomas DePeter, who wrote an earlier resolution, which current City Attorney Raymond Ivey used to create Resolution 2012-R, said he had emphasized the need for reasons with an earlier commission under a particular set of circumstances, but stated that requirement may or may not apply in this situation. 

Weller requested they wait to obtain an opinion from Ivey, but Barnas read an email into the record, which he stated was from City Attorney Ivey, in which Ivey indicated the resolution was complete as written. 

Weller also suggested it would be difficult for anyone to defend themselves in a public hearing if the reasons for termination were not listed.  The resolution ultimately passed without listing reasons for Langman’s termination.

However, local attorney Linda Chapman, called the resolution into question in a telephone conversation, followed up in a Sept. 18 letter to Ivey.  In the letter Chapman stated the resolution “contains no reasons for Ms. Langman’s suspension or termination of her employment.  Therefore Ms. Langman is still the City Manager, and is on paid administrative leave, not suspension, since, once again she cannot be suspended or terminated without a proper resolution.”

Chapman cited the High Springs City Charter in her letter, which states that in order to remove a charter officer, the commission shall adopt a preliminary resolution stating reasons for the intended removal and shall offer the charter officer an opportunity for a public hearing before the commission on the matters raised by the resolution. The preliminary resolution may also suspend the charter officer from duty immediately with pay.

Chapman claims that due process was not observed and denying Langman proper notice and a hearing is a violation of her rights under the state and federal constitutions.

Chapman continued that according to City Charter, if the Commission wishes to move forward with Langman’s termination, the Commission would need to put it on an agenda for a regular city commission meeting and issue a new resolution stating the reasons for her suspension/removal from office.

High Springs has scheduled a special city commission meeting for Thursday, Sept. 20, 2012, at 6:30 p.m.  As of Wednesday, Sept. 19, related agenda topics include discussion and consideration of city manager position duties and delegation of city manager duties.  A new resolution is not listed.

In the short term, Parham was asked to be the “go-between” between the commission and the employees until an interim city manager could be found.  She agreed to do so, but has repeatedly stated her desire not to serve as interim city manager.

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