WHITE SPRINGS, Fla. — During a contentious meeting Sept. 11, Mayor Spencer Lofton asked the White Springs Town Council if an ethics complaint should be filed against council member Helen Miller for requesting the attorney general’s opinion.
Miller requested the opinion of Attorney General Pam Bondi on whether municipalities can use Local Option Fuel Tax revenues to fund municipal management; legal and operating expenditures; staff clothing and consumables; registration and travel expenses for staff attending conferences and training.
She also asked whether municipalities should establish a City Street System Transportation Trust Fund for all transportation-related revenues and expenditures associated with the Local Option Fuel Tax revenues.
Town Attorney Karen Hatton advised the council that Bondi will not entertain those requests from a council unless it is from the whole council.
She suggested rewording the request and having it adopted by the council before resubmitting it to the attorney general’s office.
Miller said from reading the instructions, she thought, as a council member, she had the authority to make that request herself.
Hatton agreed that it does appear in the instructions that an individual council member could submit a request but further in the instructions it states the request has to be adopted by the entire council.
“I did not realize that,” Miller said.
When resident Karin Griffin tried to tell the board that Bondi’s office was already looking into the issue after a complaint was filed by her and her husband Joe, Lofton asked for no comments from the audience.
“So it is my understanding that you just put this together and sent it out without any council knowledge,” Lofton said to Miller.
After Miller answered affirmatively, Lofton added: “And you think that it is okay to just go do things on your own?”
Miller said she based her decision on guidance she received from an economist at the Florida Legislature and from the Chief of Staff of the House as well as the instructions from the attorney general’s office.
“What I am trying to get you to understand is you are representing the town when you do stuff like that,” Lofton said.
Miller replied: “I was doing this for the benefit of the town.”
Council member Rhett Bullard, agreeing that the attorney general’s instructions do make it appear any council member could request an option, noted the attorney general’s opinions are not legally binding.
But council member Walter McKenzie said he was still in favor of seeking the opinion because there is a concern because the fuel tax option funds are being spent on overhead and staff salaries instead of being spent on fixing roads.
“The work that needs to be done is not being done as sufficiently in the eyes of a lot of people in the town,” McKenzie said. “I’m not threatened by getting more information and I don’t consider it going behind the council’s back.”
When Lofton asked for a motion on whether to submit the request, Miller started to do just that. Lofton asked her to let him finish.
“I sat here and listened to everyone of you, with the exception of the audience,” Lofton said. “So as I was saying, I personally don’t think we need to waste the money on this. Because this doesn’t make sense to even proceed when it has been voted on right here with the local option gas tax, so the fuel tax has been voted on several times. And the discussion has been brought up time and time again.
“Is there a motion?”
Miller made a motion to make the necessary changes to the request and submit it with McKenzie seconding.
The motion failed by a 3-2 vote against.
A resident said he had a question.
“We had an opportunity for the public to speak, no one chose to speak on any of the items,” Lofton said.
The resident then said he wasn’t at the meeting during the public comments section. After Lofton wouldn’t allow him to speak, the resident began to talk anyways.
Lofton then asked for the White Spring Police Department officer to remove him.
McKenzie then asked about the next item, a possible complaint to the Commission on Ethics since no complaint was listed.
“The thing that is not being addressed, the elephant in the room is, this complaint (Miller’s Attorney General Request for Opinion) came on Town of White Springs letterhead,” Lofton said, adding that the town paid Bea Coker $3,000 after Miller’s friend Howard B. Calder originally paid only $10,000 of the $13,000 Coker was expecting for a summer camp.
“Is this an ethical move to operate as a rogue like this? She admitted herself she did it on her own.”
“So is she working well within ethics?” Lofton asked.
Karin Griffin answered: “Absolutely.”
That led to Griffin’s removal from the meeting.
“That wasn’t a question addressed to you and that is the last time,” Lofton said.
Lofton then again asked if an ethics complaint needed to be filed.
“The mayor referred to my request as a complaint,” Miller said. “I think he sees everything as an aggression…”
Lofton interrupted her and interrupted her a couple more times.
Miller asked him to tone down his voice but he said that was the way he talked.
“Well you need to think about how that affects other people,” Miller said. “And what you are doing every council meeting, having the police escort a member of the public…”
“They are being disruptive,” Lofton said. “We afforded them the opportunity to speak. They elected you as an elected representative to represent them. Their voice is being put out to them.”
When Lofton interrupted Miller again, Bullard asked if they could find a way to just get along.
“I don’t think this is grounds for any ethical investigation,” McKenzie said. “I believe it was clearly stated in the meeting, that she thought she was well within her rights as a council member. And I see no reason why this had to be put on the agenda without stating what it was either.”
Miller said she has felt disregarded and attacked.
“How am I supposed to trust, as a council member, my colleagues if I feel like I am being attacked and your tone is very aggressive?” Miller asked. “I am a member of a five person council. My understanding is we have equal votes. In April, I was re-elected to this board after over a year of negative publicity, incrimination, making me out to be a horrible person.”
No complaint was filed against Miller, nor was a vote taken on the matter.
During council reports, Lofton said he is working on having a water meter company do a presentation for the council.
To which resident Joe Griffin simply said, “Sunshine Law.”
Lofton replied: “Yes, I understand what the Sunshine Law is. Joe, that means I can not talk to them separately.”
Lofton then had Joe Griffin removed from the meeting when Griffin started to speak again.
“People, it is not my desire to empty this room,” Lofton said. “It is not. It is my intent to let people know that there is a way things are supposed to operate and people need to learn that there is things they can and cannot do.”
Lotion concluded the meeting by saying if people get out of line at a meeting, they would be removed from the public meetings.
Jessie R. Box is a reporter for the Suwannee Democrat, Jasper News and Mayo Free Press. Her beats include general assignment, government and police.