WHITE SPRINGS — After a three plus hour hearing Oct. 25 in front of a packed Town Hall, the White Springs Town Council reaffirmed its previous vote to declare council member Helen Miller’s seat forfeited. By a 3-1 vote on each of four charges — with Miller following her counsel’s advice to abstain from the vote — the council said she willfully violated the town’s charter and had forfeited her position. Walter McKenzie was the lone dissenting vote on all four counts.
The four charges against Miller, all stemming from her most recent term which began April 28, 2016, included requesting Pam Tomlinson, the town clerk and finance director, make a payment to an employee from the HOPE Summer Youth Enrichment Program — of which, Miller had been appointed the program administrator by the council — in June 2016; requesting Town Manager Stacy Tebo to make a payment on a Purchase Order request in June 2016; discussing a Department of Juvenile Justice grant with Police Chief Tracy Rodriquenz as well as requesting that Rodriquenz, and Tebo, attend a meeting about the DJJ grant in August 2016; and requesting Tebo have town staff move chairs from the community center to the tourism center for hosting a Suwannee River League of Cities dinner in October 2016. “That is probably one of the most trivial charges in terms of trying to deprive the people of their representative on this board that is imaginable,” said Mark Herron, Miller’s lawyer, who argued that there was no express prohibition in the town’s charter in regards to making requests of a town employee.
Darren Elkind, the council’s lawyer for the hearing, agreed that charge may seem trivial, but ultimately the repeated requests does constitute interfering with the town’s employees’ jobs and a violation of the charter: “You do have a really solemn obligation. When you enforce this provision of the charter, which nobody else can enforce, by doing so, you preserve the sanctity of the chain of command, the sanctity of the council-manager form of government.” The council, ultimately, agreed. The hearing began with Herron filing a request for a continuance in order to adequately prepare a defense.
Herron said despite the June vote to declare Miller’s seat forfeited, on Sept. 15, the lawyers involved in the case — Elkind, town attorney Fred Koberlein and himself — came to an agreement that there would be the statement of charges issued and what procedures the hearing would follow. Herron said those charges — which differed from the original complaints issued in May and decided upon in June — were not sent until Oct. 15. Miller said she and Herron had just two hours to meet and prepare for the case once the charges were issued. Elkind — and Mayor Rhett Bullard — argued that the town didn’t even have to provide the statement of charges. He said the town went above and beyond what the charter required.
Koberlein, though, had a different take on the charter. “I would caution you to be hesitant to agree with Mr. Elkind’s statement that she is not entitled to a statement of charges,” Koberlein said. “She is entitled to something, no matter what title you give it, a statement of charges or identified reasons. “A council person is entitled to identified reasons of why their seat is being forfeited.”
Following a motion by McKenzie to grant the continuance and second by Miller, the council rejected it by a 3-2 vote. The first charge leveled against Miller was that she requested Tomlinson, and then Tebo, make a payment to an employee of the HOPE program. According to Tomlinson’s testimony, there wasn’t sufficient funds to pay the employee and neither she nor Tebo made the payments. Herron argued that the town had an interlocal agreement with the Hamilton County School District regarding the HOPE program that listed those helping with the program as employees of the town.
However, the Calder Family Foundation, which provided the funding for the program, had desired a different fiscal agent instead of the town, hence the lack of funds to pay the employee. Miller said the school, which she secured as the new fiscal agent, was going to provide the funding. On the charge involving the DJJ grant, Miller said Rodriquenz had worked with her since the beginning of 2016 in an attempt to secure the grant. “I know that she has a long background in this community of working with youth, going back even before I arrived here,” Miller said. Rodriquenz agreed with Miller’s timeline.
In August 2016, Miller requested Rodriquenz and Tebo attend a Hamilton County School Board meeting in regards to that grant, which was later awarded to the school district. The final charge was that Miller listed herself as a member of the town’s staff on a purchase order request in June 2016, which Miller said was also for the HOPE program. Miller said the funding was not a budgeted item for the town, but rather provided through the Calder foundation for the program.
It was by the same 3-1 vote at its June meeting that the council first declared Miller’s seat forfeited. Miller then requested the public hearing in order to present evidence disputing the allegations. Miller’s next action, according to the town’s charter, is her appeal to the circuit court.
With the position now vacant and an election more than 45 days away, the charter calls for the council to nominate qualified town residents and by a majority vote, the council will choose a nominee to serve the remainder of the vacated seat’s term. The review of Miller in June came after Tebo called Miller a “rogue councilwoman” at the May 9 meeting for not going through the town manager to purchase supplies and equipment. Continued From Page 1A Willer plans to appeal the decision to the circuit court, which she is permitted by the charter.
JASPER NEWS, Jasper, FL THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 2, 2017
Council starts down slippery slope
As both Mark Herron and Darren Elkind, the two opposing lawyers in the Oct. 25 public hearing regarding Helen Miller’s seat on the White Springs Town Council, agreed: the council took upon itself a solemn responsibility with the hearing. It was the council that charged Miller with malfeasance, misfeasance or nonfeasance while in office at its June meeting when it moved to declare her seat forfeited.
It was that same council that then heard the evidence at last week’s public hearing and issued the verdict on whether Miller would indeed have to give up her seat. But in doing so, the council started down a slippery slope. One of the four charges heard at the quasi-judicial hearing against Miller involved her asking if staff could move chairs from one building to another to host a dinner for the Suwannee River League of Cities, which Miller serves as the organization’s president. Herron, Miller’s lawyer, called the charge “probably one of the most trivial charges in terms of trying to deprive the people of their representative on this board that is imaginable.” We agree that it’s hard to imagine how making a request about moving tables and chairs can lead to someone losing their elected office.
Watergate, this is not. In fact, Elkind even admitted that the charge seemed petty, although he quickly touted the importance of not interfering with employees’ jobs and responsibilities. Petty and trivial as it may be, the council — by virtue of a 3-1 vote from Mayor Rhett Bullard, Vice-Mayor Tonja Brown and Willie Jefferson with only Walter McKenzie voting against — decided it still constituted a willful violation of the town’s charter.
They also voted her in violation on the other three allegations of questionable employee pay requests and overstepping through unilateral direction to city staff. And in doing so, the council opened itself up to the potential for more seat forfeiture hearings in the future.
McKenzie earlier in the hearing admitted to having made requests of Police Chief Tracy Rodriquenz. “I’ve asked Chief Rodriquenz to do things, I’ve asked her if she would mind taking care of the bicycles for the Suwannee Bike (Association) that were donated to the kids for the Christmas program,” McKenzie said, later adding that he also contacted the supervisor of utilities about a water main break that flooded his yard, which could be interpreted as a no-no: “According to the way we’re doing business here tonight, I could be charged with a violation of the charter. And I will openly stand up and say, ‘Yes I did that.’”
That admission seemed to have jogged Rodriquenz’s memory, who had just said that Miller was the lone council member who asked for her help. “Everybody asks me to do things,” she said. “He’s absolutely right in that he’s come to me about the bicycles and I believe Miss Tonja has come to me about hot dogs. “It’s whatever the community needs.” Except requesting help to fulfill the community’s needs apparently is a willful violation of an express prohibition of the charter. At least, that is what the council declared last week.
Thanks Helen Miller for your ideas, effort for White Springs
Letter to the Editor, We have got a great fire department, led by Kevin Pittman from the Stephen Foster Park and staffed by employees of the Park and local citizens. Under the leadership of Chief Tracy Rodriquenz we have an efficient and responsive police department. Together they volunteered to create the haunted house at the old Tourism Center here in town. It is this kind of caring and dedication that makes any town great.
With that in mind I want to thank Helen Miller for the thousands of hours she has volunteered to support the kids in the surrounding area through her Hope program that she started and funded through donors. Helen was recently voted out of her seat by 3 council members under the leadership of our Mayor, Rhett Bullard. The town will miss her leadership and tireless effort to make this town and area a more vibrant place for visitors and in return help our economy. Her ideas did not always pan out. But it’s worth noting to her critics that she at least had ideas and tried to implement them herself, instead of making suggestions for others to do the work.
You cannot succeed or fail unless you have ideas and make an effort to make them work. I, and many others, voted for Helen because she From our readers represented a voice that addressed the needs of the business community and the children of this town. She made this town very familiar with Tallahassee and the Florida League of Cities, which she was president. I am really perplexed by my voice being voted out over my objections. There were other ways to have handled this that would have been much less costly.
Rhett will try to give great ideas about why she had to go, but the real reason is his ego was being bruised because she was usually the one in the limelight. For good reason, she did things. Also for a fact, Tonja voted against her simply because she did not like her and this was her opportunity. Willie was the only one that actually voiced a coherent reason for his vote, he made sense but I never considered what he described as an impeachable offense.
I want to thank Rhett:
• For his leadership in creating the divisiveness that now permeates this town. • For his inability to come up with a better way to handle the perceived problem.
• For spending money on lawyers when we do not have the money to spare. • For the shabby look of this town because of a lack of funds to mow.
• For the stupidity in thinking Helen was just going to roll over and accept the verdict.
• For not wondering how to pay for Helen’s attorney’s fees when the case is lost on further appeal.
• For not anticipating that your actions would add one more reason for our town attorney to quit.
Dennis J. Price White Springs