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HIGH SPRINGS – The High Springs ordinance requiring property owners to have and pay for waste removal services will get a second look by City Attorney Scott Walker. The question is not whether the ordinance is valid, but to see if there is a way to omit property owners who either own vacant properties or who might be out of their homes for months at a time and have no waste to remove.

Those issues and more brought residents to City Hall on Dec. 11 to express their feelings about paying for waste pick up services.

One expressed concern was a letter from the City of High Springs, which was mailed around Thanksgiving, informing the more than 250 property owners who have not been paying for waste removal that they now have to pay for it. While Finance Director Jennifer Stull indicated some people are now paying for the service, some are still not in compliance. The loss to the city is nearly $60,000 per year, an amount too large to ignore.

Some residents have used the waste removal service, but because they had no other utility services with the City of High Springs, the city had a difficult time identifying them for monthly billing purposes. Extensive research was conducted earlier this year to identify those property owners in an effort to bring them into compliance with the rest of the city.

Other residents attended the meeting because they said they lived close to the Alachua/High Springs Waste Collection Center on U.S. Highway 441 and routinely take their waste directly to that facility. They saw no reason to change that practice and pointed out that roads in that area would be torn up by having large waste removal trucks traveling weekly to their homes.

Vice-Mayor Scott Jamison pointed out that the ordinance mandating waste pick up was already in place and was a health issue. “It is not optional and it is the City's duty to enforce it,” he said.

"State law requires cities to collect garbage," said City Manager Ed Booth after the meeting. "Cities are required to provide for quality of life, health and welfare to their citizens."

Another issue of concern brought up by residents was a resolution on the City Commission Agenda which would have, if approved, required property owners to pay $234 in advance for one year of waste removal services along with their county property taxes. While that practice would not have taken place until tax notices are sent out late next year, some people were concerned the added cost could prove a hardship for some property owners on fixed incomes.

After listening to citizen comments for some time, Walker said he would be willing to look into ways the city might be able to omit compliance with the original ordinance.

Commissioners ultimately tabled the resolution, which would have added the cost of waste services of $234 to the tax bill, to the second meeting in January. “We are now looking at other options to get customers in compliance,” said Booth after the meeting.

Booth later said that he and Walker have a meeting scheduled in early January to look at whether there may be some way to exempt individuals that will be in compliance with the ordinance.

“Given the explicit language of the ordinance,” he said, “those exemptions are expected to be minimal.”

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NEWBERRY – Six months have elapsed since Newberry City Manager Mike New stepped into his current position, and according to his contract, the city commission is required to evaluate his performance for the initial six-month period. The evaluation isn’t just an obligatory task, but depending on the rating, New may be in line for a five percent salary increase.

At the Dec. 8 commission meeting, commissioners were presented with a comprehensive evaluation form for use in conducting New’s performance. “We put a lot on his plate for the first six months,” said Mayor Bill Conrad. Champions Baseball, the CRA, franchise fees and the fire department consolidation were the main four areas commissioners asked New to tackle immediately, said Conrad. “Looks like he has done a great job,” he added.

Specific performance categories being evaluated include City Commission Relationships, Public Relations, Effective Leadership and Development of Staff, Fiscal Management, Communication/Organizational Skills, Personal Traits, Intergovernmental Affairs, Long Range Planning and Areas of Special Interest to the Commission.

At the Jan. 12, 2015 meeting, commissioners are slated to receive a Manager's letter in which New is expected to list his accomplishments during his relatively short time in office. Completed evaluation forms are to be returned by Jan. 24, at which time Conrad will tabulate the results and present them to New, the commission and the public during the Jan. 26 meeting.

City Attorney Scott Walker's contract for the coming year was also included as part of the commission's agenda. Walker's firm, Folds and Walker, LLC, has been representing the city for the past 40 years. The city received a request from Walker recently requesting a bump up in retainer fees from $3,500/month to $4,500/month.

Conrad said when he asked for a copy of their previous contract with the city, records showed a 2006 letter in which the firm requested a bump up in retainer fees from $2,500 to $3,500/month. "Apparently, it has been eight years since the city increased their retainer fees," said Conrad.

Conrad said the city could take one of three actions. One option would be to bring in an outside attorney to negotiate a contract for the city with Walker. Another option would involve the city forming a negotiating team consisting of the mayor, city manager and one other commissioner to negotiate with Walker. A third option would be to put out a request for proposal to law firms.

Ultimately, because the attorney serves the commission, it was decided to eliminate the need for the city manager to be part of the negotiating team. Commissioner Tim Marden was named to the team and Conrad said the city could have their FMPA lawyer review the contract for sufficiency. The negotiating team of Conrad and Marden will negotiate a draft of the contract and bring it back to the commission for a final decision, said Conrad.

A review of the items Walker was in the process of working on for the city led commissioners to put the entire topic off until after the first of the year. At that time, Conrad and Marden are expected to begin to negotiate a contract that stipulates what is covered by the retainer fee and what is billed as extra legal work.

"Scott has been our city attorney since he graduated law school and has our corporate knowledge," said Conrad. "We rely on him not only for legal advice, but he also acts as our parliamentarian and as our corporate body of knowledge."

Because Walker has served in this position for so long, commissioners were concerned that the learning curve to bring another attorney up to speed on the various issues Walker is currently involved in might end up with needless expense.

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@benboukarijr featured on @cnn and @weeklyweighin

big ben2 bw

According to one CNN iReporter editor, the story of Ben Boukari Jr.'s drastic weight loss posted on CNN.con on Aug. 4 has received more than 5.8k shares on Facebook and has remained the #1 story on CNN mobile as of Thursdasy.

ALACHUA – The story went live on Monday, Aug. 4 at 8 a.m. Facebook “likes” and comments and twitter notices were getting stirred up by CNN iReport editors.

“I knew Friday from Talia Day, CNN iReporter,” local realtor and Alachua City Commissioner Ben Boukari Jr., said.

“When they posted it, they requested I post it on my social media,” Boukari Jr. said. “And people started sharing it. I got 20 shares just from me putting it out there and 178 people liked it.”

Boukari Jr., now 30, became the youngest City of Alachua commissioner in 2010 at the age of 26.

That win is the reason he Boukari Jr. decided take on another challenge – weight loss. At 379 pounds, Boukari Jr. was unable to run or take part in excercise.

“When you’re 379 pounds, I don’t care how you get to where you can lose weight to be healthier,” Boukari Jr. said. “I couldn’t run. I couldn’t do pushups. The diet set the platform for me.”

“Low carb dieting got me to eat healthier. It cut my appetite, got me to eat less, got me interested in eating green beans, salads.”

Boukari Jr.’s official diet start date was Sept. 28, 2010 and he said he worked on weight loss until June 1, 2011 before he “weighed myself again. The scale read 294 to be exact,” Boukari Jr. said.

“I started doing exercise after that.”

By April of 2013, Boukari reached his goal weight and has maintained a healthy at 250 pounds for his 6 feet 3 inches tall frame.

Last month, Boukari Jr. found a way to celebrate his success.

He turned to CNN and a feature the news program showcases in its health section called “Weighin.”

People who have succeeded at drastic weight loss are encouraged to submit their story by the following prompt:

Do you have a weight-loss success story to share? Tell us how you did it and you could be featured in our weekly weight-loss story on CNN.com.”

Out of thousands of responses, Boukari Jr. was notified weeks later that his story was going to be featured.

“To me, food was like a best friend after a long day at work,”Boukari Jr.wrote in hisCNNiReport.

I submitted mine and they liked it a lot,” Boukari Jr. said. “They vetted me a lot. I got called twice for an interview and to confirm the facts.”

He said he spent most of Monday fielding and monitoring the social media buzz created by CNN’s post which showed a before and after image of Boukari Jr.

“People asked ‘How do you stay motivated,’ ” he said. “Or commented ‘Congrats!’”

“I know that CNN is very active. They’ve got a twitter page @cnnireport, another @cnn, @cnnhealth,” Boukari Jr. said. “All three of those listed the article. They’ve been tweeting to different entities. “It said @alachuacounty make sure you see @benboukarijr featured @cnn @weeklyweighin.

“There’s a hashtag “weeklyweighin” I haven’t even looked at that,” he said.

Some discoveries he made in the first 24 hours of CNN’s aggressive social media strategy?

“It went to CNN Mexico, now it’s in Spanish,” Boukari Jr. said. “It’s been to La Crosse, Wisconson, Bayou Buzz, Louisianna, WGN, Chicago, WPIX New York, New York, Norfolk, Virgina, Portland, Maine. They picked it off the wire.”

Some of the comments have been sarcastic, funny or mean, but Boukari takes it in stride since he noticed the good responses far outweigh the negative.

“There have been thousands of comments on CNN’s main page. There’s been more than 3,500 likes and more than 400 shares,” he said at just 24 hours after the posting was launched.

By Tuesday, his story was moved off the front web page but remained on the health page.

“One guy thought the article had to do with Big Ben (the iconic clock tower built in 1859) in London being taken down,” Boukari Jr. said about the headline “No more ‘Big Ben’: City leader loses 145 pounds.”

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NEWBERRY – Current and former city officials, family, friends and residents of Newberry gathered on a cool and windy Nov. 1 morning to participate in the dedication ceremony and official naming of a city park. The park, which has previously been referred to as Triangle Park due to the shape of the property, will now be known as Lois Forte Park.

The land was originally vacant, city-owned property. Forte envisioned it as a space for children and families to gather. Due, in part, to the diligence and perseverance of former Newberry City Commissioner Lois Forte, the formerly unused eight acres was turned into a park.

“I saw all those old live oak trees and saw the potential for the land to be used as a gathering place for our citizens and their families and friends,” she said. “I just had to fight for that land to be used by area families in a way that would also maintain the beauty of the property.”

Forte also advocated the city obtaining a Wild Spaces and Public Places grant to help develop the park and make it more useful and accessible. The grant was used to pave walkways, install lighting, benches, playground equipment, a large gazebo and three smaller gazebos.

Forte says she's proud of the park. “It's one of the most beautiful parks in the county,” she said. “My family, friends and my tribe are also proud of what I have been able to accomplish here,” she said referring to her heritage as a member of the Native-American Lumbee Tribe of eastern North Carolina, the largest tribe in that state.

Currently, the park is used by a church to show movies, as a place for family reunions, birthday parties and a distribution location for Thanksgiving dinners.

“People visiting Newberry use it as well,” said Forte. “We often have people here from surrounding areas.”

“The desire to officially name the park for Commissioner Forte was in recognition of her 21 and a half years of service to her city as a city commissioner and as an advocate for the preservation of the park for the citizens of Newberry,” said Mayor Bill Conrad.

The park is located at 255 N.W. 260th Street in Newberry.

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HIGH SPRINGS – Citizens sat through another contentious meeting on Thursday, April 24 that led to the removal of one citizen by Acting Police Chief Antoine Sheppard at the direction of Mayor Byran Williams.

Although Williams has suggested removal of argumentative citizens at previous meetings, this is the first time he has actually followed through. The individual escorted out by Sheppard was in a wheelchair and may have been a veteran as was later claimed by another citizen. He did not settle down when asked to do so, but instead kept wagging his finger at the mayor and ultimately wheeled his chair over Sheppard's foot as he was being escorted out. When he was admonished by Sheppard for doing so, he denied it had happened at all.

At that Commissioner Bob Barnas quickly stood up and said he didn't feel well and was going home.

Commissioner Linda Gestrin also got up and left the room. City Clerk Jenny Parham followed to ask if she was also leaving, and Gestrin said she was not. She came back shortly thereafter, picked up her items and left. Due to the previously planned absence of Commissioner Scott Jamison, the commission no longer had a quorum and the mayor closed the meeting with none of the new agenda items addressed.

Prior to closing, commissioners heard from several members of the High Springs Farmers' Market as part of the agenda item to approve a short-term contract with Basti Gonzales to continue to run the market until September.

Gonzales will continue on a month-to-month verbal agreement and City Attorney Scott Walker will draw up and advertise a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) in an attempt to locate a permanent market manager.

Another old business item addressed was a request by Bryan Sperry to purchase a piece of city-owned property adjacent to his own. Commissioners decided the city should create a surplus property policy for any property the city believed had no usefulness. Properties deemed surplus would then be advertised to allow any interested citizen to bid on the property. Booth said he would look at the existing plans for Tillman Properties to determine if the property had usefulness to the city. No action was taken to sell the property during the meeting.

A lengthy report on his findings regarding an earlier survey of computer equipment at the High Springs Police Department was conducted by Eric May. The report addressed certain specific items which most of the audience did not have a list of or a copy of the report. Barnas asked most of the questions, adding that he was talking with employees and conducting his own investigation. City Manager Ed Booth objected to the commissioner questioning his employees as it would violate the City Charter. Barnas then clarified his earlier statement saying he was talking with “former employees.”

Resident Sylvia Newcomb commented that the city manager should resign, which then set off some audience members who started clapping at her suggestion. At this point one person was escorted out of the meeting.

A special meeting was called for Wednesday, April 30, to consider approval of a time-sensitive contract with WCA for solid waste services. Without an approved contract, citizens would not have their garbage picked up on Friday, May 2, the contract start date.

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