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City expected to appeal verdict

GAINESVILLE – A jury dealt a shocking and costly blow to the City of Alachua Wednesday evening, awarding a hefty $3.9 million in damages to a one-time real estate developer.

A case filed in 2009 by Heritage Oaks – TND, LTD., leveled numerous charges against the City of Alachua as to its dealings with the developer of the commercial and residential development adjacent to Santa Fe High School on U.S. Highway 441.

The case, which lasted 10 days, saw numerous expert witnesses and City officials take the stand, including former city manager Clovis Watson, Jr. and developer John Curtis, Jr.

Photos presented during the trial reportedly revealed wastewater pipes that had been repaired by the developer or its subcontractors using duct tape.  Attention was also called to allegedly improperly paved roads and numerous other quality of construction issues, which had become a point of contention between the City, the developer and homeowners in the neighborhood.

Heritage Oaks alleged a breach of contract on the City’s part and interference with the development.  It reportedly sought damages for losses of profit, future sales, loss of appraised property values and expenses it claims the City forced them to incur.

After closing arguments Wednesday afternoon, the jury was given instructions and a form to arrive at conclusions and calculate damages.  On five counts upon which the jury was ultimately sent back to deliberate, they found the City guilty of all of them and awarded the vast majority of the financial damages sought by Heritage Oaks.

In the case, Heritage Oaks claimed, “The difference in the way the City treated Heritage [Oaks] as compared to other similarly situated developers, was done in order to intentionally discriminate against Heritage [Oaks].”

Other accusations are that the City “inordinately burdened” the developer and “effectively precluded” them from being able to market its property.

While the City clearly didn’t win in court Wednesday, Aug. 22, the City is expected to appeal the case.

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ALACHUA – The City of Alachua is making progress on plans to redesign the intersection of NW 142nd Terrace and NW 150th Avenue and city officials expect construction work to begin in early 2013.

According to Mike New, Alachua’s public services director, planning and engineering work for the project began in 2007. While there isn’t a firm completion date set, New expects the construction work to be completed in early 2014.

“The construction plans are essentially filed. Our city commission requested a change and that redesign work is currently being done,” New said. “I would be expecting that construction plans will be finalized no later than October or November of this year.”

The project will include the installation of an underground storm water management system, sidewalks, street side parking and intersection realignment.

The original proposal included replacing the existing four-way stop with a roundabout at the intersection, but these plans have been abandoned. New estimates that by not putting in a roundabout, project costs will be reduced between $50,000 and $75,000. The original price tag was an estimated $2.1 million.

In keeping with the design theme of the Main Street and downtown area, both NW 142nd Terrace and NW 150th Avenue will also have curbs, storm gutters, sidewalks, red brick crosswalks and paved side-street parking. The project will constitute the first major aesthetic connection between the Main Street and Alachua Towne Centre areas.

Officials originally hoped that bids would come in lower due to economic conditions. New still expects bids to be low due to the economy.

“Construction costs have been down for four years, ever since the economy went down,” New said. “There’s been so little construction activity that contractors are very aggressive in their bidding.”

There are currently utility poles being installed on NW 142nd Terrace, but that isn’t connected to the NW 142nd Terrace and NW 150th Avenue project.

“The city’s utility poles are completely unrelated to this project,” New explained.

Darryl Tompkins is the chairman of the City’s Downtown Redevelopment Trust Board, the organization funding the costs of the improvements. Tompkins says he believes the project will provide a much-needed pedestrian connection in Alachua.

“Our redevelopment board has been working for a couple of years on this,” Tompkins said. “It will connect Main Street and the shops in downtown Alachua with City Hall and the Town Center.”

“It will connect the two major parts of Alachua together,” Tompkins said.

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HIGH SPRINGS – During the final moments of an Aug. 9 commission meeting, Vice Mayor Bob Barnas suggested once again to send out an ad in search of a new city manager, but decided to wait until the Wednesday, Aug. 15, meeting to discuss the future of the position and the woman who currently holds it.

“Do I have to go on record to say that I’m not happy with what’s happened with the city manager and me and things that have happened? Absolutely not happy,” Barnas said. “Do I think I want to have this continue? Absolutely not. I think we ought to go in a different direction.”

Barnas asked High Springs City Attorney Raymond Ivey to draft a preliminary resolution to terminate High Springs City Manager Jeri Langman in preparation for the Aug. 15 meeting. Despite the fact that Barnas stated he wanted to consider placing a 90-day hire process, which includes a 30-day ad, during the Wednesday meeting, the agenda reads a consideration of Resolution 2012-L, which will notify Langman of the commission’s intent to terminate her employment.

According to Barnas, attorney Ivey said the memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the current manager from when she was originally hired as an Interim Manager still holds. Based on the MOU, Langman is a temporary employee helping the City until a permanent manager can be found.

Barnas suggested the City place an ad in search of a city manager who has finance knowledge so that High Springs could combine the positions of city manager and the city finance services director.

Commissioner Sue Weller contends that Langman’s status was changed to permanent manager at some point, and therefore the City Charter requires a resolution providing notice to Langman that she is going to be released from employment.

“I’m not trying to argue with you in terms of what you want to do,” Weller said. “I’m concerned about the process of it.”

The Commission stated during the Aug. 9 meeting that Langman’s status was made permanent to comply with labor laws concerning benefits.

“You can’t make her full-time to be compliant with wage and benefit laws, but come back to say this [the MOU] trumps it,” Commissioner Scott Jamison said. “To me, it’s mind-boggling that this would even be considered.”

Despite the fact that the majority of the Commission seemed in favor of placing an ad in several local papers, Jamison felt it was inappropriate to advertise a job when there was currently someone filling the position.

“Just because it’s legal to do it, doesn’t make it right. What’s going on right now is wrong,” he said.

Barnas’ suggestion does not come as a surprise.  As recently as July 10 and June 28 meetings, he questioned his fellow commissioners about whether they were happy with Langman’s work.

“Obviously, we put a city manager in place as an interim city manager and then as a permanent city manager. Did we make a mistake? Yes or no, it will be debated forever and ever,” Barnas said during the June 28 meeting.  “But, the question now becomes, as another commissioner put it, Mr. Mayor, is it working for us?

During that meeting, the Commission scheduled a July 10 special meeting to discuss the hiring process for a new city manager, and Barnas requested Ivey to draft a resolution to terminate Langman. Although the commission didn’t take action on July 10, they did set a salary range of $48,000 to $75,000 annually for a new city manager. Barnas and Commissioner Linda Gestrin were in favor of moving forward with the search for a new manager.

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All three will face challengers in November election

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Photo 1 L-R: John Martin, winner of the republican primary for Alachua County Commision District 1 seat and Ted Yoho, winner of the republican primary for U.S. House of Representatives District 3 race congratulate each other on their victories Tuesday evening. Photo 1: Clovis Watson Jr. (center) thanks key supporters during a victory celebration after he won the democratic primary for Florida State House District 20.

GAINESVILLE – Tuesday brought surprises and victories for some candidates running in the Aug. 14 primary election.

Alachua native and former Alachua City Manager Clovis Watson Jr. won his primary bid for the State House District 20 seat.  Watson garnered 58.45 percent of the ballots with a total of 6,438 votes.  Opponent Marihelen Wheeler brought in 4,576 votes in the district.

Watson will appear on the ballot in the general election as he is challenged by a write-in candidate.

Still Watson was joined by supporters at a victory party Tuesday evening as election results poured in.  Watson was met by a standing-room only crowd at Las Margaritas on NW 39th Avenue in Gainesville.   A jubilant Watson thanked his supporters for their efforts and called the win a victory for the people of District 20.

“I am very excited and honored to carry the message of the people to Tallahassee,” Watson said, adding, “I’m going to work hard for the people, even those who did not vote for me.”

Watson has been a lifelong resident of the city of Alachua, having grown up in the Merrillwood housing projects.  He became a police officer on the City of Alachua police force, rising through the ranks to become Deputy Chief of the department.  He was later tapped by the commission to serve as City Manager, a role he filled from 2002-2009.

Watson and Wheeler are both democrats and sought election to a district that before being redrawn was District 23 and represented by Charles Chestnut IV.  Chestnut (Dem.) did not seek re-election to the Florida House of Representatives, opting instead to run for the Alachua County Commission District 5.   During the general election in November, he will face off against Dean Cheshire (Rep.) and K. Siva Prasad (NPA).

Resident and former commissioner and mayor of Hawthorne, John Martin (Rep.) prevailed in a three-way republican primary race for the County Commission District 1 seat, which included Brandon Kutner and Kevin Riordan.  Martin picked up 42.48 percent of the votes to clinch his spot on the general election ballot.  Kutner and Riordan received 29.37 percent and 28.13 percent respectively.

Martin will face Mike Byerly, who won in the democrat primary race against Roberta Lopez.  Lopez, a longtime resident and former commissioner in the City of Archer picked up 8,122 votes, but it wasn’t enough to beat out Byerly’s 11,203 votes.

Following the results Tuesday evening, Riordan and Kutner both threw their support behind Martin in the race he now faces against Byerly in the general election.

“We all need to rally together because we’re going to need all the support we can get if we’re going to beat a 12-year incumbent,” Martin said of Byerly Tuesday night at a victory party at The Pickled Pelican in Jonesville.

With 11,135 votes, Robert Hutchinson won against Ken Cornell, 8,125 votes, for a democrat primary race for the Alachua County Commission District 3 seat.  That will pit Hutchinson against longtime Alachua resident and former Alachua mayor and commissioner Jean Calderwood (Rep.) during the general election.  Calderwood did not have a republican opponent in the primary.

In a major upset, political newcomer Ted Yoho emerged as the winner, beating out longtime U.S. House Representative Cliff Stearns.  Yoho and Stearns were in a four-way republican primary race for United States House District 3 seat, which was redrawn following the most recent census.  Stearns, a 24-year veteran of the House conceded the race to Yoho Wednesday morning.

Yoho, with 21,899 votes, edged out Stearns who garnered 21,068 votes.  Also in the same race were Florida State Senator Steve Oelrich and James Jett, who picked up 12,017 votes and 8,710 votes respectively.

Yoho was greeted by hundreds of supporters at The Pickled Pelican in Jonesville. As Yoho arrived, the crowed poured out into the parking lot where the victorious candidate was congratulated by family, friends and supporters.  Yoho will face J.R. Gaillot (Dem.) during the general election

In other races, Alachua County School Board candidates Leanetta McNealy, 12,479 votes, and Barbara Sharpe, 10,850 votes, will be in a runoff in the November general election.  Jodi Wood, with 8,865 votes, came in third in that race.

Alachua County Property Appraiser Ed Crapo, with 13,616 votes, defeated opponent Alonzo V. Perkins who picked up 5,615 votes.  Crapo will face a write-in candidate in the general election.

Florida State House District 21 candidate Andrew Morey, with 5,285 votes, beat fellow-democrat Aaron Bosshardt who received 4,925 votes.  Morey will face Keith Perry (Rep.) for the seat in the general election.

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HIGH SPRINGS – High Springs City Manager Jeri Langman has released a final draft of a letter concerning former High Springs City Planner Christian Popoli’s demand for payment of compensatory and flex time hours.

In an article published on Aug. 9 titled “Department of Labor Rules Against High Springs,” it was reported that the United States Department Labor (DOL) advised the City to pay Popoli approximately $8,200 in order to avoid a full scale investigation.  The DOL also suggested the City pay back wages or compensation time to current salaried employees or former employees as far back as two and a half years if they had earned it.

Langman had initially identified a number of current employees as being affected by the decision, including City Clerk Jenny Parham, Finance Services Director Helen McIver, Fire Chief Bruce Gillingham, City Engineer John Morrison, Police Chief Steve Holley and City Manager Jerri Langman as well as former employees James Drumm, Verne Riggal, James Troiano and William Benck.

In Langman’s most recent letter, she states that the positions of City Engineer, Police Chief, Fire Chief, Finance Services Director, City Clerk and City Manager are exempt from the DOL decision due to the nature of the positions.

Langman proposed submitting recommendations to the Commission regarding these positions detailing the typical work hours expected of each position as well as how employees would be compensated for exceeding those hours.

Langman also stated in the letter that currently all the referenced employees, with the exception of the City Manager and the Finance Services Director, are being sent home after they reach 40 hours of work for the week.

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HIGH SPRINGS – A recent move by the High Springs City Commission that would place a charter amendment limiting City borrowing on the November ballot in High Springs is now the subject of a lawsuit.

Local attorney Linda Rice Chapman filed the suit Tuesday on behalf of High Springs resident Ross Ambrose, who is seeking injunctive relief from the court.  The civil case, filed in circuit court, takes aim at the process by which the commission approved placing the amendment on the ballot.  Mayor Dean Davis, Vice-Mayor Bob Barnas and Commissioner Linda Gestrin voted in favor of the proposed amendment, while Commissioners Sue Weller and Scott Jamison voted against it.

Named in the suit are the City of High Springs and Alachua County Supervisor of Elections, Pam Carpenter, who ultimately oversees elections and has the ballots printed.

At the center of the nearly 60-page lawsuit is the allegation that commissioners acted improperly during a meeting held on July 31. Commissioners held a second public hearing on the proposed charter amendment and in a narrow 3-2 vote approved it for the ballot with a change from a previously advertised $1 million borrowing cap to a $2 million borrowing cap.  Chapman argues in the lawsuit that such a change did constitute a substantial deviation from the first public hearing held on July 19, and thus required advertisement to the public.

After that vote, Ambrose reportedly left the meeting, having spoken out against the amendment altogether.

During that same July 31 meeting, commissioners decided to reconsider their action amid concern that the change to $2 million would be problematic as a result of the substantial change and public notice requirements.  Barnas, Gestrin and Davis waved the city’s own rules regarding reconsiderations of motions and proceeded to revert to the $1 million cap.

According to the lawsuit, commissioners never opened a public hearing and accepted public input before the vote on the $1 million cap.  Additionally, Chapman argues in the suit that proper reconsideration of an action may only occur at a subsequent meeting, not at the same meeting.  Moreover, since Ambrose left after the only advertised public hearing, he would have had no way of knowing the commission would yet again take up the issue of the borrowing limit.

“Plaintiff Ambrose is entitled to injunctive relief as he has clear legal rights that were violated (the right to meaningful notice and the right to a meaningful opportunity to be heard), and he has no adequate remedy at law,” the lawsuit claims.

Some of the concerns raised in the lawsuit seem to be shared by the city’s own attorney, Ray Ivey.

“Ray Ivey announced that it had been brought to his attention that  since Ordinance 2012-13 had been passed with a substantial change (doubling the debt ceiling), based  upon his interpretation of Attorney General Opinions, the enactment process must begin anew, requiring re-advertisement and two public hearing,” Chapman wrote in the lawsuit.

As to reconsidering the first ordinance, Ivey reportedly said “You have passed an ordinance…I do not think you can [change it now].”

After High Springs resident and former city attorney Thomas DePeter alerted the commission that they failed to open the public hearing for public comment, City Attorney Ivey suggested the commission reopen the hearing.  Despite the suggestion, Vice-Mayor Barnas abruptly moved for an adjournment to the meeting.

Numerous other allegations are made in the complaint, including that Barnas used an emergency meeting in an effort to push the amendment forward in time for ballot deadlines.

Ambrose seeks to have the court declare that the proposed charter amendment is not binding or is null and void because it was “passed in violation of Florida Statutes, specifically s. 286.011,” according to the suit.  He is also asking the court to enjoin Pam Carpenter’s office from placing the proposed charter amendment on the ballot.

As the plaintiff who filed suit, Ambrose is also asking for attorney fees and costs as a result of the commission’s actions.  And although the City of High Springs as an entity is named in the lawsuit, the matter could become much more personal.

“Furthermore, since the actions in violation of the law that are [described in the lawsuit] were taken against the advice of counsel, City Attorney Ray Ivey, attorney fees and costs may be assessed against the individual members of the commission who failed to follow the advice of their counsel…Those members are Mayor Dean Davis, Vice Mayor Bob Barnas, and Commissioner Linda Clark Gestrin,” the complaint states.

No court dates have been set for the case.

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HIGH SPRINGS – After discussing potential changes to the City’s personnel procedure manual, including capping vacation time, the High Springs Commission delayed taking action until the City’s Finance Services Director was able to attend a budget meeting.

“I want to address some serious issues in here that I think we have to address,” Vice Mayor Bob Barnas said.

During the Aug. 9 commission meeting, discussion centered on compensatory time, flex time, vacation time and merit pay.  The discussion follows a recent communication to the City of High Springs by the United States Department of Labor to pay the city’s former planner for unpaid compensatory and flex time.

Following the Department of Labor’s warning of a full-scale investigation, Barnas said City staff has improved their efforts within the last week to keep up with compensatory time.

Currently, employees earn vacation time based on years of service to the City. Employees with more than 20 years with High Springs earn 200 hours per year, while hours earned by employees with fewer than 20 years is calculated based on the years. Most employees are not allowed to accrue in excess of 240 hours, but department directors may accrue up to 320 hours.

Barnas suggested capping vacation time at 240 hours for department heads and 200 hours for all other employees.

Commissioner Sue Weller cautioned Barnas about the process of cutting vacation time, stating employees may feel like they’ve earned the right to the time they have already accumulated.

“I feel department heads should have better benefits,” Weller said, referring to the higher cap on hours. “Right now, that’s all they have that’s more than the employees they supervise.”

Fire Chief Bruce Gillingham suggested the City not cap the total hours, but limit the amount of carry-over hours to 40 a year. He also added that the carry-over deadline should be set for anniversary year instead of fiscal year so that City employees are staggered instead of fighting for vacation at the same time.

If the City decides to cut vacation time, the Commission would allow employees a year to use any time accumulated over the new set amount.

“Every city across the country is saying we can’t afford these things,” Barnas said. “If you ask me to vote on this now, I’m cutting everything.”

“I want to come up with something that truly gives someone a merit raise,” Barnas said.

City Manager Jeri Langman said before the City can hand out merit bonuses, there needs to be a uniform description of each job. She said staff is currently working on putting these together.

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