Fire chief and acting city manager Kerkhof steps up, smells smoke
The last whisper of Hermine now faded far to the north, Mount Dora city council’s second meeting on Tuesday night settled down to approve ramped-up security measure in City Hall, wend through a thicket of big-ticket road projects and consider what it’s paying for attorney services.
Before the night was out, something caught fire between the words “acting” and “interim,” but as usual, council was divided deciding how to put it out.
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All members of council were present, with fire chief Skip Kerkhof sitting at his first council meeting in his new role as acting city manager and William Colbert sitting in for city attorney Groot, who has not sat in on any council meetings all summer. New city manager Robin Hayes (who starts with Mount Dora on Sept. 26) was watching from the audience. An earlier meeting on special events had packed hall chambers, and many stayed on for this meeting.
During public comment, Mount Dora Buzz editor Trish Morgan praised Parks and Rec director Roy Hughes and his staff for their recent work installing overhead backstops in the Lincoln Park ball field to prevent foul balls from hitting bystanders.
The first item of business was approval of a plan to beef up security in City Hall. In his presentation, Deputy Chief Robert Bell said that the building’s last remodeling was in an age before the threat of active shooters and workplace violence became a daily event nationwide. In recent years there has been several troubling events in City Hall, including disgruntled employees, threatening letters to staff and mentally disturbed people in the building. The $70,000 plan includes installation of bullet-resistant glass at customer service counters, 12 cameras with DVR recording capability and 17 wireless “panic buttons.”
“We’ve been needing this for several years,” said Cal Rolfson (second district). “Waiting any longer does a disservice to staff, council and citizens.”
Council members discussed whether electric wands should also be purchased to scan people coming in for council meetings. Police Chief O’Grady said how much security is needed is a larger discussion. “”This isn’t the only meeting held in here,” he said. “How far do you go?” Whatever police can’t prevent by way of threats, the city is liable for the consequences.
Mayor Girone was reluctant to discuss the plan in detail, fearing that divulging that information only helps the bad guys. Evidently, raising the security stakes in the building against the threat of violence is also raising the fear of it.
The expense has been budgeted and will paid for out of the discretionary sales tax fund.
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In new business, the city continued to take up roadwork-related items ahead of the Wekiva Parkway expansion—Public Works is on a tight schedule, and the work is coming at them fast. Council approved an FDOT joint participation agreement amendment that allows for construction of an extended driveway from Wastewater Plant 2 into property owned by the Grantham family adjacent to the plant. Council also approved a work site agreement with the Summerbrooke Homeowners Association to build a berm where the development’s property will come up to the new border of SR-46 when that highway expands. All of the work is related to existing contracts, and any cost incurred by the city (to an estimated combined tune of $672,000) will be reimbursed by the FDOT and Summerbrooke HOA.
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Also in new business, Cal Rolfson recommended a policy proposal to reduce costs for city attorney’s fees by re-negotiating its contract with Lonnie Groot to bill at increments of a tenth of an hour. Currently Groot’s firm (Stenstrom, McIntosh, Colbert & Whigham, P.A.) bills in increments of a quarter hour.
According to Rolfson’s research, it is customary for city attorneys to bill at the tenth-of-an-hour rate, and by so doing, he estimated the city could save somewhere between $3 and $6 thousand dollars a year.
“This has nothing to do with the quality of legal services,” he said. “It is all about money.”
Mark Slaby disagreed with the proposal, saying that in his research “it’s not always a savings” under the reduced billing increment, pointing out that in 12 to 15 minute increments the reverse actually was true. He also said that Groot provides some work gratis, and that by re-contracting at the narrower increment “we take away their ability to be gracious.”
Attached to the agenda was a letter from Stenstrom signed by William Colbert, stating that they charged all their municipal government clients at the quarter-hour rate. Also, he said their base rate of $155 per hour (for the first 20 hours) was much more competitive than the former firm’s rate. He estimated potential savings to Mount Dora $40,000 in the first year.
Rolfson said that he had met with Groot in his office at Stenstrom several months ago to discuss his idea to change the billing increment, so it should be no surprise to them what he was proposing. His numbers were never challenged and no counter-proposals were offered. Regarding the savings proposed by Colbert due to the lower hourly rate, Rolfson said it was “an apples to oranges comparison”, since only the cost was compared, not the scale of projects Cliff Shepard had been working on.
“I’ve done the math,” Rolfson concluded, “and I’m confident of the savings to the city.”
However, other members of council were unsupportive. Laurie Tillett (first district) agreed with Slaby’s fear that by decreasing the hourly increment for billing, the gratis work Groot currently provides might go away. “Our bills will go up,” she said. Mayor Girone said that the agreement had been reviewed by the former city attorney and he hadn’t any objections to it. (It should be noted that the hourly increment isn’t specified in that agreement.)
Council voted 6-2 to reject Roflson’s proposal, with Marie Rich casting the other affirmative vote.
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Next council approved several board appointments: Mayor Girone’s recommendation of Marie Fortenberry for Parks and Recreation, and for the Public Arts committee, Harlow Middleton (by Mark Slaby), Kristina Marie Rosenburg (Marie Rich), and Norman Rinne (NIck Girone).
William Colbert had nothing for his city attorney update, though he later said in response to a question from Mark Slaby that his office had been in consultation with Sherrie Sutphen, the city’s attorney in the Medallion litigation, about drafting the settlement proposal council approved at its Aug. 16 meeting.
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In his city manager update, Kerkhof first reported that the city’s response to the storm threat from Hurricane Hermine had been without incident with no damage or utility outages.
Next came the fireworks. Kerkhof read a statement saying he’d recently been notified by a citizen that he may have been illegally named to the position of acting city manager while also serving as fire chief as Florida’s state constitution prohibits dual office holding. Knowing that the matter had already passed city legal review, Kerkhof sought outside legal opinion, first asking councilman Cal Rolfson (a former deputy attorney general with the state of Nebraska) and then two other local attorneys. Their collective opinion was that the city may have violated the law.
“I believe this was simply an oversight,” he said. “I had made the commitment to this council and to the citizens to fulfill the duties of city manager until such time as the new city manager took over. I didn’t want to leave the council, the city, or the staff in the lurch.” Kerkhof said as he finished his statement. “I would be happy to continue, but I want reassurances that I will get my job back as fire chief when Robin Hayes starts as city manager and that my pension and other benefits will be bridged.”
Ed Rowlett (third district) was quick to assure Kerkhof that “there’s no trouble here,” and Mayor Girone repeatedly said that the distinction between “acting” and “interim” city manager should be legally defining. But when he asked William Colbert for his opinion, Colbert replied that he hadn’t made the review and that he would need to research it further.
Cal Rolfson moved that council draft a statement that when they appointed Kekhoff, there was no intention of disrupting his employment and accrued benefits as police chief. He also sent over to city clerk Gwen Keough a set of documents containing attorney general opinions on dual office holding, asking they be entered into the record.
Mark Slaby didn’t think Rolfson’s motion was a good idea, since without further opinion from their city’s legal service, he had no assurance that there had been a mistake in the first place.
With little other support, Rolfson tabled the motion until the next council meeting when Groot can make a full report.
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During council comments, Laurie Tillett urged council and staff to find ways to encourage more participation in city government by youth, and Ed Rowlett asked when street paving would finally begin at 5th and Donnelly. (Girone: It’s now on schedule for October, and it will not interfere with the bike festival.)
In his laundry list of comments, Mark Slaby wondered how citizens might become more involved in code enforcement; asked that creation of a city flag get on an October agenda; requested a council session with new city manager Hayes “to make sure we’re all on the same page;” complained that staff was not replying fast enough to city attorney requests; and mentioned an idea he’d heard of “from constituents” for a vacancy tax on unoccupied downtown real estate. However, he said he couldn’t support it, adding, “we can approach occupancy issues in other ways than by a tax.”
Council adjourned around 9:30 p.m. with Mayor Girone and William Colbert quietly conferring and everyone who had started the night at 5:30 with the special events meeting groaning up and out. Outside it was still and quiet and almost, just about cool-ish, the best we can hope for in early September when there’s plenty more hot stuff sure to come.
Editor’s Note: Technical problems overwhelmed our video production this week. We had to leave the meeting briefly, and the camera battery died as we did. Immediately upon our return, the battery was switched out and filming resumed. The last hour and twenty minutes of the meeting is linked below, including Kerkhof’s statement and council’s reaction (which begins 30:45 into the below video). We apologize for the inconvenience and implore the city to video record these meetings in the future for the official public record.
David Cohea, Writer (email@example.com)