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High Springs residents must send message to commission

Editorial2012  Expanded media coverage on the City of High Springs has intensified in recent days.  But the issues plaguing High Springs didn’t just happen overnight.  This speaks to the monumental failures since the November 2011 election when Bob Barnas and Linda Gestrin assumed positions on the city commission, joining Dean Davis in what will surely be remembered as the single most destructive commission in the city’s history.

Although Mayor Dean Davis refuses to publically acknowledge the truth, a rational and forthright person would likely agree with the city’s own insurance agent.  That is, liability insurance premiums jumping from $13,754 to more than $120,000 is the result of insurance underwriters predicting new lawsuits are imminent.  And while Vice Mayor Bob Barnas would have the public believe the steep increase is based on irresponsible actions by previous administrations, the facts speak otherwise.  Imminent lawsuits do not speak to actions by a previous administration. Imminent lawsuits can be placed squarely on the doorstep of the current administration, and most appropriately at the feet of Davis, Barnas and Gestrin.

And while Davis has been busily whistling the theme song to the Andy Griffith Show, the City of High Springs has been slammed with two lawsuits in recent weeks.  The more Davis talks, the more unglued from reality he seems to be.  As he recently explained, the increasing insurance cost isn’t because of the actions of the current commission, but those of past commissions.  The two most recent lawsuits are precisely the result of the current commission.  Even so, just how far back would Davis like to shift the blame?  He is, after all, in the final year of his three-year term.

He is perhaps partially correct in that past commissions are somewhat responsible for the condition in which High Springs finds itself today.  Consider that the gestation period for an elephant is about 22 months.  That’s just about how long ago it was that Davis and other commissioners set the City on its current path when they sent then City Manager Jim Drumm packing.  Today, Davis looks much like the emperor with no clothes.  He is among few others in High Springs who don’t see the giant elephant in the room – that firing your city manager and paying him six-months salary to walk just so the commission can meddle in the administrative matters is no way to run a city.  With such a gargantuan issue continuing to loom over this commission, it’s no wonder there’s little room for reason and logic.

Still, the bulk of the blame for the condition of High Springs today falls squarely on the shoulders of the current commission.  Over the last year, this commission has turned the City of High Springs upside down. Time and time again, this commission has shown the world that it really is possible to spend the city into oblivion.  From the Poe Springs takeover farce to the ongoing fiscally disastrous police dispatch center, from employee firings via budget manipulation to an irresponsible campaign supporter hiring, Mayor Davis, Vice Mayor Barnas and Commissioner Gestrin have turned the commission into a virtual pigsty of issues that will continue to plague the city long after a wiser electorate has sent them packing.

This trio of ineptitude has created a mess that future commissions will be cleaning for years to come, and for which residents will be paying. And for all his finger pointing at others, Barnas apparently suffers a disconnect between his heavy handed actions and those he accused of doing the same. As Davis, Barnas and Gestrin wallow in the mess they’ve created, Commissioners Sue Weller and Scott Jamison are stuck doing damage control.  These two reasonable commissioners can only hope to slow the downward spiral created now that the other three have driven the city over the fiscal cliff.

To be quite clear, Davis, Barnas and Gestrin will all be leaving a lasting legacy on High Springs – a legacy of bringing the City to its knees and taking it to its worst condition in history.  This gang of three has been bent on seeking retribution against city employees, re-establishing a city-operated police dispatch center and chasing pipe dreams.  All of this when it should have been planning for the city’s aging water system, an underfunded wastewater system, and tending to serious fiscal issues facing the city.

But this set of circumstances wasn’t created this week.  These are matters with which Alachua County Today readers are all-too-familiar.  A simple perusal of headlines topping this newspaper over the last two years would paint a startling and disturbing picture of a city in peril – one that has culminated in the absolute failure of the High Springs commission and a leadership black hole that is destroying any semblance of responsible governance.

In reality, unfortunately this isn’t a television show that in the span of 30 minutes solves all its issues.  This is a real city, with real residents and employees.  This is a place where commission action has real consequences. And sadly, the people left holding the bag will not be the current commission, but the residents who will foot not only the financial burden, but the task of stabilizing and rebuilding the city’s workforce and reputation as well.

But even in this bastion of slip-shod governance where many decisions are based on cronyism and retribution rather than sound policy and good leadership, there are several rays of hope, one being the upcoming city commission election, and the other being the grassroots group, Concerned Citizens for a Better High Springs.  The future of High Springs is in the hands of its residents who must step up and make informed decisions in the coming days.  Whether these decisions are at the ballot box or through public participation with civic minded individuals seeking to restore High Springs government to a sound footing, it has never been more imperative that residents take a stand.  The future of High Springs hangs in the balance.

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High Springs in dire straits

Editorial2012Guest Editorial by JOHN MANLEY, High Springs resident

Captain Queeg: Ahh, but the strawberries that's... that's where I had them. They laughed at me and made jokes but I proved beyond the shadow of a doubt and with... geometric logic... that a duplicate key to the wardroom icebox DID exist, and I'd have produced that key if they hadn't of pulled the Caine out of action. I, I, I know now they were only trying to protect some fellow officers...

After 88-plus City of High Springs Commission meetings, there have been more than enough exchanges to help the attendee get the feeling they are reliving the court scene from the movie “The Caine Mutiny” with Humphrey Bogart as the battle scared Lt. Commander Queeg. And that we’ve been experiencing here, the drama of the national debate happening in miniature in High Springs – and it is all too real.

The litany of jumbled decision making is well known to the Alachua Today readers. I have reduced my concerns down to two common denominators.

First, the process, or lack thereof, they use to develop their policy and actions.

Ron Batory, the President of Conrail Shared Assets, has a sign in his office that reads "Without data, it's just another opinion.”  The majority of commissioners fail to do any thorough research. They avoid, at all costs, the effort to take the time to assemble the data necessary to make sound decisions. They rely on unsubstantiated facts from people with questionable motives and zero ability. Their opinion is not necessarily their own. Even the well founded opinion is based on data and information that, when questioned, the opinion maker can produce that data to support their position.

What has been sorely lacking has been a dispassionate approach to decision making. It is one thing to approach one’s position with non-negotiable ethics for basic behavior; it is another thing to stick to those non-negotiables when the evidence suggests your assumptions are in error. A certain amount of intellectual honesty is required, along with the skill to sort the important from unimportant to make a sober decision. The Emergency Call Center is a classic example.

The majority manipulate data, if they even bother to delve deeply into a subject, to fit their reality to their preconceived notions or that of their constituency. They put equal weight and importance on all data, not prioritizing or validating what they think they know.

They have a tendency to "fall in love with the project" rather than do the disciplined analysis, and if need be, be prepared to walk away from the project. A prime example is the school renovation. Over $2 million has been invested, yet it sits dormant without purpose.

We need a greater appreciation for facts, rather than shoehorn data to conform to pre-conceived opinions. There are no controls. There are no accepted standards to compare against. There is little appreciation for procedures created to avert trouble and litigation. With two of the commissioners being real estate professionals, how can they function in their fields if they don't review data, such as comparable sales, financing, closing costs, etc?

Dogma can be a burden. This is not only a problem for High Springs; I think we see a similar intransigence in the national arena as well. What we want are leaders who will put their prejudices aside, get the best data they can, learn to throw away the insignificant, and learn to compromise. We ask them to communicate their position clearly and distinctly, so even the citizen disagreeing with them can at least respect how they reached their conclusion.

 Second, I am concerned about the failure of leadership.

The majority seem to lead on the assumption that they received 100 percent of the vote when they obtained office. In fact, they retained a simple majority, and did not enjoy a sufficient referendum to bully their agenda through the process with arrogance contrary to democratic principles.  They continually harp about the mistakes of previous commissions; but enough time has passed that the current emergency is strictly their own making.

 Moral leadership and backbone is lacking. The majority will not suffer the least indigestion in setting the city staff up for a total 30 percent pay and benefits cut, along with limiting compensatory time and overtime. The majority can't accept criticism –– to the point of hysteria. Certain members of the majority have sought to publicly verbalize their contempt for this newspaper, yet they produce no contrary position when invited. If you are not with them, you are against them. In a public arena when the dissenting side merely questions the decisions, not the motives, a “winners take all” stance is inappropriate. There are commissioners (and their closest supporters) who seek retribution for any perceived past and present slights to their egos or prestige. They are destructive.

There have been reports of veiled threats to a staff member's position with the City.  Or, as reported by one county monthly publication, a direct threat to a complaining citizen's employer, suggesting however unfounded, misuse of employer time. Business owners are afraid to speak up fearing some kind of retribution. Jeri Langman's suspension is the classic case of "shoot the messenger" –– and she was rushed into her position by these same commissioners. This entire list of behavior smacks of thuggery and old style Tammany Hall politics, minus the free turkeys during the holidays. As a result of this behavior, High Springs taxpayers will see the City liability insurance policy increase 20-fold to over $225,000, a litany of lawsuits, complaints made at the state level, or a waiting list of litigation seeking compensation for being manhandled. 

 Our Vice Mayor fails to communicate his concepts in a measured and thorough way. What is obvious to him seems to elude us. He represents what Peter Drucker refers to as “intellectual arrogance causing disabling ignorance.”

Ultimately, it comes down to how the plans are executed, which have been very poor, communications worse and ineptitude catastrophic.

 High Springs needs a clear mission statement. The City of Gulf Breeze has a concise vision statement: "Gulf Breeze will preserve and enhance its hometown character and natural environment to foster a high quality of family life.” And their vision statement is: "Develop a master plan to be recognized as the most livable city in America by 2020."

While accepting our current challenges, we need to seek longer term goals that we can express in a tangible way that we all can get behind.  Churchill referred to "sunlit uplands" and England as that "shining city on a hill" to stir his people.  What is our rallying cry?

 Would we agree that we have more pressing issues that deserve a balanced, professional approach to problem-solving than this childish, sandbox behavior?

I fear the current majority’s legacy will be that they were leaders of the Commission that broke the financial back of High Springs and left it unable to control its destiny.  

 Until they change their attitude and adopt a desire to learn, to the majority I say as Cromwell said, “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

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Freedom of the press vital to democracy

Editorial2012“We are not afraid to entrust the American people with unpleasant facts, foreign ideas, alien philosophies, and competitive values.  For a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is afraid of its people.”

These words, spoken by John F. Kennedy in 1962, have stood the test of time and are just as true today as they were 50 years ago.

Some people may find it appalling that in 2012 there are members of an elected body who seem bent on suppressing the free flow of information.  Even more alarming, however, is that the attempt to stifle information occurs in one of our small towns, here in Alachua County.

Over the past several weeks, some High Springs commissioners have used the dais as a battering ram in hopes of quelling Alachua County Today’s news coverage.  This newspaper has endured sharp criticism from many of the same people in High Springs who, just months ago, lauded it as the truth teller.

Some commissioners are well on their way down a slippery slope – one that leads to and chips away at the very bedrock on which this nation was founded.  The whole of the actions by these commissioners could easily be seen as coercion, an abridgment of First Amendment protections of the press and freedom of speech, a blockade on the free flow of information and an effort to thwart the public’s right to know what their government is doing.

In a Feb. 22 email, Mayor Dean Davis wrote, “I will request that all private filming during commission meetings be prohibited.”  In that same email, he also said he wanted to put an end to public comments on scheduled agenda items.

During a Feb. 16 meeting, Vice Mayor Bob Barnas went on a tirade bemoaning Alachua County Today’s coverage of the commission’s actions.

Barnas said, “I hate having a newspaper who, you know, that beats us up about being professional and some emails and some naysayers saying, ‘where’s the experience?’”

It seems his contempt for the press is such that he is willing to resort to strong-arm tactics to elicit the response he wants.

“You know, I think advertisers are gonna soon realize that what happened to the North Florida Herald can happen to Mr. Boukari and his paper, a young man who just constantly wants to bash us and not write anything good,” he said.

Barnas’ statements are tantamount to a threat of inflicting financial harm against Alachua County Today, a small, locally owned and operated business, and makes reference to the town’s now defunct newspaper that closed its doors last fall.

It came to light during the March 8 commission meeting that Davis reportedly directed at least one employee to remove Alachua County Today from his or her desk.  The reason given by Davis for such a request only serves to demonstrate his lack of support for the public’s right to know.

“The reason I said that [is] Alachua County Today puts headlines about the mayor the commission…and it’s extremely negative.  And I don’t appreciate our citizens coming into the town and finding the newspaper laying on the City executive secretary’s desk that said the mayor wants to stop filming and debate,” Davis said.  He went on to imply that this newspaper took his comments out of context or skewed them.

To be accurate, it should be noted that the actual headline referenced by Davis was “Mayor wants to restrict comments, end filming,” which topped the March 1 edition of Alachua County Today.  As to Mayor Davis’ contention that his words were taken out of context, he would do well to read the article for himself and take note that of the 453 words therein, more than 30 percent were direct quotations from his email to City Manager Jeri Langman.  The great majority of the remainder of the story was either a paraphrase of other parts of his own email or that of Ms. Langman.

To put it quite simply, if Davis dislikes what was written in the article, he only has himself to thank.  Alachua County Today merely reported what he wrote.  Moreover, when Davis was contacted by a reporter for clarification on his remarks, he declined to comment.

Unlike some of our most recent critics in High Springs who have transitioned from citizens to elected commissioners, Alachua County Today remains where it always has been– in a position of observation and reporting the actions of city officials.

It is indeed disturbing that public officials would openly threaten any person’s constitutionally guaranteed rights.  It is even more unconscionable that they would use their positions of power granted by the people to accomplish such abridgment when such actions place the City of High Springs itself at severe liability.

Today, some commissioners and citizens seem willing to place this newspaper at the crosshairs, sacrificing principles for political gain or self-preservation.  Whenever any limitation is placed on the free flow of information to the public, our democracy is weakened, and our liberties are threatened.

Let us be clear that under no circumstances will Alachua County Today allow this flagrant intimidation to affect our reporting of the news.  Instead, we remain fervently committed to our role as an independent government watchdog that will report the news only as it occurs.

This newspaper does not make the news – we only report it.  If city officials are fearful of, or find troubling what they read, they would do well to alter their own actions. Add a comment Add a comment

Davis holds key to changing direction

Editorial2012 In a city where so much is at stake, never before have so many matters been so bungled, mismanaged and misguided.  This, unfortunately, is the image of High Springs that many people are coming to recognize.

By now, it’s no secret that a rift has developed between Vice Mayor Bob Barnas and City Manager Jeri Langman.  With Langman’s call on June 8 for Barnas to step down from his role as a commissioner amid numerous allegations of charter violations, it is clear that the two are not seeing eye-to-eye.  Her assertion that he is a “rogue commissioner” only serves to fortify similar claims others have made for several months.

Her allegations are serious and should not be brushed aside without first being given due consideration and review.  In a June 7 memo to Mayor Dean Davis, Langman details numerous specific instances in which Barnas has purportedly violated the City Charter.

Alarming to everyone should be her claim that, “Mr. Barnas has demanded that I informed [sic] him of everything that goes on at City Hall and to give him any all records that I find that may incriminate employees or prior commissioners.”  Or the numerous occasions on which Langman says he, as one commissioner, directed her on how to handle day-to-day administrative tasks, including her dealings with employees and contractors.

Barnas is perhaps the worst kind of elected official – one unrestrained and quick in misusing the power of government as a tool for intimidating anyone with whom he disagrees.  One need only remember a Feb. 16 commission meeting when Mr. Barnas vented his displeasure with this very newspaper, threatening to try to put Alachua County Today out of business.

It has even come to light that, unbeknownst to other commissioners, and certainly without their approval, Barnas has communicated on behalf of the City without the authority to do so.  In one such incident, he sent a scathing letter to U.S. Senator Bill Nelson and U.S. Congressman Cliff Stearns claiming that a particular federal agency acted improperly in its dealings with the City of High Springs.  Mr. Barnas’ own actions are inflicting untold damage on the city’s reputation and its future working relationships.

And though he repeatedly maligns prior commissions for the way they handled City matters, Barnas has a laissez-faire attitude about his own questionable actions as he goes about his day-to-day activities that are serving to effectively derail an entire city.  But for the perceived control granted to him by several fellow commissioners, Barnas is but one-fifth of the council.  Still, this has not stopped Barnas from seeking complete control over High Springs City Hall, a place where, today, a complete lack of leadership presides, conspiracies lurk behind every corner and employees watch their backs, never knowing when the axe will fall on them.

In the last seven months, this commission has managed to destroy much of the valuable corporate knowledge that existed in the human capital in City Hall.  Although some commissioners, like Linda Gestrin, wear this as a badge of honor, we find it not only distasteful, but concerning.  That Ms. Gestrin would refer to a city employee as the “tail of the snake,” or what should be a family of employees as a “regime,” speaks volumes about her inability to accept that her role as a commissioner begins and stops at setting policy.  And although Gestrin has openly stated her desire to have more “control” over employees, residents in High Springs should be thanking their lucky stars that she does not.  Gestrin, too, has apparently overstepped the bounds of a commissioner and like Barnas, her judgment seems seriously lacking.

The extreme dysfunction and power plays exhibited by Barnas and Gestrin provide evidence enough to support limits to the commission’s role in day-to-day operations of the City.  Like many other cities, under High Springs’ charter, the commission sets the policies and it is the duty of the city manager to carry out those policies.

The City Charter strictly forbids commission interference with city employees and administrative tasks, and for good reason.  This form of government is intended to keep politics out of City Hall, to allow employees to do their jobs unimpeded and without fear of reprisal from commissioners and to ensure every resident is treated with the an equal level of respect and consideration, no matter who they are, who they know, or where they stand on a particular issue.

But make no mistake, the strength of the City Charter and the safeguards it affords are vulnerable, because if Gestrin has her way, the charter will be amended to extend exactly such control and authority to the commission.  And the first step could be taken as soon as the June 14 commission meeting, as Charter amendments to be placed on the November ballot are being considered.  And as history shows, voters are quick to approve these types of amendments, either without an understanding of their full consequences or because of creative and enticing ballot language.  But voter beware, all change is not good change.

In the short term, given the current commission membership, there remains only one glimmer of hope to break the ever increasing stranglehold Barnas and Gestrin are attempting to perpetrate.  Mayor Dean Davis has a tremendous opportunity to affect a positive direction for the City of High Springs.  We implore Davis to act with great caution on all matters and listen to the voices of reason that exist in commissioners Sue Weller and Scott Jamison.

Though Davis does not necessarily agree with Weller and Jamison, he need not agree with Barnas and Gestrin either.  It would be a wise move to distance one’s self from this runaway duo of inept and destructive commissioners.  No matter the political alliances of yesterday, this is Mayor Davis’ time to stand up as a leader, stand aside from this mayhem and stand with the people of High Springs.

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Guest Editorial: As goes the penny, so goes the country

Editorial2012When I was a young child my parents tried to teach me the value of money.  One hundred pennies made a dollar.  With a dollar one could buy three gallons of gasoline, enough to drive to town and back.  Parents taught children to be very careful with money so it wouldn’t be lost or wasted, but Benjamin Franklin may have said it best, “A penny saved is a penny earned.”

It was difficult to save a penny.  First, I seldom had one.  Second, if I had one, I could hardly wait to spend it.  My father often told me the penny was burning a hole in my pocket. It didn’t matter whether I lost it or spent it. It was soon gone.  The only way to really save it was to lock it away in a piggy bank.

Finding a penny was not only rare, it was a big deal.  My grandfather, bending over to pick up a penny, would invariably say the penny wasn’t worth the pain in his back, but he continued to pick them up anyway.

There are people today who insist we should abandon the penny. I’ve heard a variety of reasons why the penny is no longer useful.  They say things like, “When people leave them at the cash register, it’s time to end the penny.”  They point out a majority of us stash pennies rather than bother with spending them. Even with banks begging us to bring them in, it seems hardly worth the effort to carry a quart or gallon jar of pennies to the bank.

Some activists remind us, even after replacing the copper in pennies with zinc, the cost to our government to make pennies is still more than the pennies are worth.  Businesses hate them. They are wasteful of the time it takes to count them and they no longer facilitate commerce.

The penny has become a part of our language and adds to our nostalgia of a simpler time.  Ever wear penny loafers? Remember the penny pincher?  Who could forget the black sheep of the family who kept returning like a bad penny?  My favorite was the lucky penny. Remember the time when you were offered a penny for your thoughts?  Pennies from Heaven was a wonderful movie and you really could buy penny candy for a penny.

Nothing can stop the passage of time and change is inevitable.  The value of pennies is now so low no one wants them.  I can’t think of anything one can buy today for a single penny.  Yet, we continue to spend approximately one hundred million dollars per year making more pennies.  These are pennies worth so little they are a nuisance to most people and not even poor people will pick them up.  I see them on floors everywhere, in department stores, in convenience stores, in grocery stores, and in parking lots.  Poor people, including those on food stamps and the homeless, just step over them.  They are truly not worth picking up.

The penny may ultimately have to go, for a variety of economic reasons, but I’ll be disappointed when it does.  The demise of the penny will be perhaps the first tangible proof to the masses our dollar is failing.  As long as we have the penny there is hope we can restore the dollar. Our current sales tax is six pennies per dollar.  Remove the penny and it’s easy to imagine a sales tax of two nickels.  When tax is the topic of conversation, six pennies are far better than two nickels.

The penny is in trouble and we may not be able to save it, but I am optimistic and hopeful we can someday restore the value to the penny.  It is a part of Americana.  It is a part of who we are.  It is tradition. It is also like the canary in a coal mine.  Lose the penny and we lose hope.  Lose the penny and our nickel is at risk.

I frequently pick up three or four pennies in a single day, sometimes more.   I freely admit they are not worth picking up but I pick them up for a different reason.  I pick them up because I can, and I can because I pick them up.  I know dozens of people personally, and have seen many others, who cannot bend, squat, or stoop sufficiently to pick up a penny.  I like being able to pick them up, so I pick them up to continue to be able to pick them up. At the risk of being simplistic, I offer my opinion.  People who step over pennies when they are young are far less likely to be able to pick them up when they are old.

There are two ways to view a penny on the floor.  One can see it as further evidence of the decline of the dollar and dwell on that negative subject.  The other is to see it as an opportunity to preserve or improve one’s health. So, for my patriotic friends I have the following suggestion. The next time you see a penny on the floor, enjoy the nostalgia of the moment and say to yourself, “God bless America.” Then proudly pick up that penny which humbly proclaims, “IN GOD WE TRUST.” Our penny is not yet dead.  It still has a pulse, it still has a message, and so long as we care, there is hope.

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