By REID TUCKER
The DeFuniak Springs City Council unanimously approved an agreement with former Planning Director Greg Scoville, who sued the city after he was fired last October due to his failure to comply with a random drug test.
The details of the tentative agreement were laid out by City Attorney Clayton Adkinson on Jan. 14 at the Council’s first regularly scheduled meeting of the new year. The settlement plan was reached after meetings between Adkinson, the Florida League of Cities and the American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing Scoville in the suit, filed on Oct. 31 with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida. Scoville’s lawsuit against the city claimed that requiring him to take the “suspicionless” randomized drug test was a violation of his Fourth Ammendment right to protection from unreasonable searches by the government.
The terms of the agreement, as laid out by Adkinson, are two-fold. First, it stipulated that the city repeal its existing “drug-free workplace” policy except as randomized drug tests apply to employees who work on natural gas or electric lines and to those that operate commercial vehicles for the city. Secondly, Scoville is to be reinstated to his former position, with his termination being rescinded on the condition that he will resign effective the same date as his original termination.
Upon the fulfillment of the agreement, Scoville will execute a release from the city, while responses to any inquiries made to the city regarding Scoville’s time as planning director will cite only the dates of his employment, salary and job description, with the termination being completely stricken from the official record. Furthermore, Scoville will then negotiate the League of Cities to determine the amount of his compensation, with the League ultimately writing the check. Adkinson said such an agreement with Scoville should prove beneficial to both the city and to Scoville himself, as his own attorney fees would have likely overshadowed any damages he could collect in a judgement had the case gone to court.
“We have an opportunity to settle this case with Mr. Scoville that would save a lot of money,” Adkinson said. “The League recommends this settlement. I concur with them in that recommendation simply because of the questions about the policy as it applies to all municipalities – not just us, but everyone in the state.”
Even though the Council voted unanimously to repeal the current city drug policy, that does not prevent it from coming up with another, perhaps more specific, policy to replace it. Adkinson referred to the legal challenge that halted Governor Rick Scott’s March 2011 Executive Order mandating state employees in executive branch agencies submit to random drug testing, recommending that the Council wait until the broader issue of randomized drug testing is resolved in the courts before the city adopts new drug policy. Adkinson said a decision in the Scott case could be reached this year or possibly in 2014.
Though Councilman Ron Kelley voted along with the other board members to accept the terms of the agreement, he nevertheless expressed his regret for the need for such an arrangement.
“It’s just unfortunate,” Kelley said. “I mean, it just seems like if you sue [the city] you can cash in. But it could be worse.”
Other major items requiring action remained on the Council’s agenda following the matter of the settlement agreement, including further discussion about the ordinance for a voter referendum regarding the mayor’s power to veto decisions by the Council or to break tie votes. Adkinson recommended that the Council direct him to include an explanation on the ballot in order to convey to the public the reasoning behind the referendum. The Council’s intent with the ordinance is to enable the mayor to confer with Council members on matters of city policy, something holders of the office cannot do under the existing ordinance as it would involve a breach of Florida’s Sunshine Law.
The Council members voted 5-0 to conduct the first reading of the proposed ordinance and to advertise for adoption. A public hearing will be held prior to the ordinance’s adoption at the Council’s regularly scheduled meeting on Feb. 11. For his part, Mayor Harold Carpenter has been behind the ordinance since the suggestion to remove his office’s right to vote first came up at a meeting months ago and for the same reasons as stated above.
“I think this is the way we really need to go,” Carpenter said. “I’ve been here a long time and I see the need to discuss things with each one of these gentlemen sitting at the table.”
Another item of much discussion at the meeting was Councilman Mac Work’s recommendation that, in the wake of the Dec. 14 mass shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the city should take extra security precautions. The thrust of Work’s suggestion was to have panic buttons with direct links to the DeFuniak Springs Police Department installed at City Hall, the nearby City Hall Annex and at the main office of the Public Works Department. City Marshal Mark Weeks and often another member of the DFSPD attend meetings to provide security, but panic buttons would provide more security for daytime workers, Work said.
“Whatever the cost is we need to install panic buttons in those three places…in case we have something like [the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings],” he said.
Other members of the board expressed their agreement with Work’s proposal, even though the money for the installation of panic buttons or any other additional security measures had obviously not been budgeted for this fiscal year.
“We don’t need to wait for something bad to happen before we do anything,” said Councilman Henry Ennis.
Other news from the meeting included approval from the Council for City Manager Sarah Bowers to sign and submit the Fiscal Year 2013 Airport Improvement Program pre-application for federal assistance to the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA will pick up 90 percent of the bill associated with the program, with the remaining 10 percent to be split between the Florida Department of Transportation and the city. Also, the Council gave approval to Russell Lee Brown, a representative of Emerald Coast Bottle Collectors, Inc., to hold an annual glass bottle show at the Community Center on May 18.
Finally, the Council approved a variance request from the developers of the Taco Bell restaurant project to reduce the landscaping requirements and the front buffer setbacks on U.S. 331 and Oaklawn Drive. The setback variances will reduce the building’s encroachment into nearby wetlands by five feet. The Taco Bell location should be open for business by mid-2013 if all goes according to plan.