[PREMIUM CONTENT] Insurance, Letters, and Raises Heat Up DFS City Meetings

BY THE TIME THE DFS CITY COUNCIL MEETING STARTED it was pretty much a standing room only event. The near three-hour meeting covered a variety of subjects but three stood out in drawing the most comments from attendees.

By ALICIA LEONARD

Many were displaced last week by Hurricane Irma, but budget meetings, economic development, and city business were only displaced temporarily as the DeFuniak Springs City Council held meetings on Sept. 12 and Sept. 14 to keep things on schedule.

There were many noteworthy items on the agenda the evening of Sept. 14, but standout issues that raised the most public comments centered around a proposal by the council to give everyone employed a 50-cent raise but lower the mayor’s salary to meet the council’s rate of pay. Also on the agenda was a budget item requesting the city stop paying for City Marshal Mark Weeks’ insurance supplement, and a proposed letter drafted by an unnamed source for Council member Kermit Wright to be sent to Florida Governor Rick Scott concerning the DeFuniak Springs Police Department.

Sept. 12: The first tentative budget and millage public hearing was held and drew a handful of citizens that approached the council with requests that they remove or rethink budget items requesting to lower the mayor’s salary to meet their own, and the item requiring Weeks to pay the total amount for his insurance rather than the city paying a part. One other citizen had no objections to the budget items.

Council member Janie Griffith stated she thought the council would discuss and vote on the more hot button items separately, before voting on the budget as a whole.

Council member Ron Kelley said they had always had discussion only as they could not vote in a workshop and had always voted on tentative budget and millage at this type of public hearing in the past.

Kelley and Council member Henry Ennis were the two representatives that requested the mayor’s salary be lowered to meet their own in workshops ongoing and open to the public since Aug. 8, 2017.

Mayor Bob Campbell stated he had asked that if he took a pay cut, that the council would so as well, but his request did not make it into the budget.

Griffith revealed in the regular meeting on Sept. 14, 2017 that she was the one that requested the item being included in the budget for the city to stop paying for part of Weeks’ insurance. It was due to a policy from a few years back, one that concerns requiring that elected officials cover their insurance if taken out with the city. Discussion later revolved around interpretation of that policy and if it was concerning part-time or full-time elected officials.

The council did nothing concerning these items at the hearing but voted to approve a tentative millage rate of 4.5 mills, same as last year, and a tentative total budget of $$23,971,455. Last year’s budget came in at $24,713,106.

An earlier report of a large difference in last year’s budget numbers versus this year’s was explained by DeFuniak Springs City Clerk Loretta Laird. She said, “The difference is we deleted some expenditure enterprise fund line items that actually were reserve accounts balances.”

The council voted 5-0 to pass the tentative budget and millage rate 5-0 and will vote the second and final time on Sept. 26, 2017 at 5:45 p.m. during a final budget and millage adoption public hearing.

Sept. 14: The council chambers were filled with citizens and the council had a full agenda of assorted items to handle at their rescheduled meeting starting at 6:15 p.m.
On the topic of the mayor’s salary, the majority of attendees argued on behalf of the mayor keeping his salary, or the council taking a cut as well, or not giving an across-the-board raise to everyone in their employ, no matter their performance.

Kelley spoke of the mayor’s position being of no more importance than the council’s, when discussing the item he and Ennis had requested be added to the budget.
On the subject of Weeks’ insurance, Weeks, followed by many citizens, spoke of his concerns that he was elected and that his family would suffer if the council decided to change the terms of his office or benefits before election and during his term. He said he was not only speaking on his and his family’s behalf, but also for future holders of his position.

The discussion centered around the interpretation of the policy that had not been enforced the last four or more years, and whether it was directed at part-time elected officials such as the council or also was meant to include full-time elected officials such as Weeks.

A majority of attendees spoke to the council in favor of Weeks keeping the benefits of office under which he was elected, as well as the extra stress and danger first responders are under and how that affects the cost law enforcement providers pay for coverage.

Griffith told the audience she only wanted to make sure that everyone follows the same rules, and wanted the council to work on clarifying the policy. She also made a motion that Weeks be able to keep the benefits he was elected with, but that the policy be decided and clear before the next election for his position. The council approved this idea as a motion and it passed 4-1, with Council member Wright casting the nay vote.

The last item that generated controversy was a proposed letter, drafted for Council member Wright by a source he declined to name, asking Governor Rick Scott to order an investigation of the internal workings of the DeFuniak Springs Police Department.

Council members such as Griffith were very vocal about having their names attached to the proposed letter after Attorney Clayton Adkinson explained to Wright that, while he was free to send a personal letter to the governor, sending one that included the names of all council members, seemingly representing a consensus of opinion by them as a governing body, was not OK without a vote.

The letter details Wright and two local citizens (not named) recently traveling to Tallahassee to speak with Emery Gainey, Director of Law Enforcement Relations, Victim Services and Criminal Justice Programs at Florida Attorney General’s Office.

The letter in its entirety can be found on the city website as a link attached to the agenda under section 9B.

The council voted 3-2 to not send the proposed letter, with Kelley and Wright casting the nay votes.

The entire meeting can be found under audio files on the city website at www.defuniaksprings.net.

Next week the Herald/Breeze will follow up on other items of importance and interest during this meeting. The next city council meeting is scheduled for Sept. 25 at 6 p.m.