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By JAMIE WACHTER on Saturday, September 23, 2023Subhead
State searching for records, reports, amid complaints.
ImageSmall ImageGeorge, RiversBody
WHITE SPRINGS — The state’s Auditor General is taking a close look at the operations of the Town of White Springs, following a legislative request.
The audit of White Springs, which is in the review stage now and could be finalized by early November, was ordered by the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee this past spring to examine the town’s financial reporting, purchasing and procurement processes, public records access, water and sewer billing and operations, and budget process. The committee’s action followed a request from Sen. Corey Simon (R-Tallahassee), according to Derek Noonan, the audit manager of local government reviews and special audits.
The audit was requested after both Simon and the JLAC received complaints from town residents.
White Springs Town Manager Vanessa George could not be reached for comment Friday. Calls placed to White Springs Town Hall were not answered Friday. George was approved as the full-time manage in February 2021 after a short stint as interim town manager. Tommie Jones was the town’s previous manager, serving from Oct. 2019 to Oct. 2020. Anita Rivers is White Springs’ mayor.
Simon said the concerns have ben “ongoing for at least the past couple of years.”
The JLAC staff analysis on the request also said White Springs residents had contacted the committee multiple times over the past few years about the lack of available current financial information, requests for records from the town yielding insufficient or untimely information and conditions of the town’s water system and streets.
One resident — Scott Gay — spoke to the committee in February about those same concerns, including that the town had not had a real financial audit since the 2018-19 fiscal year. According to the analysis, the following year’s audit included a disclaimer of opinion from Powell & Jones, a Lake City CPA firm, about the lack of records to even “express an opinion on the (town’s) financial statements.”
When Gay addressed the committee he said the town’s current administration has said there were no financial records when they took over but he told the committee there had been no attempt to recreate the documents forensically, nor had a police report been filed about the missing records.
The residents weren’t the only ones concerned with the lack of financial records or transparency, according to the JLAC staff analysis.
Nicole Williams, a former councilor, sent a letter to Sen. Jason Pizzo (D-Sunny Isles Beach) and Rep. Michael Caruso (R-Delray Beach) — the committee’s alternating chairs — in February that also expressed frustrations with the lack of financial and operational transparency in White Springs’ government operation.
Williams also said she had been denied access to records that would allow her to make informed votes at council meetings, including justification to increase the town’s millage rate and water and sewer rates.
“The justification I have been given is that ‘the (T)own is broke,’” Williams wrote in the letter.
The financial difficulties have not been helped, the analysis states, by the town’s lack of timely reporting of required financial statements.
The committee has previously approved disciplinary action against White Springs for submitted its annual financial reports to the Department of Financial Services late. In total, those actions have cost White Springs more than $30,000 in state funding — $17,237.51 in half-cent sales tax monies and $13,154.52 of municipal revenue-sharing. An additional $7,000 was originally withheld the past two years but eventually released after they submitted two delinquent financial reports.
The committee report states that audits and financial reports in recent years have been submitted from anywhere from 391 days to 503 days late.
According to the analysis, the town has also not submitted its audit report for the 2020-21 fiscal year which was due last June. In February, the committee approved to take action again against the town for that missed deadline.
According to the 2019-20 fiscal year audit from Powell & Jones, the town is experiencing “deteriorating financial conditions,” which were caused, in part, by records that didn’t accurately reflect the grant revenue received by the town, “inadequately documented” disbursements, not enough operating cash to meet the town’s needs and it had decreased by $100,000 during the prior year, “inadequate” financial records and a significant difference in the budgeted and actual expenses.
By JAMIE WACHTER on Wednesday, May 3, 2023Subhead
State attorney caught off guard by large group in town hall meeting.
LIVE OAK — A tri-county coalition of 35 people ambushed State Attorney John Durrett on Wednesday with calls to drop charges against a Lake City man.
The group from Columbia, Suwannee and Hamilton counties met with Durrett to discuss what was described as civil rights concerns.
Originally scheduled for the State Attorney’s Office in Live Oak, the meeting was moved next door to the Judicial Annex where the Suwannee County Commission meets after the coalition outgrew the conference room in Durrett’s office.
Durrett said he was expecting to meet with Suwannee County School Board Member Norman Crawford and “four or five” others to discuss concerns.
Those concerns from the larger group evolved into specific attempts to pressure Durrett to drop charges against Sylvester Warren. Warren faces charges in Hamilton County for an incident at a Columbia High and Hamilton County High basketball game in December, as well as charges in Columbia County for interfering with a traffic stop in Lake City last month.
Warren was charged with trespass after warning on school property and resisting an officer without violence in Hamilton County by Durrett’s office. The Lake City Police Department arrested Warren on April 15 for the charge of obstruction without violence.
Tyron White, a Hamilton County resident and pastor at Deep Creek Missionary Baptist Church, told Durrett, who stood at the dais in front of the packed meeting room and provided answers to questions posed to him that didn’t deal with specific cases, that if he didn’t drop the charges against Warren, he would make sure Durrett was voted out.
“I’m going to make sure brother. This is no threat. This is a promise. I’m going to make sure whatever it takes,” said White, who also accused Hamilton County Sheriff Harrell Reid of threatening Durrett into charging Warren for the December incident in which Warren tussled with officers who were trying to remove a group in the gym stands at the request of a school administrator.
Durrett, who had earlier refused to comment on the active cases involving Warren, adamantly denied that accusation.
“That’s not true,” said Durrett, who acknowledged that those in attendance weren’t going to believe him.
When asked by the crowd if he had originally told Warren that no charges would be coming in the Hamilton County case, Durrett again denied the accusations.
When contacted by Warren at night about the incident, Durrett said he only promised to “conduct a full and thorough investigation” to find out what happened prior to cell phone cameras being turned on.
“Did I ever say to him that there would be no charges filed against him, no,” Durrett said.
Crawford, who called the meeting and also reserved the Judicial Annex in case a larger space was needed, encouraged Durrett, who agreed to attend any future town hall meetings of a similar nature, at the end of the meeting to reconsider the charges.
Lake City residents Vanessa George, Warren’s girlfriend, and Glenel Bowden, who was wearing a “Leave Sylvester Alone” T-shirt, earlier said the charges needed to be dropped, saying Warren was targeted due to his role as an activist.
Bowden said those in attendance and other African Americans already have no confidence in law enforcement, saying the only thing they have working for them are their cell phone cameras. George, though, said she disagreed with that sentiment since both incidents involving Warren were on video and yet he was still charged.
“You know these are bogus charges,” George repeatedly said to Durrett. “You and I both know these are bogus charges. Everybody in here knows they’re bogus charges.”
George did agree with Leslie White, a former president of the Suwannee County NAACP chapter, and Tyron White that the community’s strength came at the polls and with the ballot boxes.
Leslie White, who began the meeting, wanted to know if Durrett and the State Attorney’s Office would start to resume civil citations, a program he said had great success under previous State Attorney Jeff Siegmeister.
Durrett said he has had discussions with the Department of Juvenile Justice about that program in recent months. He added he could provide statistics about the program.
White then brought Angela Gardner up to speak, who questioned Durrett on why he has not helped her sons, Willie and Bricen Bowden get out of prison. The pair were sentenced to 30 years in prison for shooting into a car in Lafayette County in 2013. They were convicted in 2015.
“I never promised, personally, that I was going to come back and undo somebody’s conviction,” Durrett said, noting he had agreed to previously look at that case to make sure it was handled correctly. “Your boys were convicted of a violent crime.”
On June 21, 2022 the Town of White Springs City Council proposed and passed the first reading of an ordinance to allow internet Cafe's within the City. There was an existing ordinance banning them that the new would reversed . On June 28th the final reading took place with many citizens speaking their disagreement along with State's Attorney John Durrett and Hamilton County Sheriff having strong words against the new ordinance. The ordinance passed 5-0 as the cafe attorney John Koberlin spoke in favor . Needless to say the citizens were outraged by the outcome.
There appear to be many issues within the city council, city manager and the citizens, they continue.
It’s been a long hot summer. We hope that you and your family and friends have fared well especially with Hurricane Ian. White Springs was very lucky that it skipped us and now we can enjoy an early fall.
We are still in tumultuous times with the new internet gambling café open in the old Stormants’ grocery store location. They also added additional gambling machines in the Munchies convenience store. They are working on renovating the old hardware store for their next location.
As a result of the town council passing the internet gambling café and subsequent findings afterward, a lawsuit against the Town of White Springs and the town council and manager has been filed in the Hamilton County Circuit Court. Another lawsuit is pending. Additionally there has been at least two Ethics complaints filed against the town with the State of Florida. As communicated in my last email, July 20, the money raised to fight the gambling was transferred to the attorney, Taren Lane DeLisle, who is handling the lawsuits.
The town councils’ behavior towards the citizens of White Springs is still deplorable. Mick Shea has been recording town hall meetings, as well as the final budget meeting, Oct. 4. It was very contentious. Here is a link to the budget meeting video/audio recording. I am sure if you listen to it you will agree that this town deserves better leadership.
Link to final budget PDF: https://drive.google.com/file/d/17_tV1KlhRVEwOTi6zr8uXRTlmxXuPXk_/view?usp=sharing
Please feel free to respond if you have any other comments or questions.
You can follow the lawsuit on this link : https://www.civitekflorida.com/ocrs/app/partyCaseSummary.xhtml
Hamilton County and then Greene Roger
September 13th, 2022 Meeting
October 4th, 2022 Meeting
November 15th, 2022 Meeting
December 13th, 2022 Meeting
January 10th, 2022 Meeting
February 14, 2023 Meeting
March 14, 2023 Meeting
April 11, 2023 Meeting
May 9, 2023 Meeting
June 13, 2023 Meeting
July 11, 2023 Meeting
August 8, 2023
August 15, 2023 Meeting
September, 2023 Meeting