HS_Police_Chief_Behnk_DSCF5552_copyHSPD Chief William Benck works in his office Wednesday afternoon.  Benck submitted his resigation effective the first week of February.

HIGH SPRINGS – With political unrest at a fever pitch, High Springs Interim Police Chief William Benck submitted his resignation Monday afternoon.  Benck is joining a growing list of officials and contractors parting ways with the City.

The interim chief’s initial resignation on Monday was a short 18 words.  But in a second letter on Tuesday, Benck said he learned that Interim City Manager Jeri Langman was not “completely satisfied” with the brief nature of that communication.  He then provided a list reading like a dossier of the issues over which he took exception.

In his second letter of resignation, Benck alleges that at a meeting of the High Springs Police Department (HSPD) officers Langman made insulting comments.

Specifically, he wrote, “…You told them you wanted this town to be more like Mayberry and they should be more like Andy and Barney…Mayberry does not exist in 2012, the world has changed since the early sixties, there is more traffic, people and crime.

“There were 164 officers killed in the line of duty in 2011, any officer attempting to emulate the style of Andy or Barney in 2012 runs a great risk of joining the ranks of fallen heroes,” he stated in the letter.

Benck’s resignation follows a series of disagreements he had with the recently-appointed Interim City Manager.  The latest dispute apparently came Jan. 18, when Langman had a letter hand delivered to Benck with instructions on when he should be working.

“…I am also requesting that you are either at the office performing your duties or performing patrols during normal office hours,” Langman wrote in the letter.

“I have requested that you or your staff notify me when you are outside the City of High Springs during your working hours for more than 1 hours and indicate who will be in charge of the department during this time,” she wrote.  “As a head of our High Springs police department, you report directly to me, therefore you must inform me of any vacation time prior to taking this and you must also advise me when you are out of the office and unable to perform your duties.”

Benck suggested that Langman was part and parcel of a violation of HSPD policies when she purportedly met with one of the chief’s employees behind closed doors.  “If the chain of command is to work it must work in both directions,” he wrote.

He also sharply criticized Langman for essentially overturning the firing of an officer.  “At the time, this employee was on probation, which allows for termination if it is believed that the employee’s performance is substandard, which it was and continues to be.  You would not allow this regardless of the above opinions and again, the support of the city attorney.” Benck wrote.

In a Jan. 23 memo, a frustrated Benck fired back at Langman’s assertions about his schedule writing, “I attend and conduct training anytime from 7am during the week to 7pm on Saturdays.  My phone rings and I respond 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  Regardless of your position or rank in law enforcement, there are no normal office hours.”

In that same letter, he also takes Langman to task on her directives stating, “…I would think you would meet with me to discuss what needs this department has and how we can meet those needs to better serve all the citizens of High Springs.  This meeting has yet to take place.  Sending letters requesting changes that you do not understand can be damaging to this department.”

Benck also suggests Langman is micromanaging him, detailing several instances in which she provided specific instructions on law enforcement matters.  Benck noted that on Jan. 13, Langman asked him to create a directive instructing officers to act on the city’s noise ordinance, only after an incident involving one of her friends and the The Great Outdoors restaurant.

On Dec. 30, Langman asked Benck to establish a task force to quell reported problems of “young drivers” drag racing in their trucks and destroying the road with all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) during the weekends.

Benck objected to that in his resignation, writing, “You sent me an e-mail instructing me to form a task force to address a problem with ATV riders and young drivers on a roadway near your neighborhood.  I explained to you in my response that a task force was not needed and that increased patrols and selective enforcement would handle the problem.  This is [standard operating procedure] in law enforcement, and it accomplished the goal.”

Benck’s concerns with the department seemed to be echoed by former HSPD Chief James Troiano.  In an interview Tuesday, Troiano said, “My concern is that the safety of citizens of the City of High Springs is now in jeopardy.”

“They don’t have adequate staffing, now they’ll have no leadership.  It’s time for them to either hire qualified staff or turn it over to the Sheriff,” he said.

Troiano resigned from HSPD on Sept. 9, 2011 after the city sought to cut the police department’s budget and his salary.  Benck was tapped to replace Troiano on an interim basis.

Benck was a veteran police officer of nearly 30 years with the Gainesville Police Department (GPD) until 2010 when he retired and a short time later, joined HSPD.  His resignation is effective Feb. 6.

Complete documents below

PDF viewer required to view these documents.

Benck Resignation #1

Benck Resignation #2

Langman on Benck's office hours

Langman on ATVs and task force

Langman on Noise Ordinance

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UPDATE:  FULL STORY in Jan. 26 printed edition of Alachua County Today and now online following video links.

HIGH SPRINGS – After a contentious, nearly hour-long meeting, High Springs city commissioners finally settled on a city attorney Tuesday evening.  Commissioners picked Raymond M. Ivey as the new city attorney, but not before an issue of a possible Sunshine law violation was raised.

Commissioner Eric May urged his fellow commissioners to consider selecting Ivey, an attorney from Gainesville, commenting that Brent Baris was more politically connected in High Springs.

Gestrin, on the other hand, questioned Ivey’s business dealings and relationships with Barnas and Interim City Manager Jeri Langman and her husband, Ron Langman.

Those statements prompted a heated outburst from Ron Langman, who was sitting in the audience Tuesday evening.

“Jeri, they’ll have your resignation in the morning, okay?  This has gone far enough…Jeri will resign in the morning,” he shouted.

Ron Langman returns to his seat the Jan. 24 special commission meeting.

See FULL STORY in Jan. 26 printed edition of Alachua County Today.

Watch the entire meeting here (48:14 minutes).

Watch the contentious exchange involving Commissioner Linda Gestrin, Interim City Manager Jeri Langman and her husband Ron Langman here (2:34 minutes)


FULL STORY as published on Jan. 26, 2012 edition of Alachua County Today

High Springs picks attorney amid controversy


Today Reporter

HIGH SPRINGS – After a contentious, nearly hour-long meeting, High Springs city commissioners finally settled on a city attorney Tuesday evening.  Commissioners picked Raymond M. Ivey as the new city attorney, but not before an issue of a possible Sunshine law violation was raised.

Shortly after the special meeting opened, Vice-Mayor Bob Barnas said he feared the commission might be in violation of Florida’s public record and meeting laws, more commonly known as Sunshine laws.

At issue, according to Barnas, is that after the bid proposals for city attorney were opened Friday, commissioners were instructed to bring their top two picks for the job to the meeting Tuesday.  Barnas contended that having commissioners make such a selection on their own, and not in a public meeting, may have constituted a violation of open meeting Sunshine laws.

In an attempt to cure the possible violation, the commission restarted the selection process by having each commissioner note their top two picks in the open public meeting.

Commissioners ranked Raymond Ivey from the Law Offices of Scruggs & Carmichael, P.A. in Gainesville and Brent E. Baris, P.A. in High Springs as the top two attorneys in the running.

Ivey proposed a rate of $50 per hour up to 80 hours per month with no retainer or minimum required and additional time available at a negotiated rate.  Baris proposed a rate of $100 per hour with an effective retainer or minimum of $3,000 monthly for 30 hours of services.

After a lengthy debate, a motion to select Ivey for the job seemed destined to fail as Barnas vowed to vote against it while Mayor Dean Davis and Commissioner Linda Gestrin both said they were in favor of Baris.

Commissioners Eric May and Sue Weller said picking Ivey seemed to be the logical choice given the hourly rate.  May noted that the main reason Gestrin pushed for a resolution to terminate the contract with former City Attorney Tom DePeter was due to budgetary concerns.  DePeter resigned Jan. 13 before any resolution was drafted.

Responding to May, however, Gestrin seemed to step back, saying her budgetary concerns were not exclusively the attorney’s salary alone, but also the attorney’s ability to limit other costs such as litigation settlements and severance pay.

May urged his fellow commissioners to consider selecting Ivey, an attorney from Gainesville, commenting that Barris was more politically connected in High Springs.

Gestrin, on the other hand, questioned Ivey’s business dealings and relationships with Barnas and Interim City Manager Jeri Langman and her husband, Ron Langman.

Those statements prompted a heated outburst from Ron Langman, who was sitting in the audience Tuesday evening.

“Jeri, they’ll have your resignation in the morning, okay?  This has gone far enough…Jeri will resign in the morning,” he shouted.

Jeri Langman, meanwhile pressed her husband to refrain from the comments.  As he approached the podium, she told him, “No, no, do not do this,” and motioned for him to return to his seat.

Commissioners continued their debate over the matter for a short time after the contentious exchange before Barnas requested Mayor Davis to call for a vote on the motion to select Ivey.  In a surprise move, Barnas voted along with Weller and May in hiring Ivey.  Davis and Gestrin cast dissenting votes.

Commissioners then gave direction to Interim City Manager Langman to draft a memorandum of understanding with Ivey.  That agreement is slated for review and possible approval at the beginning of the Thursday, Jan. 26 meeting.


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MugshotValerie_L_OwensASO L-R:  Valerie Owens, Alice Owens

NEWBERRY – Two women have been charged in the December death of 5-year-old Javarian Wallace of Newberry.

The boy’s mother, 26-year-old Valerie Sharonne Owens, and his aunt, 55-year-old Alice J. Owens, were arrested Wednesday, Alachua County Sheriff’s Office (ACSO) spokesman Todd Kelly reported.

Deputies responded to the family’s home at 616 NW 255th Drive in Newberry after receiving a 911 call around 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 27.  The family reported that Wallace wasn’t breathing and was unresponsive.

The boy was taken to North Florida Regional Medical Center where he was pronounced deceased.

An autopsy on the following day indicated that Wallace suffered from multiple traumatic injuries, ACSO officials say.

According to reports, both women say they were the only caretakers for the boy on the day of his death.

Both the mother and aunt have been charged with first degree murder and a felony count of child neglect.

The boy’s mother, Valerie Owens, is being held on $100,000 bond according to the ACSO website.  Alice Owens is being held without bond.

ACSO officials say the investigation is still active and ongoing and ask anyone with information to call 352-955-1818 or CrimeStoppers at (352)372-STOP.

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MLK_Feature_2012_DSC_0136_copyForty-eight years after Martin Luther King Jr., delivered his original "I Have a Dream" speech, his dream and his legacy live on as nearly 300 gathered at Alachua’s Cleather Hathcock Community Center Monday to celebrate the civil rights leader’s birthday.

ALACHUA – Forty-four years after the death of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader still inspires people to gather and celebrate his dream.

The City of Alachua held its 7th Annual MLK Celebration at the Cleather Hancock Community Center on Monday, where about 300 people attended.

“He not only paved a way for blacks, but for everybody,” said Annette Lingo of Alachua. “I thank God that we have the opportunity to be a part of that.”

Lingo led the Old Town Church of God in Christ choir as they sang “God is Great” and “Let’s Get Back to Eden.”

The program included performances by the Old Town Church of God in Christ, the Westside Church of God in Christ and students from Alachua’s Music and Arts Program (or M.A.P).

Featured speaker Pastor Ted Welcome addressed the issue that there is still progress to be made, especially within the spirit.

“What really makes us free?” he said.

Schools are desegregated, public water foundations are no longer separate, and there is availability of the ballot for every man, he said. But Welcome posed the question “Are we really free?”

“Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” he quoted from the Bible. Welcome’s sermon was about how true freedom was found in Jesus Christ. In Jesus, he said, all people are of the same family.

The audience responded to the speakers with the appreciative “Amen” and applause. During the choir performances, nearly everyone was clapping and singing along.

Alachua mayor Gib Coerper said the event was a success, and that each year it draws a bigger crowd. “It is a great way for the community to come together,” he said.

Adam Boukari, assistant to the Alachua city manager, said the event usually takes two weeks to plan.

“We have a very active church community in Alachua that enjoys being involved in many of our citywide events,” he said.

The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. event is no different. In recent years, Boukari said, the featured speakers have been pastors from the local community. Most of the events details remain unchanged from previous years, except for performers involved.

“This is something that is homegrown,” said Alachua Chief of Police Joel DeCoursey, Jr. Prior to creating the MLK Celebration, the community did not commemorate the day as a whole. It was only celebrated in local churches. Now, DeCoursey said, it has become an annual event to be reckoned with.

“The significance is that our younger generation needs to understand that it hasn’t always been the way it is now, and we need to not revert to how it used to be,” DeCoursey said. “We need to move forward together as a human race, not as individual races.”

Audience member Gwen Richardson said, “If we all just work together as a community, as a family, we can overcome any obstacle with a little faith and help from our fellow man.” She felt the celebration was nice and brought together a diverse crowd.

Brenda Holmes, of Gainesville, said this year was her first time attending the Martin Luther King Celebration.

“We are just keeping the dream alive,” she said.

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Food_Lion_DSCF5541_copyA good number of cars dotted the parking lot in front of Food Lion Wednesday afternoon as the soon-to-be-closed store offered discounts on its remaining inventory in stock.

ALACHUA – Lately, when Eli Prizament looks out the window of his “Then N Again” Consignment store around 6:30 p.m., he sees an empty parking lot.

Food Lion, the plaza’s anchor tenant, will be shutting its doors on Feb. 15. Current hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Slowly, the shelves are becoming bare, and customers are going elsewhere.

Across the street at Hitchcock’s, business looks booming, said Prizament.

“There’s nothing for them to come here for,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to this place, you know. It feels like it’s going to be a ghost town.”

Prizament purchased the location for his consignment store because of Food Lion.

“I get most of my business from Food Lion,” he said. “When they go, I might have to go too.”

Prizament remembers when Winn Dixie located near the Florida Highway Patrol Station on US Highway 441 in Gainesville closed. He said the whole plaza seems dead now. He fears, without Food Lion, the plaza could soon fall to the same fate.

After Lowe’s moved into an adjacent lot, the Food Lion plaza experienced a small resurgence of business. Recently, a Campus USA Credit Union was built in the same area.

However, most of the businesses sharing the plaza with Food Lion were unable to comment. It is uncertain how business will move forward for Sherwin- Williams, Family Dollar or Countryside Veterinarian Hospital.

An employee at the animal hospital said there had been no noticeable decline in business since Food Lion announced its closure, but that it was uncertain what the future may hold.

Other employees located in the area were willing to say that the parking lot had noticeably less traffic.

According to a press release, Delhaize America, Food Lion’s parent company, will be closing 126 stores in under a month. Headquartered in North Carolina, Delhaize America estimates around 4,900 employees will be displaced from their jobs.

Food Lion will be completely pulling out of Florida, shutting the doors of 25 underperforming stores. It is estimated that the Alachua Food Lion employees 35 to 40 people. A Food Lion store located in Lake City will become Harveys, a sister company to Food Lion. However, the Food Lion located at 2302 SE Hawthorne Road, Gainesville, Fla., will also be shutting its doors.

Food Lion employees were unable to comment about how the closing would affect their lives. Christy Phillips-Brown, spokesperson for Food Lion, said the employees were already going through a difficult time, and did not need to be bothered.

Currently, Food Lion leases the Alachua, Fla., property. However, Phillips-Brown said the company is reviewing its options on how to handle all its current leases, adding that at all locations, they would be willing to sub-lease to any interested tenant.

With the closing of Food Lion, Hitchcock’s becomes the only supermarket in a town with a population of 9,059, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Dennis Brucker, Senior Vice President of Hitchcocks, said the store would continue offering the products and services that it had been offering.

“And that’s how we’re going to move forward,” he said.

However, Brucker refused to comment about how Hitchcock’s business would be affected.

Food Lion customers seem upset about the supermarket closing its doors. Don Schuyler of High Springs said he shops at Food Lion once a week, if not more.

“Well, I don’t know where I’m going to go shopping now,” he said. He thinks he may drive into Gainesville for Sam’s Club, but feels the extra expense on gas and having to purchase a membership card is frustrating.

Food Lion, he said, provided a lot of discounts, and he estimated that he saved $50 a week on his groceries.

Prizament hopes that some good will come out of the closing, instead of the negativity. He opened his thrift store six months ago, but noticed a decline in business since Food Lion started cutting back its hours.

“I just don’t want to see myself putting up a going-out-of-business sign,” he said.

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HIGH SPRINGS – Both City Attorney Tom DePeter and engineering firm Jones Edmunds severed relationships with the City of High Springs last week.

In a letter dated Friday, Jan. 13, DePeter submitted his resignation, which was effective Tuesday at 5 p.m.  DePeter said little to shed light on why he stepped aside, but the resignation comes after pressure from Commissioner Linda Gestrin who was pushing for his ouster.

In a meeting earlier this month, Gestrin asked fellow commissioners to immediately pass a “preliminary” resolution to remove DePeter from his charter officer position as the City Attorney.  She cited budgetary concerns as her reason for the request.

Commissioner Sue Weller raised concerns that the move would leave the city without an attorney, but Gestrin said she was following the procedures according to the city charter.

Commissioner Eric May, meanwhile, said he was in favor of replacing DePeter, but believed that Gestrin was rushing the matter.

“I want to go another direction with a city attorney, but this is a sloppy way to do it,” he said in the Jan. 12 meeting.

DePeter remained largely silent during that meeting as commissioners discussed his future with the city.

After a bit of maneuvering, commissioners passed in a 4-1 vote a measure to bring back a draft of resolution terminating DePeter’s role as attorney.  Weller cast the dissenting vote.  That resolution was to be considered during a special meeting on Jan. 17, but was removed from the agenda after DePeter’s resignation.

His decision to terminate the relationship is likely due to the lack of a majority support from the commission.

In his letter, DePeter wrote, “It has been an honor and privilege to serve the citizens of High Springs as City Attorney for the past four years.”

Prior to being hired as the City Attorney, DePeter was also elected as a commissioner and also served as Mayor.  He replaced longtime City Attorney Jim Pendland.

His departure leaves the City of High Springs without an attorney.  The city has been seeking bids for the city attorney position, reportedly to reduce costs.  DePeter was paid a flat fee of $4,000 monthly.  As of Wednesday afternoon, two attorneys had submitted bids for the position.  The bidding process closes Friday, Jan. 20 at 3 p.m.

DePeter’s resignation wasn’t the only to hit High Springs last week.  Engineering firm Jones Edmunds also notified city officials that it would terminate its longtime relationship with the city.

In a Jan. 12 letter, Jones Edmunds Chief Executive Officer Stanley F. Ferreira, Jr. wrote several letters to city officials notifying them of the firm’s intent to terminate its contract.

The letter does not state why the company is choosing to break off the relationship, but simply states that the letter serves as a seven day notice with a final termination date of Jan. 19.

Jones Edmunds has been intimately involved in the planning and engineering of the High Springs wastewater system, including its treatment facility.

City officials have not indicated how plans for the wastewater system, including uncompleted phases, would be affected by the Jones Edmunds’ decision to end the relationship.

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HIGH SPRINGS – Although commissioners narrowed a list of 31 city manager candidates down to just five Tuesday evening, the list has dwindled even further.

In a special meeting Jan. 17, High Springs commissioners narrowly picked five candidates from a list of 31 seeking the job of city manager.

Upon agreeing on the top five candidates, commissioners gave direction to Interim City Manager Jeri Langman to contact each candidate to inquire about their continued interest in the position and their willingness to travel for the interview process without reimbursement for travel expenses.  The commission also asked that interested candidates be willing to work without a severance package, at least initially.

Among those making the commission’s top five cut were Laura J. Hannah, W.D. Higginbotham, Jr., David L. Huseman, Brian Redshaw and Oel Wingo.

That list seems to have officially dropped to just three candidates as Hannah reportedly informed city officials Wednesday that she accepted another position.  She was the only candidate to receive three votes for further consideration.  Meanwhile, Huseman reportedly told city officials he would not accept the position without a severance package, seemingly nixing his bid for the job.

At least one of the remaining three candidates resides out of state.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Higginbotham was reportedly the only candidate willing to further interview based on the commission’s terms.

The candidates were initially culled and ranked by Paul Sharon, a Range Rider appointed by the Florida City and County Management Association to assist High Springs with finding its next city manager.

The salary range for the position is $50,000 to $72,500 annually with additional funds budgeted for a benefits package.

The list of 31 candidates was reduced to five through a process where each commissioner gave his or her top five candidates.  The top candidates with the most votes would be moved into the short list.  Hanna received three votes, while the remaining four top candidates received just two votes each.

Commissioners Sue Weller and Eric May each provided their top five list.  Vice-Mayor Bob Barnas initially provided just one candidate, Hannah, while Mayor Dean Davis offered just two candidates.

Commissioner Linda Gestrin did not provide any candidates, saying she believed the process was premature.

“I’m not in agreement that we’re doing this right now.

“We have a city manager.  We acted according to our charter.  Ms. [Interim City Manager Jeri] Langman is assisting us,” Gestrin said.

Gestrin said she wants the city to evaluate where it is and how it got there before hiring a permanent city manager.  She also echoed previous concerns with the council, manager form of government, saying it has resulted in a transfer of power from the commission to the city manager.

On Dec. 1, 2011, the commission approved an employment contract for Langman.  She replaced former interim city manager Jenny Parham who returned to her duties as city clerk.  Langman is to fill the position of interim city manager as a temporary employee with no insurance benefits.  She is being paid $4,000 monthly through budgeted funds for the city manager position.  Langman’s contract passed in a 3-2 vote with Davis, Barnas and Gestrin in favor of the contract, while commissioners May and Weller opposed.

The City of High Springs has been undergoing a search process for a permanent manager to replace former city manager Jim Drumm who resigned under pressure on Oct. 21, 2010.

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