Lake Helen city officials were hopeful a long-overdue update of their charter would be on the ballot this year for voters, but those hopes were dashed after a public outcry.
“Don’t mess with our charter. Leave our charter alone. It was there, it is there, and that’s the way it needs to be. All this other talk is bullcrap,” Lake Helenite Von Russell said during the public-forum portion of a recent meeting.
City officials have attempted to revise the charter multiple times. This most recent attempt to get voters to change the city’s guiding document comes on the heels of a 2016 ballot question that lost by 39 votes, or about 5.5 percent of total votes.
The charter is outdated and Lake Helen violates its own charter daily, city officials said.
“I have a legal question,” City Commissioner Rick Basso said to City Attorney Scott Simpson after Von Russell’s comments. “What happens if we don’t do anything to our charter?”
“If you don’t do anything? Well, obviously it stays the way it is,” Simpson replied. “And you have provisions in there that are inconsistent; you have provisions in there that you don’t comply with. You’re violating your charter right now.”
Among outdated provisions are the requirements for a personnel board, that the City Commission approve the payment of bills, and most glaringly, that city elections will be only in even-numbered years.
Because Lake Helen city commissioners serve two-year terms (also at the direction of the charter), to avoid re-electing all five commission seats at once, Lake Helen has municipal elections every year.
The mayor's seat, and Zones 1 and 3, are currently on the 2019 ballot — in violation of the charter.
Five members of the public spoke against putting a charter revision on the upcoming ballot, including former Lake Helen Mayor Buddy Snowden.
Several factors seem to worry residents; namely, most of the language in the charter that appears to give the City Commission specific powers would be stricken, and a new provision would allow for the hiring and firing of city employees at the discretion of the city administrator. Currently, the administrator oversees 17 employees.
As it is, the City Commission must vote on every hire, as well as every firing.
Lake Helen has a long and strong tradition of avoiding the city-manager form of government used by all other West Volusia municipalities. Giving the administrator the power to hire and fire, residents said, would turn him or her into a manager.
The difference between the two titles (manager and administrator) and the powers they entail might be close to legally meaningless — in fact, according to Vice Mayor Vernon Burton, a city administrator could theoretically have more power than a city manager — but the words hold a lot of meaning in the hearts and minds of many longtime residents.
Residents can be fiercely protective of the city and suspicious of giving more authority to a single individual.
“What it sounded like to me is y’all wanted a city manager. I don’t want a city manager. I want to be able to yell and scream and holler at you guys,” resident Betty O’Laughlin said.
“The sense that I get from the community, is that the commission is trying to slip something through without proper protocol, without proper procedure, without a charter-review committee,” former Mayor Snowden said. “I would really rethink this. As I see it, it’s just going to be defeated again by the public.”
At times, visibly frustrated commissioners had to tread a thin line between defending the proposed charter and defending themselves, and simply saying the citizens were not educated on the facts.
“The vast majority of what I’ve heard? It’s wrong. Just about everything I heard was wrong,” attorney Simpson said. “You can’t read the charter and understand it by itself. You can’t read it in a vacuum, without reading the state constitution and laws. To set up another charter review, so I can talk to another five people, to have five people come and derail it again, we’re just wasting time.”
Discussions about the proposed charter revisions have gone on for months — almost every week there was a new charter-review public meeting, according to officials. City Commissioners Basso and Jim Connell, members of the 2016 charter-review committee, spent what one commissioner estimated were hundreds of hours on the topic.
“We need to get as many of these people as we can and get them together with Scott [Simpson] to try to bring them up to where we are,” Basso said.
“He’s just calling us uneducated now,” a member of the audience said.
Commissioner Connell agreed with the need for more public informational meetings, although, he added, “Which we did! We did.”
“I’m more interested in gaining the trust of the people in this community than I am in doing this. So can we please just move on, drop this thing, and let it go,” Basso urged.
For this year, charter review is off the ballot for Lake Helen. Because the 2020 ticket looks to be full enough as it is, officials think the charter won’t be up for a vote again until 2021.
In the meantime, a meeting has been set for 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 26, where attorney Simpson will explain the legal reasoning behind the proposed charter revisions.