Protest planned in Pahokee

PAHOKEE — Many city residents have become agitated about a proposed ordinance purportedly intended to streamline and shorten Pahokee City Commission meetings but which they contend is meant to silence critics.

They plan to demonstrate their displeasure at commissioners’ Oct. 8 meeting and have begun circulating a flier aimed at assembling a large crowd.

A controversy over hiring a new city attorney also is in play.

Longtime resident Bobby Colvin, who sells fresh produce at his property on Bacom Point Road south of downtown, wrote a letter to Mayor Keith W. Babb Jr., dated Monday, Sept. 30, to tell him of his concerns over what he sees as his leadership failures. He also posted it on social media and emailed it widely.

“I strongly disagree with many of your recent decisions, which I consider to be at a minimum unethical and possibly illegal,” wrote Mr. Colvin, who said he’s supported the mayor for over 10 years. He complained about the treatment of longtime City Attorney Gary Brandenburg, who was surreptitiously fired in April as he was reportedly about to present a report to the commission listing grievances in regard to conduct by City Manager Chandler Williamson.

His letter states that another municipal attorney who had been invited by Vice Mayor Clara Murvin was in the audience and hired on the spot after the vote to terminate Mr. Brandenburg’s employment because Mr. Williamson said the commission faced legal matters that could not wait. Commissioner Felisia Hill was absent. Commissioner Benny L. Everett III and Ms. Murvin voted for the move, and Commissioner Regina Bohlen voted no.

Now, with the commission set to hire another attorney, Mr. Colvin’s letter alleges Mr. Williamson is trying to orchestrate the choice. There were four applicants including Mr. Brandenburg but he disqualified two, saying they did not meet the requirements.

“He did not hold such a rigid standard when he insisted we needed to hire a lawyer off the street in April,” Mr. Colvin’s letter states. Then he turned to the proposed new city law.

“In the last meeting, a proposed ordinance had its first reading. In my opinion, it is a document that puts the city at additional financial risk. If you ever had a rogue commissioner or city manager that was purposely committing criminal actions, why would you even consider having the city cover his or her legal expenses?” the letter asks.

“It is also a document that is designed to protect the city manager’s power base. An example of that was if a commissioner made a motion that did not get a second, the item could not be brought up again for three months. It appears to me that (this) … is his way of trying to curb free speech, and to avoid invasive questions that put him on the spot.”

“I am not in a position to bring any accusations against anyone,” the letter continues, “but I know that what is happening in the leadership of our city does not pass the smell test.”

On Tuesday, a flier began circulating online, calling on Pahokee citizens:
“Join Your Fellow Citizens – Let Your Voice Be Heard! Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019; City of Pahokee, Commission Chambers, 6 p.m. Join us in silent or vocal protest. Hold up your poster board, speak your mind or stand in solidarity. To speak (recommended), fill out a comment card and submit by 6:30 p.m. BEFORE they can pass this referendum that tries to silence the commissioners and citizens. They cannot deny you your opportunity to speak!”

The flier states the proposed ordinance is “full of bottlenecking items designed to give the city manager and city attorney more power and … to silence commissioners, … to ensure legal fees and costs are paid from tax dollars for staff regardless of how or when they left or were removed from office, designed to cut citizen participation time, etc.

“We DEMAND this city be run ethically, responsibly and dutifully. We DEMAND the commissioners do their jobs. We DEMAND honesty, accountability and excellent management practices,” the flier states.

Chris Felker can be reached at cfelker@newszap.com.

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