Lake Helen voters weighed in on Aug. 18 on a bitter squabble that has occupied the small town’s City Commission for more than a year, pitting Mayor Daisy Raisler and Commissioner Kelly Frasca against the other three commissioners.
Town residents declined to elect Nancy Weary, who supported Raisler and Frasca in their criticism of Lake Helen Administrator Becky Witte. Weary’s election would have given the three women a majority on the five-member City Commission.
But Weary got only 193 votes out of the 799 votes cast, for 24.16 percent. Two other candidates for the Zone 2 seat, Roxann Reid Goodman and Roger F. Eckert, got enough support to progress to a runoff on the Tuesday, Nov. 3, ballot. Both of them have indicated they don’t support the mayor’s views or methods.
“Our city admin is beyond hapless and has a complete lack of ethics and integrity,” Weary had written in April on the mayor’s official Facebook page. In other comments on the mayor’s Facebook post, Weary accused Witte of criminal conduct.
Mayor Raisler actively campaigned for Weary, posting a strongly supportive video on social media on the day before the primary. Her support of Weary — the only candidate among four who has been outspoken against Witte — contrasts with her continued calls for curing the ills that have plagued the City Commission.
“I want healing, I want to be a part of healing,” Raisler told The Beacon five days before the election.
Raisler has made similar conciliatory statements at City Commission meetings about burying the hatchet and moving forward, but at those same meetings, has also repeatedly exhumed and talked at length about past disagreements and hurts.
On Nov. 3, Lake Helen’s 2,188 registered voters will have the opportunity to elect two city commissioners — in the Zone 2 runoff and a two-person race for the Zone 4 seat — and possibly to begin to change the tone of their town’s government.
Almost a year ago, the Lake Helen City Commission directed the town’s mayor and administrator to sit down with a mediator, to figure out how to get along and how to keep their disputes from disrupting city business.
It never happened. Raisler and Witte disagreed about who was responsible for the delay.
In the meantime, City Commission meetings have continued to roil with tension, dragging on for hours. In March, commissioners passed a new rule requiring that meetings end at midnight.
Consider what took place at a special meeting Aug. 12:
In a booming voice, one commissioner called for the mayor’s resignation; another quoted The Art of War by Sun Tzu.
The mayor said she had been so disturbed by an incident in 2019 that she lost sight in her left eye for 72 hours. A candidate for the Lake Helen Zone 2 seat read a poem he had written, titled “Word on the Street,” about rumors in town.
The city administrator was accused of racism, among other failings, and the longest-serving commissioner on the dais explained why he’s not likely to ever attend a Lake Helen City Commission meeting again, once his term is over. Then, Commissioner Vernon Burton left before the meeting ended.
“We figured out a way that we can bring chaos into this city administrator, into the City Commission, and to this hall,” Commissioner Burton said before his exit, adding, “Because I have the ability to not want to offend anybody, I will exercise my right to leave.”
Oh, and Raisler and Witte once again promised to sit down together for mediation.
While the business of governing Lake Helen plods along, seemingly every action, from passing a new law to setting a tax rate, is embroidered with bickering.
The elephant the city is attempting to work around is the long-simmering tension between Raisler and Witte. And the entire City Commission has been drawn into the fray.
“I would like to recognize that there’s somewhat of a battle going on here, and that the quicker that we can all come together and get resolved, OK, we can all move together in a positive direction,” Commissioner Rick Basso said. “I think that’s where the city needs to go.”
How did it start?
Witte used to be Lake Helen’s city clerk. She was promoted to city administrator in late 2018, after the latest in a series of administrators either quit or was fired. Raisler was first elected in 2017, and is now serving the first year of her second term.
Witte makes an annual salary of $74,169, substantially less than her predecessors in Lake Helen, and half as much as many city managers in Volusia County. In Daytona Beach Shores, for example, also a city of fewer than 5,000 people, the manager makes $153,000.
Raisler’s problems with Witte are seeded in a March 2019 disagreement over whether the commissioners were well-enough informed about the evaluation of a contract employee.
In Lake Helen, unlike any other city in West Volusia, the elected officials hire, fire and set the salaries of city employees and contractors, who are supervised by the administrator.
Another dispute in 2019 was over the distribution of an email sent by Witte. At a City Commission meeting, Raisler asked for a “forensic audit” of Witte’s computer.
Both of those incidents involved Kelly Frasca, who was contracted to manage events for the city until she resigned to run for a seat on the City Commission in 2019.
After Frasca was elected, the bitterness escalated.
Raisler repeatedly calls attention to what she refers to as “inconsistencies” in city documents, which she says might indicate larger problems with Witte’s work. She also has asked to see a detailed calendar of Witte’s activities.
And, although the builder has taken full responsibility, Raisler questions whether Witte’s sloppiness might have led to a private home being built partly on city property. The mayor also objected strenuously when Witte allowed Deltona’s embattled city manager to work court-required community-service hours processing documents in Lake Helen City Hall.
Raisler has implied, and outright stated, that Witte is not qualified for her position, and should be held accountable.
The mayor has repeatedly said she’s focused on Witte’s performance for the sake of the residents of Lake Helen.
“This could be you here,” Raisler said to the audience Aug. 12. “This could be you, you, you, you — any one of our citizens dealing with these issues. How would you take it on?”
Other commissioners disagree with Raisler’s assessment of Witte.
“The proof the mayor has offered for these allegations is embarrassingly absurd,” Commissioner Jim Connell said at the Aug. 12 meeting. Addressing Raisler, he added. “You’re doing a disservice to this community in dividing us in this way.”
A few minutes later, a frustrated Connell asked Raisler to resign immediately.
Until November 2019, Raisler was pretty much alone on the City Commission in her criticism of Witte. Since then, Frasca has sided with the mayor consistently.
The three other members of the five-person City Commission have warned the mayor she is acting outside of her role as outlined in the city charter, a potential violation of the charter that nearly cost a DeBary City Council member his seat earlier this month.
Commissioner Basso questioned whether the continuing tension is an anti-Witte crusade by Raisler and Frasca.
“I’m just curious if this micromanaging and this digging into the administrator’s processes and procedure has more to do with the fact that the two of you [Raisler and Frasca] would just like to get rid of her, and you’re looking for any way to do that, rather than trying to be helpful and supportive,” Basso asked at one meeting.
While Lake Helen’s city charter stipulates that commissioners may not individually attempt to manage city business — they must act as one — the charter doesn’t set out any penalties for failing to do so.
Raisler’s colleagues have repeatedly urged her to refine her understanding of an elected official’s role as a policymaker on a team, rather than a CEO or investigator operating alone.
“Learn your craft. Learn what your job is,” Commissioner Burton urged the mayor Aug. 12.
The continual squabbling has gobbled up precious meeting time despite repeated reassurances of some kind of resolution, and the problems have bitterly divided some residents in the small town.
Anticipating another battle as the Aug. 12 special meeting opened, City Attorney Scott Simpson told commissioners, “I either have a lot to say, or, like, nothing to say.”
For two-and-a-half hours, Simpson was silent as he listened to the five commissioners debate.
At the end, the attorney was asked if he had anything to say in conclusion.
“Nah, that’s all right,” Simpson replied.
Some of Lake Helen’s approximately 2,800 residents have been drawn into the fray.
The Aug. 12 agenda packet, which would usually be crammed with official city documents, instead was made up of 11 emails from residents — roughly equally divided in their support either for Witte or for Raisler and Frasca — along with a letter from Raisler, again calling for fellow commissioners to hold Witte accountable.
The battling has framed this year’s city elections, and caused Lake Helen’s only black city commissioner — and its most-veteran representative — not to run for re-election. It has bogged down city business and added to the city attorney’s billing invoices.
Some have expressed the concern that, if Witte should leave or be forced out, the bickering would prevent Lake Helen from finding a suitable replacement — especially at Witte’s rate of pay.
Will Tuesday’s election results change anything? Will the vote on a second City Commission seat Nov. 3 do the trick?
He’s leaving it up to others, but departing Commissioner Burton sure hopes something changes in the city he loves.
“What I am trying to do is to wake you up,” he told the audience of residents at a recent City Commission meeting, adding, “There is something wrong up here.”