Spending on the city’s credit cards dropped by half after the rules were tightened in March of this year and employees had to provide receipts for their purchases.
Lake Helen officials don’t think there was fraud involved in how the card was used, just sloppy policies and a lack of administrative oversight.
“I will just tell you what my chief assistant in charge of these things said to me,” Evett said, referring to Lake Helen Director of Administration Dominique Drager. “She didn’t see any outright fraud. She saw a lot of silly purchases.”
The card was used for $44,000 in purchases between April and August in 2020, but only $16,909 in the same time period in 2021.
The city has no specific policy governing how the card may be used.
“The system we had in place — I would use the term, it’s not very technical, it’s very loosey-goosey,” Evett told the City Commission.
Tightening up Lake Helen’s policies and procedures has been Mayor Daisy Raisler’s drumbeat for at least two years, but her concerns have often been swallowed up in infighting and strained personal relations.
Raisler herself has perpetuated some of the dissension, especially during the two-year tenure of City Administrator Becky Witte, whose relationship with Raisler was rocky.
At the Sept. 10 meeting, city commissioners discussed what to do about purchases that were made under the old rules, including some that aren’t backed up with receipts.
On both Sept. 9 and 10, Zone 1 City Commissioner Kelly Frasca questioned whether the city should seek an investigation by assorted agencies, including Homeland Security and the FBI. On Sept. 10, Frasca moved “to bring the proper investigative authorities, whether it be FDLE, State Attorney’s Office, or the FBI, to complete a thorough investigation into all questionable acts by city employees.”
The city attorney, who was present only at the Sept. 9 meeting, cautioned the commission to be careful what they look for. The motion ultimately failed 4 to 1, with Frasca the sole vote in favor, partly because the city attorney was not present for the Sept. 10 meeting.
City Commissioner Rick Basso also cautioned Frasca.
“Without legal advice, I think we’re being irresponsible to dive into this,” Basso told Frasca at the Sept. 10 meeting. “That’s all I’m saying to you. I’m not saying not to do it. I’m just saying, let’s just get some more information.”
After Frasca’s motion failed, city commissioners opted for a forensic audit, voting 4 to 1 to determine the cost of such an audit. Commissioner Jim Connell voted against the motion, and indicated he was uncomfortable discussing the matter at all without the presence of the city attorney.
Only four employees were authorized to use the card in 2020: Public Works Superintendent Rick Mullen, former City Administrator Becky Witte, former Deputy City Clerk Lauren Olsen, who lost a bid for mayor in August, and former police Chief Mike Walker.
Mullen’s use accounted for the bulk of the spending, on items ranging from candy for Lake Helen’s annual Easter Egg Hunt and food and coffee for the Public Works Department to expensive security cameras and alarms for city buildings. Many of the purchases were made on Amazon.
Records obtained by The Beacon indicate that there are no matching receipts for $1,700 out of a total of about $31,000 in purchases from Amazon made by Mullen over 20 months.
The brouhaha over credit-card spending sparked a fiery exchange at the Sept. 10 meeting between Lake Helen resident Charlene Bishop and the mayor, with Bishop saying Mayor Raisler had asked Bishop to look into purchasing done with the credit card.
Bishop spoke to the City Commission after Raisler and three others voted against Frasca’s call for an investigation.
“You started all this, and you’re going to sit up there and vote no?” Bishop said. “You made me come up here and look like the a**hole of this town.”
In a post on Facebook, Raisler addressed the controversy.
“[Bishop is] a very outspoken person and was incensed with many of her findings and did ask me if there was any criminal activity if I would approve an investigation. I advised her that I would support an investigation,” Raisler wrote. “I believe if there is impropriety it should be looked into… if at least to help strengthen policies for future commissions.”
Raisler, who has since deleted her official Facebook account, added that she did not support the measure because she believed the city attorney should be present.
Among other problems that worried commissioners: The new city administrator only recently was able to get the passwords to access records of the city security cameras, former city employees had turned in city-issued cellphones that were cleared of text-message and call history, and computer folders related to the credit-card statements had disappeared, prompting the city to have the statements reissued by the bank.
Two fraudulent checks, illegally printed and with bogus signatures, were also recently discovered to have been cashed to the tune of $4,700. City officials believe an outside party targeted the city for the check scam because they assumed Lake Helen was less sophisticated.
City Administrator Evett outlined some of the difficulties he had when taking over the position, particularly in regard to record retention.
“One of the difficulties with the operations that I walked into, was that very little was written down. It was all word-of-mouth — it was all handshake. It was all agreements. They were all well intended and operational, but … ,” Evett said.
Adding to the confusion, City Hall has experienced a fair amount of turnover in the past six months, with the departure of Witte, as well as the deputy clerk, and the retirement of Mullen.
Mullen submitted his letter of retirement Sept. 2 after 25-and-a-half years with the city. His last day is Sept. 22.
At a special meeting set for Wednesday, Sept. 22, commissioners are expected to examine the cost of a forensic audit, and hear a report from staff on the state of record retention, security access, and other matters of City Hall, with the time as yet to be determined.
Other news from the Gem of Florida:
The City Commission approved a tentative millage rate of 6.85 mills to fund the coming year’s budget. The rate represents a tax increase, since it is higher by roughly 5 percent than the rolled-back rate of 6.52 mills. The city’s operating budget for 2021-22 is around $4.5 million.
City commissioners opted to move forward with a plan to treat Lake Helen’s lakes, with the help of an independent contractor assisted by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. The new plan is more comprehensive than previous plans, but includes some herbicide spraying. Lake Macy, in particular, has struggled with an infestation of salvinia and Cuban bulrush.
Travis Martin, the owner of Trayton Homes, was the subject of some controversy last year when he discovered a house his company was building at 380 W. Ohio Ave. was about 50 feet into city-owned property adjacent to Melissa Park, at 450 W. Ohio Ave. in Lake Helen. To make up for it, Martin donated part of the land to the city and purchased what he had mistakenly built on for $25,000.
At the time, Martin described the error as “a slight oops” — and it appears he has made another mistake on a nearby property, at 376 W. Ohio Ave.
“We have discovered that the drainfield of a house on Ohio Ave was partially constructed on land that was donated to the city by Travis Martin,” Lake Helen Director of Administration Dominique Drager said. “Mr. Martin was the contractor of the house, as well.”
There is no word yet as to how Martin plans to rectify this mistake. The city has issued a stop work order on the property.
Lake Helen also plans to survey the boundaries of Mitchell Brothers Park and Melissa Park in order to “produce foundation documents for future construction,” according to a recent meeting agenda item.
The city is considering 32 applications for a new police chief. Former Chief Mike Walker and current Interim Chief Brandon Mullins are among those in the running.
A water system master plan is in the works. The plan will cost around $61,000, but will be paid for with funds from the American Rescue Plan.
Mitchell Field is back in operation, with three separate contracts for Little League Baseball practice and youth football.