BEACON PHOTO/ELI WITEK A DAY AT THE PARK — At left in the photo above, two children enjoy a frolic at Melissa Park in Lake Helen in 2020. The park is set for impending renovation.

In fairly classic Lake Helen fashion, a seemingly innocuous discussion of the Parks and Recreation Committee was rife with drama and tension at a March 23 City Commission special meeting. 

As with other tales from Lake Helen, a considerable amount of backstory is involved.

Lake Helen’s Parks and Recreation Committee was originally established to oversee renovations to Blake Park; later its jurisdiction was extended to Melissa Park, and it was extended yet again so the committee could advise the City Commission on all of Lake Helen’s parks — all the while remaining, ostensibly, a temporary advisory committee.

But, the Parks and Recreation Committee has tussled with citizens and with the City Commission on numerous occasions, including a fundraiser by the League for Better Living for a pavilion at Royal Park, about the use of Mitchell Field, and over conditions at Market in the Park, an every-Saturday event at Blake Park. 

The mini-controversies, which are not particularly worth explaining and have since been resolved, have been one of the many tangents that reliably derail Lake Helen’s governmental meetings, where the three-minute timer for public speakers is generally used only as a suggestion. 

The discussion of what to do about the Parks and Recreation Committee was no different. 

Despite attempts to simply make a motion and vote on it, the agenda item turned to discussions about emails sent by committee members to the city, the propriety of a city commissioner filling in for his wife at an event, and whether a police officer should be present at all Parks and Recreation Committee meetings. 

Also, city commissioners discussed whether every member of every committee and board in the city should be required to take an ethics class, as it became apparent that the Parks and Recreation Committee members did not realize they were governed by the Sunshine Law and thus had to advertise their meetings and publish their agendas.

To skip to the end result: The Parks and Recreation Committee will become the Melissa Park Committee, focused on that park specifically, and will expire Dec. 31. And, of course, all city-appointed members of advisory groups must take a four-hour ethics course offered by the Florida League of Cities. 

Lake Helen, a city of roughly ​​2,760 people, has always done things slightly differently than other cities — an oft-mentioned example is that they have a city administrator, rather than a city manager, a distinction with virtually no actual legal difference, but much philosophical significance. 

But Lake Helen has struggled to update its policies and formalize long-standing agreements, like the one with Market in the Park, a 20-year event that made its relationship with the city official only in July 2021, and the Parks and Recreation Committee, which has been formed and dismantled several times over the decades.

An 11-page report on Lake Helen’s finances and policies, which were studied and chronicled by city staffers, which was also presented at the March meeting, illustrates some of the struggles the city has had with policies, which current City Administrator Lee Evett has called “loosey-goosey.”

Credit-card usage, which was at the staff’s direction, had poor record-keeping, the report found — and some purchases should have required bidding, under Lake Helen’s purchasing policy. Lake Helen currently has no credit-card policy.

During staff changeovers in 2021, passwords to important city functions were inaccessible, notably those governing a series of cameras at Blake Park. The report noted that once staff got access to the cameras, it turned out the cameras were too sophisticated for the software they had to view the images the cameras were recording.

And, city-issued cellphones weren’t included in the record-keeping system of the city.

Above all, the report states, the record-keeping system itself is flawed. 

“Unfortunately, a lot of information was passed verbally between staff members. Additionally, the City uses an antiquated method of maintaining records,” the report notes. “Records are kept in paper form and some are digitized and stored on the City’s server in no discernable [sic] order.”

Each of the above topics has been a source of drama at City Commission meetings. The controversies were also the crux of tension that shadowed the tenure of the former mayor, Daisy Raisler, who often sounded the alarm about records, and they led to the departure of several city staff members.

“The driving force of the review of our finances and policies was the concern of criminal theft and misappropriation of City funds,” the report concludes. “Throughout our extensive review process, we uncovered no evidence supporting those claims.”

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