Lake Helen voters will shape the city’s five-member City Commission with their ballots in the Tuesday, Nov. 8, election. Two of the five seats are on the ballot, and each race features an incumbent (already serving on the City Commission) vs. a challenger.
Lake Helen residents will also vote on changes to the city charter.
In Lake Helen, although the city commissioners must live in the geographic zone they want to represent, all the city’s voters may cast ballots in both of the races. The races are nonpartisan.
Sniffin previously unsuccessfully ran for Deltona City Commission in 2018, and his experiences there prompted him to move to Lake Helen two years ago. Now, Sniffin hopes to have a say in his adopted town, particularly about water quality, a topic that hits home to him because his wife has a compromised immune system.
Eckert on the other hand, wants to see projects he’s had a hand in come to their conclusions. Those include tackling the aging water infrastructure, and representing local organizations, like the Massey James Youth Center.
“The way I’ve seen commissions occur in the past, if a commissioner who has been in there and has been pushing for different projects and everything to get done, and they don’t rerun or they don’t get re-elected, those issues seem to get pushed off to the wayside,” Eckert told The Beacon. “The city has had a habit of not funding the projects like they were needed. They always go towards a minimum that’s needed to be done to make it work, instead of doing it the correct way. I want to see that things get done the correct way.”
Along with stormwater problems causing flooding, Lake Helen’s aging water infrastructure has caused several incidents this year. In February, a water sensor at one of the city’s wells malfunctioned, pumping high levels of chlorine into the water supply.
For Sniffin, water infrastructure is still the main problem.
“I live in a new development and my water is still brown. Brown sometimes, or has a high chlorine and that means that water is running through the old pipes to get to us,” Sniffin said. “My wife, who is immune-compromised because of an illness, can’t even drink or water because if you research the components, or the byproducts of the chemicals that are being added, they can cause cancer.”
Eckert disagrees about the extent of the problem.
“The water system really isn’t that shaky. It’s on the interpretation of the people that’s presenting. If you look at the water-quality stats of the cities in Florida, we’re about mid-, just above mid-range,” Eckert said. “There are some issues with all pipes and stuff like that and those are being addressed with the Master Water Plan that was developed in the last two years to start repairing the pipes. … So that is an issue that is being worked on.”
“We had some issues with sensors failing at different times and not shutting down like they were supposed to — those have all been taken care of,” Eckert added. “That’s normal stuff that it doesn’t matter who was in charge of the water at the time, it still would have been an issue.”
A recent increase in stormwater assessments rubbed Sniffin the wrong way.
“Do I feel we need to have a stormwater assessment? Absolutely. But how do we go about getting there and getting the people to understand why it needs to be done?” Sniffin asked.
Making sure stormwater problems are solved is paramount to Eckert, who suggested at a recent meeting that Lake Helen’s share of federal COVID-19 aid could be used to offset the assessment increase.
“Something we got coming up is [a] property on South High Street that has been a problem for over 40 years,” Eckert said. “They’re planning on doing another project, but not doing it fully the way it needs to be done. And I want to make sure that it gets done correctly. And it’s not going to be cheap. … I want to see things get done the correct way. I don’t want to see things be patched and hemmed and everything like it was in the past.”
Sniffin suggested the residents could have been more involved.
“The way we should have handled this stormwater issue was, we should have workshops. We should have had numerous workshops and informed the residents what we’re looking at doing and why we’re going to do it,” Sniffin said.
Sniffin declined to comment on the charter amendments also on Lake Helen’s ballot.
Eckert, however, is against them.
“I don’t like the way they’ve been presented,” Eckert said. “The way they [the city administration] worded them on the ballot is so misleading to the public. And so, as far as the charter changes and everything go — even extending the term limits or the terms of office, which is the only one that’s worded the way they [the Charter Review Committee] presented… I’m for voting against it all, just because of the way they got it worded on the ballot. It leaves it too far open for them to do whatever they want to do.”
Sniffin appreciates the differences from his experiences in Deltona.
“There’s basically no transparency in Deltona. And that’s something that is important to me, even as a candidate and, and hopefully as a commissioner,” Sniffin said. “I enjoy the commission meetings I go to in Lake Helen; I enjoy them, because if you ask a question, it gets answered.”
That small town back-and-forth is Eckert’s favorite part about being a Lake Helen city commissioner, and something he is particularly proud of.
“Having a conversation with the people, getting out there and working with the people getting things done: To me, it’s an enjoyable job. It’s actually what my dad did,” Eckert said.
Sniffin said he will keep transparency, too.
“My personal pledge to the residents of Lake Helen is that I will be approachable and you will be able to contact me because when I’m elected,” Sniffin said. “I will get a second cell phone. My promise to them is that I will respond within 24 to 48 hours. The residents come first.”
Eckert has raised $2,002 for his campaign, entirely in donations to himself, and has spent $1,867. Sniffin has raised $1,450 through individual donations and spent $1,699 (those figures include a $1,000 in-kind contribution for a currently defunct website).
Eckert is a registered Democrat, and Sniffin a registered Republican.
Often seen at the podium in Lake Helen’s City Hall during public comment of city commission meetings, Charlene Bishop has been a fiery citizen activist, and, at times, a divisive figure. Bishop has repeatedly pointed to flaws in how policies and procedures are implemented, presenting the findings at the meetings of her numerous requests for public records.
“Lake Helen has policies and procedures in place: They just don’t follow them. Then when I started coming down there and complaining about it, they ‘re-implemented,’” Bishop told The Beacon. “They just reimplemented what they already have. They’re still not following them.”
Bishop is challenging incumbent Jim Connell, a six-year veteran on the City Commission, who is known for his booming voice (he occasionally has to push his microphone away).
“I’m running because, for the last two years, I’ve been bringing news to the commission that seemed to fall on deaf ears and then I came to the realization that you can’t keep complaining unless you’re willing to be part of the solution,” Bishop added.
After Bishop vocally complained about discrepancies in credit card receipts for city employees, longtime Public Works Director Rick Mullen retired in September 2021. Mullen was one of the employees who used a city credit card, although receipts were provided for the majority of his purchases.
His retirement precipitated a cascade of unpleasant realizations about Lake Helen’s water system, which Mullen had helped maintain for more than 25 years. He was also the only employee with the necessary licenses to perform certain maintenance and operational work on the water system, forcing the city to contract with an outside company.
Both Connell and Bishop commented on the aftermath of Mullen’s retirement.
“I was not aware of the extent of the issue that we had with our production or our distribution system until Mr. Mullen retired. And I think it was a perfect storm of events that unfolded,” Connell said.
Mullen took legacy knowledge with him when he departed, Connell said, including the locations of some of the water lines. Now the city is engaged in an overhaul of its water plan, including detailed mapping of the system.
“I’ve become a lot more informed over the production side of our equation, and then the distribution side of our equation, prior to Mr. Mullen, retiring,” Connell added.
Bishop said not enough is being done quickly enough.
“I feel very confident with the water from our wells. But once it gets into that distribution system, we have asbestos pipes, we have rusted pipes, we have all kinds of crap in the ground that’s been there for 80 to 100 years,” Bishop said. “So we seriously need to get some infrastructure stuff done. We’ve had a 10 year plan for 40 years.”
Connell said that process is underway.
“I’m looking forward to finally having a mapping of some sort,” Connell said. “Once we understand the significance of the aging infrastructure, that’s going to help me understand where my vision will be for the city of Lake Helen’s water needs.”
The role of a commissioner is different than that of citizen activist, Connell said.
“I would not have enough information to investigate something on the onset unless it was brought forth by an activist,” Connell said. “I don’t view my role as a commissioner and vice mayor as an activist. For the city, I do my role: Someone who should be setting vision and then policies in which to achieve that vision.”
But that hands-off stance is what has helped lead Lake Helen into trouble, Bishop said.
“It seems the commissioners are totally hands-off, and nobody wants to even go down and spend any time at City Hall to try to educate themselves as to what is actually going on,” Bishop said.
“Most of our jobs don’t even have job descriptions for them. We need to just revisit all of that stuff … . We can’t keep going at the rate that we’re going,” Bishop said. “It’s just everything is how the new city administrator likes to put it — willy-nilly. We just do things willy-nilly. I think willy-nilly is done because you can only do that for so long. That rooster is going to come home to roost at some point.”
The charter amendments that would change the length of commissioners’ terms and give the city administrator — instead of commissioners — supervisory power over employees are another matter on which Bishop and Connell differ.
“You know, regrettably, there’s a lot of misinformation and a lot of concern that there’s some type of significant change in power in the city,” Connell said.
Connell was on previous charter review committees, including the 2016 committee whose ballot question lost by 39 votes, or about 5.5 percent of total votes.
“My platform is to vote for all three amendments for the charter. It’s best for the city going forward,” Connell said.
Bishop, on the other hand, is vehemently opposed to the charter amendments.
“I don’t think any commissioner needs four-year terms. If they can’t be reelected, then they don’t need to be up there. And as far as giving the administrator the hiring and firing, I don’t really disagree with that,” Bishop said. “The other one gives them the right to go to Tallahassee and change anything they want legislatively at any time. So, no, I am opposed to all of those charter amendments.”
Her husband, she said, chaired the most recent charter-review committee, and was so upset by the process, he has spent his own money to campaign against the amendments that came out of the process. Signs against the charter amendments are now as common as commissioner campaign signs in the city.
Lake Helen is like a family, Connell and Bishop said. And like all families, they fight.
“There’s a core of Lake Helen that’s a very small family, so to speak. And that family, compared to a nuclear family, that Lake Helen family’s huge,” Connell said. “And so I think there’s always been a much higher level of emotion in the politics and decision-making here.”
“It’s passion,” Connell added.
“Because it’s such a small town, everybody seems to take everything personally,” Bishop said. “All eyes are on you and everybody knows your business, or at least think they know your business. You know, it just is, but like most family members, you go through it and you come out OK on the other side.”
“I kind of sometimes feel like maybe I stirred the pot a little bit too much,” Bishop laughed. “But sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better.”
Bishop has raised $1,900 for her campaign, and spent $1,699. Connell has raised $100, in the form of a check to himself, and spent $0.
Bishop is a registered Republican; Connell is registered with no party affiliation.