OKEECHOBEE — After months of hinting at the possibility, it is now official. The Okeechobee City Council is looking for a new city attorney or possibly a new firm to take the place of John Cook, who has served in that capacity for over 30 years. Mr. Cook decided not to submit his contract for renewal after it expires this year, although he did agree to extend his existing contract through the end of December.
Mr. Cook’s contract ends on Sept. 30, and he requested the city pay him the amount he said was set aside in the budget to pay a new attorney during the months of October through December, but his request was denied. Mr. Cook said, “I’m going to stay on no matter what you agree on, but what you’re saying is you budgeted a new dollar amount you are willing to contract a new attorney in January and pay that person, but you’re not willing to pay me that amount for three months.”
Councilman Bobby Keefe replied, “Correct.”
Councilman Bob Jarriel said, “I don’t think as we discussed the budget, I don’t remember agreeing to pay a new attorney at that rate.” He said he thought they decided to address it when it came up.
Councilman Wes Abney said he remembered they increased the budget for an attorney based on the going rate for attorney services. He said he remembered they set it in anticipation of needing to pay that amount if they had to contract for new attorney services later.
Councilman Keefe said that a request for qualifications (RFQ) was supposed to have been brought to the council months ago but neither the attorney nor the city manager brought one in, and they still do not have one ready to publish. “There have been too many unnecessary delays, and now we are at a crossroads,” he said.
Mr. Cook said he understood they wanted a description of legal services provided, not an RFQ.
Mayor Dowling Watford said: “Let’s try to move on. Let’s try to come up with a solution. It doesn’t matter what we did. We are at a point now. You can talk about how we got here and what happened, but we need to move on, and we need to come up with a solution.”
It was decided Mr. Cook’s contract would be extended at his current rate until the end of December while the city attempts to hire a new attorney or firm.
In other business, the council discussed the status of the Mott property, which the council voted to foreclose on in September 2018. Councilman Keefe said the council had received an update on the property letting them know what action has taken place recently, and there has been no action since foreclosure was filed on March 4, 2019. Councilman Keefe said when he asked about the status, he received the answer from Mr. Cook that he was working with Noel Chandler regarding a purchase of the property. Councilman Keefe said he has some issues with the situation.
The city council approved a recommendation from the code board for foreclosure on Sept. 4, 2018. Seven months ago, Councilman Wes Abney asked what was going on with the property, and then foreclosure was filed on March 4.
At no time before March 4, when it was filed, did Mr. Chandler or Mr. Cook present to the city council a request to delay foreclosure to allow Mr. Chandler the time he needed to purchase the property. “To me, the perception I have of the situation is that of a behind-the-scenes arrangement between some good old boys, which leaves the public and the city council in the dark as to what is going on with the Mott property which was supposed to be foreclosed upon,” said Councilman Keefe. The foreclosure could very well have been finalized by now. “Because of the attorney’s delay, the property continues to get worse in appearance, which affects surrounding property values, and it has also allowed criminal activity to continue on the property. Just in the past 12 months, our city police officers have been to the Mott property 29 times. That’s just in the past 12 months since the petition to approve foreclosure.”
Councilman Keefe went on to say he did not really care who bought the property. He just wants the property cleaned up. He does care very much about transparency in government, following procedures and open, honest and timely information flow from city staff to city council, he said.
Mr. Cook said Mr. Chandler came to him at the end of 2018 and told him he wanted to purchase the Mott property because it has great sentimental value to him. It was his grandmother’s property, and he does not want it to be placed up for public auction. However, he did not get back to Mr. Cook at the beginning of the year, and the council authorized foreclosure. He was going to run the legal ad the end of July or first of August when Mr. Chandler came back again and said he had reached a deal with the son of the deceased owner. If Mr. Chandler could hire Mr. Cook to do the probate, to get the property in the son’s name, they had a deal where he would purchase the property and demolish it at his expense. Mr. Cook decided that rather than spend money on a newspaper ad and believing Mr. Chandler’s proposal would get them to a conclusion faster, he agreed. He believes probate will be complete sometime in late October or early November. Then the city would have no expense demolishing the property. He said he can proceed with foreclosure and probate at the same time if the council prefers.
Councilwoman Clark said, “I understand Noel is interested in that property, but the reason that property is before us is because of multiple code enforcements, one of which is how grown up all the grass is. I mean something as essential as mowing grass, and at the last code board, it was the number one item on the agenda, and it is incurring fines on a daily basis right now because the grass isn’t even mowed. It’s chest height. I had a neighbor who called me two days ago and said, ‘I’m part of this good ol’ boy system because I’ve been raised here, and I’ve lived here my entire life, and I am so upset about that property and the Mills’ property.’ If Noel is so interested in this property, why isn’t he doing the basics to bring it up to code? Now we are going to have another issue, and that is going to be the liens for fines.”
Mr. Cook said, “Noel can’t go in until he owns the property.”
Councilwoman Clark said, “I don’t understand. Why can’t he mow the grass at his grandmother’s property?”
There was no clear answer to her question.
Councilman Bob Jarriel said, “I think we have given him ample time on it. The only thing I would be in favor of would be giving him a deadline. If it’s not done by the end of October, he can buy it on the courthouse steps the same as anybody else.”
The council decided to proceed with foreclosure steps while also allowing Mr. Chandler and Mr. Cook to proceed with probate. Fines will continue to accumulate at $250 per day if nothing is done to bring the property into compliance, and Mr. Chandler will have to understand that, said Councilwoman Clark.
Councilman Jarriel reminded everyone the next town hall meeting is scheduled for Oct. 22 at 2p.m. in council chambers.
Mayor Watford made several proclamations:
• He proclaimed the month of September 2019 as Hunger Action Month.
• He proclaimed the month of September 2019 as Suicide Awareness Month.
• He proclaimed the week of Sept. 17 through 24, 2019 as National Constitution Week.
The next regular council meeting is Tuesday night, Oct. 1 at 6 p.m.