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Lynn Haven City Leaders, Residents Work To Rebuild Public Trust

Former Lynn Haven Senior Center Construction August 27 2020.jpg
Valerie Crowder
Construction crews renovate Lynn Haven's senior center on Thursday, Aug. 27 nearly two years after Hurricane Michael.

As Lynn Haven moves forward with plans for its rebuild, leaders and residents are discussing ways to restore public trust after four former public officials in the last year were indicted on fraud and corruption charges.

Nearly two years after Hurricane Michael, the former City Hall sits vacant. The town’s police station rebuild is still in its design phase. The local library and senior center remain closed for renovations. And the town’s damaged stormwater system needs repairs to prevent flooding in neighborhoods when it rains.

“There are a lot of projects in the cooker that will come to fruition over the next five - six months,” said Lynn Haven City Commissioner Brandon Aldridge. “Hopefully the public will be able to visibly witness what we’re trying to accomplish here in the rebuild of this city.”

Aldridge says he thinks progress on the city’s rebuild could help restore something else that’s been damaged: the public’s trust. “We’re going to rebuild public trust,” Aldridge said. “We’re going to finish our terms out, and we’re going to rebuild this city the best we can.”

Four former city officials have been indicted on fraud and corruption charges. Two of them - former City Manager Michael White and former Community Services Director David Horton - have pleaded guilty to some counts. The other two - former Mayor Margo Anderson and former City Attorney Adam Albritton - are awaiting trial.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida’s public trust unit is leading the investigation into suspected widespread public corruption in Bay County. In Lynn Haven, prosecutors say officials conspired to steal $5 million that was meant for debris removal after the hurricane.

“The greatest cost of public corruption is the potential widespread loss of the public’s trust in their own government,” U.S. Attorney Lawrence Keefe said at a recent press conference. He says residents can play a meaningful role in the fight against corruption by reporting suspected wrongdoing to the the public trust unit. “If you see or know something, then say something.”

Lynn Haven isn’t the only local government in Bay County that’s caught the attention of law enforcement investigating public corruption.

Panama City Beach and Bay District Schools were both recently served federal grand jury subpoenas for records related to contracts with GAC Contractors, a local company, and its owner Derwin White.

About two weeks ago, Bay County Sheriff’s Office interviewed Springfield Mayor Ralph Hammond about his personal truck, which the city bought for him after his was destroyed during the hurricane. They also asked him about the town’s reduced-cost demolition program.

Hammond says he has nothing to hide and expects law enforcement are taking a closer look at spending decisions in all local communities.

“I think they’re going to look at all the cities. We’ve still got Callaway and Parker and Mexico Beach, and I pray they don’t find anything,” Hammond said. “But I think since they’re here, they’re going to look all the way through everything they can look at.”

In Lynn Haven, a desire to rebuild public trust has at least three residents considering their first run for city commission. All three say they decided to run after the recent indictments.

Brian Gray says he hasn’t yet filed his paperwork, but he’s already begun campaigning. Gray says he’s lived in Lynn Haven since 1965. “Raised my family here, and I figure it’s a good time to make a difference instead of just sitting back and watching things happen.”

And he says he’s not apprehensive about running for local office in a town that’s been at the center of an ongoing investigation into public corruption. “It kind of encourages me because it’s like we were just talking about - if good people step up, then good things can happen.”

Another resident who’s waiting to file is 30-year-old Ryan Scray. He says he moved to Lynn Haven in June. Immediately, he began regularly attended city commission meetings. He also started a Facebook group for residents that now has more than 1,500 members.

“I’m actively getting engaged with citizens, talking [to them], finding out what their needs are,” Scray said. “I believe I could be a good spokesperson on behalf of the citizens if they choose to elect me. And that’s exactly what I see a commissioner’s role as is being a voice on behalf of the citizens.”

Jamie Warrick also says he’s considering running for city commission. He regularly attends city meetings. And lately, he says, he’s been looking into the town's most recent audits to try to figure out what could’ve gone wrong with the town's handling of hurricane cleanup funds. “I didn’t want to run, but I just feel like I need to run.”

While residents are lining up to run for city commission, at least one commissioner might not toss his hat back into the race ahead of the next election. Mayor Pro Tem Dan Russell says he’s reconsidering another run for office after receiving backlash from residents upset about the recent indictments.

“It’s been rough. I’m pretty thick-skinned and I can get beat up, but when it starts affecting my family, I start having some issues. I’ll get through it one way or the other. But that has made me rethink whether I’m actually going to run again this April.”

Russell says he was referenced in an indictment as an unnamed city commissioner. He has not been charged. And he says that he’s innocent of any wrongdoing.

He says he hasn't lost support from everyone in the community. At a recent meeting, Mei-Ling Friskhorn, a local resident, tried to encourage people to have faith in the commissioner’s leadership.

“I don’t know what changed. But I do know of a man who sits before me of character and integrity. I hear the accusations. I hear the innuendos,” she said. “Yes, we are concerned as residents, but there are a lot that are supportive.”