Yankeetown emergency declared

The town must hold an election in 60 days to elect council members after Gov. Jeb Bush steps in to restore order.

Published July 13, 2006

YANKEETOWN - Gov. Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency in Yankeetown on Wednesday, granting emergency powers to the town's mayor and the remaining two Town Council members and directing the town to hold a special election within 60 days to fill vacant council spots.

According to the governor's executive order, Mayor Joanne Johannesson and the two council members will run the city but won't have authority to approve development proposals or appoint council members. They will answer to a temporary financial board to be appointed by the governor.

"That's great news. Now we can move on with business," said Johannesson, who hadn't yet seen the order late Wednesday afternoon.

The executive order noted several reasons for the declaration, including:

* The Town Council's inability to hire key staff members after three of the five council members resigned.* The volunteer fire department's unpaid fuel bills.* Overdue and uncontested claims from creditors.* Threats against public officials, "reportedly creating or threatening to create an atmosphere of lawlessness, civil unrest and mob violence."

Until now, Yankeetown has been close to being a shutdown town.

The government disintegration has been gradual. It started several months ago when developers announced plans to build a resort on the banks of the Withlacoochee River.

The plans divided the town and led to resignations from key elected and staff positions. Things got so bad that the governor's office recently arranged for other nearby governments to help Yankeetown keep running.

The town's two paid employees received their paychecks last week, thanks to a special loan agreement with the Levy County clerk of the Circuit Court.

Town Hall is locked. Bills aren't getting paid. Important grants can't be processed.

But while the gears of Yankeetown government have been paralyzed by a dysfunctional Town Council that can't reach a quorum, residents have still been receiving essential government services.

Outside contractors, such as garbage collectors, are still working, although Yankeetown is in arrears paying them.

And residents are still getting their water supply and other town services, though administrative glitches meant they didn't get a water bill this month.

According to Levy County Coordinator Fred Moody, the county government stands ready to help however it can, but it can't force the shattered Town Council together.

The longer the town can't pay its bills, the less likely essential services will keep working.

Mayor Johannesson had been hoping that Bush would step in to save the town from itself.

While Bush has previously implied that he would step in if the town couldn't function on its own, nobody seemed to know what he would do. Until now.

Meantime, an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement into alleged corruption by public officials is still going on.

Times staff writer Elena Lesley contributed to this report. Moises Mendoza can be reached at mmendoza@sptimes.com or 860-7337.