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Discussion about Feldman’s severance pay gets heated; commission approves utility rate increases for the next 6 years

Commissioner Reina Saco

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

The fireworks began early in the September 13 Gainesville City Commission meeting, with Debbie Martinez, who commented on the very first business item (a first reading of an ordinance establishing annual increases in GRU electricity rates, wastewater rates, and various fees each year through FY27), complaining that Mayor Lauren Poe hadn’t taken public comment on the agenda before adopting it. She also complained that the public was being sent to the basement while City staff sat in the auditorium. When she tried to ask about the last-minute inclusion of the termination of GRU General Manager Ed Bielarski’s contract on the agenda, Poe told her that item would come up later. Martinez responded, “I am talking. If you would shut up, I would be able to continue.” Poe called for “a little decorum, please,” and the call taker cut her off. 

Poe reminded the audience that comments are limited to the item on the agenda, and the very next speaker said, “I call for dissolving the city council and call for an investigation…” Poe tried to cut her off, saying there would be an opportunity for public comment later (there wasn’t – after the motion to terminate Bielarski was withdrawn at 1:30 a.m., Poe just gaveled the meeting into recess). 

Tina Days said she is a single mom in a 900 square foot home and paying over $200 per month for her utilities. She asked the commission to “think about the poor working people… y’all just rubber-stamping and approving increase of GRU.”

Nathan Skop said the commissioners “don’t care what hardships you’re imposing on hard-working Gainesville families. You don’t care what hardships you’re imposing on local businesses that are struggling to survive in the midst of the pandemic.” He said they could have avoided the electricity rate increases by delaying the implementation of Advanced Metering Infrastructure

Other speakers asked them to cut the budget, not increase it. 

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After public comment, Poe said, “First of all, it was stated that we’re approving a 24% increase in electric rates. That is not accurate. The commission can only approve one year’s worth of budget at a time. We do that annually. This year’s increase is 7%.” He also told Days that they would approve a budget item later in the meeting to “significantly increase the amount of utility assistance available to folks.”

However, the ordinance they were voting on contained page after page of tables with rate increases through FY27, and Section 5 states that those rates “shall be applicable to all monthly bills” starting October 1, 2021, with rates increasing on October 1 of every year, through October 1, 2026. It may be accurate to say that the budget has not been set for those years, but the ordinance sets the utility rates and fees through September 30, 2027.

The vote to approve the rates and fees was unanimous.

General Government budget

The General Government budget is about $7 million higher than the FY21 adopted budget, a 5.2% increase. It includes departmental increments of $3.4 million and commissioner increments of $1.2 million. The property tax millage increase of about 0.2 mills (a 6.8% increase over the rolled-back rate) will generate an additional $4.3 million in property tax revenue.

During public comment, Nathan Skop and Debbie Martinez criticized the commission for their “insatiable spending addiction” and “reckless spending.” Chanae Jackson said that people who are struggling don’t care about many of the projects the commission is spending money on: “You want us not to be upset, you want us not to be frustrated because you need to meet obligations. Literally that’s what we’re trying to say for the 44% of the people that live below the poverty line. You’re making it extremely difficult for them to meet their obligations.”

Tana Silva pointed out that $350,000 was added to the budget for a Youth Services Department at a “workshop where votes couldn’t be taken… So that was kind of striking and a different way of going about it… I can’t believe that this city commission cannot find anything to cut out of the budget and reduce the burden, especially on the fees and whatnot, for the small-scale landlords and businesses and property owners to reduce their burden and millage rate.”

The resolution to approve the general government budget passed 5-2, with Commissioners Gail Johnson and Desmon Duncan-Walker in dissent. The GRU budget passed by the same vote, with the same commissioners in dissent.

City Manager Severance Package

City Manager Lee Feldman had resigned earlier in the day, and an item to discuss amending his contract to add 20 weeks of severance pay was then added to the meeting’s agenda. In introducing the item, Poe said Feldman “asked for a similar severance package and compensation as previous charter officers, including the last City Manager… I agree that it is equitable compared to past practices to offer the severance package as contractually established.” He said Feldman will stay on until mid-November, giving them time to select an interim City Manager before he leaves.

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos made a motion to accept the amendment to Feldman’s contract without specifying the details; the amended contract was not in the meeting backup. The motion also included authorizing the clerk to schedule a special meeting in October and directing the Human Resources Department to begin taking applications for all of the open charter officer positions. Commissioner Reina Saco seconded the motion. 

Johnson spoke first after the motion was made: “I should say that I’m surprised, but I’m not. I’m actually in utter disbelief that we’re having this conversation. The incredible damage that I see, and many other people in the community see, seems lost on many of my colleagues, that the City Manager has done in this community, and now we’re going to pay upwards of $100,000 and y’all are going to keep him here? Really? Really? Really? And clearly I’m not going to be voting in favor of this, for all of the reasons that I mentioned in my resignation letter.

“You know, I said ‘hold it together today,’ I said ‘Lord, help me hold it together.’ You know what? I’m going to stop myself right now.”

“Since that time, our Human Resources Director Lisa Jefferson has left; Teneeshia Marshall, Equity and Inclusion Director, has left; Nicolle, the City Attorney, has left; Omichele Gainey, the City Clerk, is leaving; and we are sitting here talking about paying somebody for a poor job.” – Chanae Jackson

No other commissioners spoke before public comment. During public comment, Chanae Jackson said Feldman should have been terminated for cause in November 2020 after an independent investigation found that he was guilty of retaliation, with testimony from 23 other women. “Since that time, our Human Resources Director Lisa Jefferson has left; Teneeshia Marshall, Equity and Inclusion Director, has left; Nicolle, the City Attorney, has left; Omichele Gainey, the City Clerk, is leaving; and we are sitting here talking about paying somebody for a poor job.”

When she was done, Poe said, “Thank you. Appreciate you,” and Jackson responded, “You’re not very welcome. I do not want to be dismissed because things are too important right now.”

Carla Lewis said she had never supported hiring Feldman in the first place: “I was trying to figure out why did we hire somebody who was just fired from his job for poor performance?… This man should have been terminated a long time ago… This is a man that failed us, and he failed us horribly. Shouldn’t be rewarded for that.”

“Note to city commission: this form of government has been in place for over 20 years, since the progressives took over. It worked fine until you guys came along.” – Nathan Skop

Nathan Skop said, “There’s basis to terminate for cause. The evidence was provided in an independent report by legal counsel. This commission failed to act… It’s uncertain whether Mr. Feldman completed the required remedial training that the commission required… What’s been perpetrated here is the City Manager, along with the core majority of the Gainesville City Commission and Mayor that cultivated a culture of fear, distrust, dysfunction, toxicity, and retaliation. Commissioner Johnson is correct in many aspects, and please don’t hold your breath, just say what needs to be said because this is the opportunity… We’ve seen a lot of 5-2 votes, and it’s unfortunate because you heard Ms. (Evelyn) Foxx talk about racial votes tonight on racial lines.” Skop said that commissioners have been discussing changing the structure of the City government, saying we need a “strong mayor” system of government. “Note to city commission: this form of government has been in place for over 20 years, since the progressives took over. It worked fine until you guys came along.”

Sarah Vidal-Finn, Director of the Gainesville Community Redevelopment Agency, said she made a “really difficult decision” in February of 2020 to file an Equal Opportunity complaint. “I felt that our commission would honor the process and make decisions to continue to protect and support its committed employees under the federal laws enacted for situations just like this.” But after the report came back “with specific findings and recommendations, leadership failed to carry that protection through… We deserve better… The lack of support and public belittling of committed employees has been shameful. Tonight this commission needs to rip off the band-aid and start empowering, believing, and protecting the very people who are doing the important work of the City.”

“He’s chosen to leave, you didn’t fire him, and you should not give him one extra penny other than what the original contract said.” – Jo Beaty

Jo Beaty said the severance pay is “protection money because these people have been doing the bidding of the majority of this commission. And you have a history of retroactively giving people who have chosen to leave our money… And now you’re considering giving him over $100,000… He’s chosen to leave, you didn’t fire him, and you should not give him one extra penny other than what the original contract said.”

Former City Commissioner Helen Warren said, “There is just so much turmoil in the world around us these days… I ask that there be no resignations and no firing with the current turmoil that’s in place… We need to take a pause… We’ve got to step back… This town can do things better than any other place that I’ve seen in my travels. I have a lot of great pride in Gainesville. I just ask you to reel in your emotions.”

Telford Cartwright pointed out that they want to pay Feldman severance, “but you have no consideration with terminating City employees and… those who choose not to be vaccinated.” He also asked Poe to go on the record that he will not run for Congress. 

Faye Williams said, “The four of you should resign. Feldman, you should never have been hired… Everybody knows what you’ve done. But then you’ve got the troops over here, white supremacists, most of them, supporting you and the dictator right here… and you think we’re supposed to give you $100,000 to leave?”

Poe said “This is an emotionally charged item. If we can try to be respectful of each other and keep the cheers and jeers out of the conversation. Just try to be as civil as we can.”

Tina Days asked how commissioners can live with themselves “when y’all vote for all of these increases and probably going to give the man a hundred thousand dollars out of the budget that you increase on the backs of poor people?… Mayor Poe… it starts with you on your lack of leadership… I give kudos to my City Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker, who could not get one person to make a second to help her get rid of [Feldman].”

Darlene Pifalo said the severance pay should come out of commissioners’ pay, “not the citizens that pay our taxes in good faith.”

Brian O’Brien called for “a full investigation of the hiring, actions, and dismissal of Feldman… He and Poe are cooking up some deal behind the scenes.”

“From there, one after one, woman after woman, many of them black, have departed their posts, telling each of you privately of their issues and concerns with the City Manager… And your solution? To fire the GRU General Manager, Ed Bielarski… Commissioner Saco needs to stop giving people the middle finger and do her job like a grown-up.” – Armanda Grundy-Gomes

Armando Grundy-Gomes said the commission should fire Feldman for cause. “Just because there is a motion on the floor doesn’t mean you can’t create a motion and do it. Have some courage. Do that… It just seems that this state of power and privilege has the City Manager acting above the rules to retaliate against female employees like Diane Wilson and Sarah Vidal… From there, one after one, woman after woman, many of them black, have departed their posts, telling each of you privately of their issues and concerns with the City Manager… And your solution? To fire the GRU General Manager, Ed Bielarski… Commissioner Saco needs to stop giving people the middle finger and do her job like a grown-up… Look in the mirror at yourselves. Fire this man for cause. 

“Commissioner Duncan-Walker was the only one of you to ever do it. You all never seconded her motion. She didn’t get up and walk out. She didn’t wonder what should we do? She did it, and the rest of you looked at her with crickets, and some of you want to run for mayor, and some of you want to call women petty and say black people are entitled, Commissioner Saco. Get a grip. Nobody is coming after this man for being Jewish. He is conveniently Jewish now, but when Deborah Bowie was up there being attacked, none of you said a word when she was being attacked as a Jew, not one of you.”

None of the people who spoke during public comment supporter giving severance pay to Feldman.

“The hypocrisy up here of ‘I don’t get what I want, no one listens to me,’ as you consistently get everything you want and then quit your job midway through because you’re not getting everything? That is ridiculous.” – Commissioner Reina Saco

After public comment, Saco said, “The small 4-year-old who went to refugee camp with guns pointed at her, eating MREs. She has seen just as much racism, just as much hardship. I’m sorry I don’t look like I’ve had a rough life, but you don’t know what I’ve gone through. So if you call me a white supremacist who doesn’t know what it’s like to be a minority–and that comment has come from the audience and this dais–I have news for you. I am a woman, and I am a minority, and I have faced every issue conceivable.

“With that context, there is a toxic culture at city hall. It didn’t start two years ago. It’s been here for a while. has it gotten worse? Yes. I can’t attribute that to a single person… I don’t act on feeling, I act on fact and evidence that is irrefutable because that’s how I was trained and that’s how I was educated. Was there a complaint? Yes. Was there a report? Yes. It said the two complaints of discrimination against women were unfounded. That same report then said there might be a case of retaliation based on hearsay testimony, testimony that is normally never accepted in court unless you have a very specific reason to do it. That is what it hinged on. So I could not in good faith as a professional, as a member of the bar, use that single flimsy piece of evidence to fire a man.

“And while we’re on the topic, it wasn’t dozens of women complaining, it was two. Then dozens, way too many people, for no apparent reason, people who had no relation to that incident, interviewed for giggles and, I guess, to charge us more money. So I’m not holding a lot of stock in that report. That was not enough to fire him in November… Lee is leaving because people have created a hostile, antisemitic, disastrous environment to push out what the majority said we would not fire.”

Saco continued, clearly referring to Johnson: “Some people on this dais, and a lot of people outside, have just refused to give him a chance, regardless. ‘I want a grocery store.’ ‘Here’s a grocery store.’ ‘No, not if you bring it to me.’  ‘I want a children’s department; no, not if you bring it to me. Oh, I’m getting it, anyway? I’m still going to tell you to resign.’The hypocrisy up here of ‘I don’t get what I want, no one listens to me,’ as you consistently get everything you want and then quit your job midway through because you’re not getting everything? That is ridiculous.

“Lee is leaving because people here have created the most toxic, hostile, antisemitic, just frankly disastrous environment to push out a charter that the majority said we would not fire. So instead you create a hostile environment, you constantly just take him out and say we’re going to humiliate you for a little bit so you feel consistently worse and worse about staying here and doing the job we tell you to do, so you eventually leave on your own since I can’t convince my colleagues to fire you.

“That is a problem! Because last time I checked, this city operates when a majority of four or more give direction. When we give direction to Mr. Feldman, he does the will of the commission. I’ve been on the minority side of things. Do I throw a tantrum? No. I let it go because I respect the will of the majority, and I have a basic sense of what democracy consists of.”

Chanae Jackson made some unintelligible remarks from the audience, with Poe asking her to refrain from outbursts. Saco said to Jackson, “Do not call me privileged, lady. You do not know what my life has been.” Chanae responded (again unintelligible on the recording), and Poe asked them to stop the back-and-forth. Johnson can be heard (with Jackson still yelling in the background) saying, “This is offensive. It is so offensive. I can’t believe you allow that.” Poe said to Johnson, “What am I supposed to not allow? At what point am I supposed to stop a commissioner from speaking freely?” Johnson replied, “Maybe you can have a private conversation with her like you did with me.” Poe said, “I have had private conversations with many of you.” He then asked Saco to continue.

“I mean, I get it. We won’t hire any more Jewish managers. Loud and clear. We won’t bother doing that again. I don’t know what else to do at this point.” – Saco

Saco said, “I don’t care if I’m liked today. I care about giving at least some actual fact. If Lee Feldman has done something, it’s because at least four of us directed him to do it. That’s how it works. That is legal. If he is overzealous because we’ve said we waited for this for years and have never gotten it and he goes out and finds it for us, how is that a dereliction of duty? He’s literally doing what we tell him to do. I mean, I get it. We won’t hire any more Jewish managers. Loud and clear. We won’t bother doing that again. I don’t know what else to do at this point.”

Commissioner David Arreola said he wanted to accept the City Manager’s resignation but not amend the contract. 

“It became very clear to me, known to me early on, that Manager Feldman worked for Adrian Hayes-Santos, Mayor Poe, and Harvey Ward. That became very clear to me very early on.” – Commissioner Gail Johnson

Johnson said,  “I would like to take a little trip down memory lane… We hired a recruiting firm to bring us a good City Manager. Turns out the owner of that firm is very good friends with Manager Feldman. Turns out, a lot of the information that we should have had, we didn’t get. Some very pertinent information was left out.

“I had a fantastic interview with Manager Feldman. I told him how important it was to me that he come to this city and be collaborative and be communicative and work together with the team that we had in the City. I was assured that that’s what he would bring to the City. Now, I wouldn’t say that they were lies. I’m not going to say that.

“I will say that there were inaccuracies, let’s say, in my interview with him. Let’s talk about when he stood up here and said what the most important thing was that he would tackle in the city, and primarily the reason why I hired him; he said poverty. It even brought a tear to my eye. Poverty was the number one issue in Gainesville, and he was going to work on that. I wouldn’t say that it was a lie. I’ll say that it was an inaccuracy. 

“I told him how important it was to me, because I had been lied to in the past, caught people in lies, caught City Managers in lies. I said how important it was to me to have someone that would tell the truth. Now, I won’t say that necessarily that’s a lie, but definitely another inaccuracy.

“It became very clear to me, known to me early on, that Manager Feldman worked for Adrian Hayes-Santos, Mayor Poe, and Harvey Ward. That became very clear to me very early on.

“Now let’s talk about the EO investigation, which, by the way, is now at the federal level. There was not only one, there are multiple. Time will tell — I will tell you this right now, time will tell. I will be vindicated. Everything that I have said will come to pass, and you all will know. What’s done in the dark is going to come to light. I’m going to say that again. I don’t know if it’s going to take two months, a year, two years, three years, what’s done in the dark will come to light. I’m not wrong. Very rarely am I wrong. 

“It wasn’t necessarily about just the EO investigation, because we understand how that panned out, and we did not take the recommendation of the firm we hired to investigate. It’s also these thousand pages that I actually read. I read it. Did y’all read it? Because I read it. It’s not just about the investigation. It’s about literally his leadership style. I will read you quotes.

“‘What is the overall tone of these meetings? People are not engaged. Before he got there, people were all happy and engaged. Now people come in and fill the back chairs away from the table. If you’re one of the last people there, you have to sit at the table. Now, if you sit at the table, you’re wondering if you’re going to be belittled or berated.’

“‘The thing is, what we have discussed with Lee is Lee circumventing the procurement process. There are two instances in particular where he has brought consultants that he worked with before. It might not necessarily be illegal, but there was no competitive process.’

I have the same conversations with Attorney Shalley that I know she has with y’all. How many times did she come to us about this ‘gray area’ she was concerned about, that Manager Feldman was operating in. I know you had the same conversations because she went around and talked to all of us multiple times.” – Johnson

“Now, let’s talk about that because guess what? I have the same conversations with Attorney Shalley that I know she has with y’all. How many times did she come to us about this ‘gray area’ she was concerned about, that Manager Feldman was operating in. I know you had the same conversations because she went around and talked to all of us multiple times.

“So you know, I wish that I could actually blame this all on Manager Feldman. No, I’m not going to do that. Because you know where the buck stops? It stops with us. He did what we allow him to do. He did what we allow him to do. I am so disappointed. I am so disappointed. So now we’re at this point, and we’re about to give this man $100,000, upwards of $100,000, with all the damage we know. Maybe it doesn’t matter to you, maybe you don’t see it. I actually can’t wrap my head around what has going on with this commission for a long time.

“I can’t wrap my head around it. Because other people see it. For some reason, many of us don’t up here. Let’s talk about this book [the EO report]. Let’s talk about the EO complaint. Let’s talk about what the solution was.

“You know what the solution was? Professional development. Do you know what that consisted of? A conversation with the mayor. You tell me about the double standard that exists in this world and clearly exists up here. Professional development equals a conversation with the mayor?

“Hmm, how is that working out for us? So to me this $100,000, what you’re saying to the community, what you’re saying to me, what you are saying to everybody in the city, by the way, and I know this for sure, is that the decisions that have been made from this dais have absolutely had a chilling effect on the EO office. People are not coming forward like they should. We all know why. So what you’re doing by making this decision is you are rewarding bad behavior.

“So that’s what I want you to take away from this when you all vote to give him this money. You all are rewarding bad behavior.” – Johnson

“So that’s what I want you to take away from this when you all vote to give him this money. You all are rewarding bad behavior. I literally could go on and on. But for now I’ve said enough.”

Duncan-Walker asked Poe to “maintain decorum on this dais just as you attempt to in the audience. I understand it can potentially be a challenge at times. But if it requires a conversation, I’d ask that you would kindly do that. Thank you.

“My very first day in office, I sat down excited, thrilled to be the voice of the people, so to speak, at least those who put me in office and ideally many, many more. But I sat here, in a meeting that lasted about eight hours, with the hot button issue of the night was the resignation of Teneeshia Marshall. It was an emotionally charged evening. But it wasn’t just full of emotion. It was full of some facts. I noticed the repercussions of the failure of this commission to act, and I got quite concerned on that day that as time went on, that chilling effect, that Commissioner Johnson just mentioned, would become more and more a reality… I want to recognize the fact that our charters cried out to us for help, and I’m saddened and disappointed to know that we did not respond in a way that a) would help them and b) would allow them to be retained with the City.

“What has happened has definitely been unprecedented. I’ve heard people say we need to pause, and that may be true. But more so than pause, we need to reset. I want to say to Sarah Vidal-Finn a public thank you for her bravery tonight. That was not lost on me. I’d also like to say that just because something cannot be proven does not mean it is not true… We need to reset. We’ve lost institutional knowledge, innovation, because we did not listen and because we failed to act. That’s hurtful, because at the end of the day, that actually could have been avoided. In the reset, I’m going to say I do not agree with the terms that Mr. Feldman has presented us tonight. I will not be able to support paying severance.”

Poe said, “I agree with you, Commissioner Duncan-Walker, what we need is a reset. Absolutely. I’ve been working on this for a long time. I have been unsuccessful. I’ve met with the charters as group. I’ve met with them individually. I was unsuccessful in accomplishing the outcomes I hoped for. I had spoken with each of my colleagues on several occasions and tried to be open and vulnerable and truthful, and I was unsuccessful there as well.

“I will take responsibility for my inability to be successful in moving the culture that exists between the city commission and the charter officers forward. That’s on me. I will not stop trying. I will not give up.” – Mayor Lauren Poe

“So I come from a philosophy that you either are successful or you learn, so I’ve been trying to learn. I will take responsibility for my inability to be successful in moving the culture that exists between the city commission and the charter officers forward. That’s on me. I will not stop trying. I will not give up…

“So it’s painful to be in this place. But we have no choice but to reset, rebuild, and heal. There’s no other option. So as painful as this was clearly for everybody involved, that’s what I choose to focus on.”

The motion to approve the severance agreement and schedule a special meeting in October to make a decision about the various interim charter positions passed 4-3, with Arreola, Johnson, and Duncan-Walker in dissent.

  • Here’s a little insight about King Poe…

    If he lived during colonial times he would have sold his children and wife to maintain his throne.

    If he lived during the 1860’s he would have cut off the foot of his slaves to keep them from deserting him.

    If he lived during the mid 1930’s to 1940’s he would have ratted out his own race to keep favor with his oppressors.

    Since we are the unfortunate residents of Gainesville who have to share this moment in time with him, all he can do is cut off a phone line and dismiss a meeting to keep his “illusion” of power.

    He really is one of the poorest examples of a man or animal I have personally ever seen and it must break his family’s heart to know that’s the best they have, probably the best he’ll ever be and for them, heartbreaking to know that they will forever be associated with him.

    All you liberals who actually believed in him…I feel as sorry for you as I do his family.

    • Commissioner Johnson got it right! The last 2 City Managers (suck-ups) “worked” exclusively for the Three Woke White Hypocritical Musketeers: PoBoy, Ward and Hayes (not a minority as claimed) All 3 claim to support the poor, women, and people of color but they do anything but. Free spending pet projects fueled by unlimited fee, tax and rate increases hurt the poor the most and drive small business away. All 3 are failures at anything non-gov related and the are terrible at that too. Help fire the Three Woke White Musketeers!

  • Well, it sounds like Poe owes the public an additional 30 minutes (or however long) of public comments at the beginning of the next meeting. And an apology for anyone who was staying up late to comment at the end of the last meeting.

    • Now that GFR’s union and employees have called fir King Poe’s removal, NOW is the time to act! March on city hall shouting and carry signs of “No Mo Po!” Start tonight!

  • Lesson 1: do not hire a charter officer nearing retirement age (defined by gov’t employee standards), because they’ll simply act crazy and then “resign” with a golden parachute request later — only hire someone at least 10 years from gov’t retirement; Lesson 2: it’s hilarious how after 20 years of “progressive” policies, the city commission is now counting on being bailed out by a UF-GRU contract, and annexation of Republican westside suburban area voters next year! Good luck with that!

    • Agreed! Only a fool would read this recounting of ‘business as usual’ and enter a long term business agreement with GRU under this board.

    • Feldman came here from of a part of Florida that has a lot of big city (New York, Chicago) influence and not a lot of tolerance for nonsense. I figured it would be only a matter of time until he and some of Gainesville’s indigenous “sacred cows” clashed.

  • The definition of “severance pay” in my dictionary app says it is “money exclusive of wages, back pay, etc., paid to an employee who has tenure and who is dismissed because of lack of work or other reasons beyond the employee’s control.” Does this fit Mr. Feldman’s situation? I do not think so.

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