The new city charter was built on a simple premise. Pensacola residents should elect the person running their city. The old charter put that power in the hands of an unelected city manager that could only be removed by a majority vote of the city council.
The new charter did away with the city manager. The mayor became the leader of the city, its decision maker and chief executive officer. The voters got more accountable leadership under the charter because the mayor had to win their support to win the office.
It sounded so simple.
In 2010, Pensacola voters got a chance to decide who would be the first strong mayor and how the charter would be implemented. The choices in the November general election were Mike Wiggins and Ashton Hayward.
Wiggins was a city council veteran having served since 1995, his last two years as mayor. His message was to stay the course and make no significant changes. Hayward was the newcomer who pledged to shake things up. City Hall would be different under his leadership.
The voters chose Hayward and they got change. City Manager Al Coby, City Attorney Rusty Wells, department heads Thaddeus Cohen and Mary Ann Stalcup and others retired, resigned or were fired. Citizens were tapped to head advisories on pensions, port and urban redevelopment. Hayward traveled country talking with other strong mayors and recruiting businesses to Pensacola.
The 2011 Quality of Life survey showed that the voters approved. Three out of four city residents believed that the city was on the right track, up from 59 percent in 2010. Seventy percent gave Mayor Hayward a positive rating for his performance. The prior year city leadership had only gotten a 47 percent approval rating.
Unfortunately, Pensacola has a propensity for dysfunction and can’t let a good thing last. The Pensacola City Council began to grumble about its lack of power and asserted that it was equal to the mayor. A lawsuit, Sunshine law complaint and public attacks on city staff ensued. The council even injected itself into contract negotiations at the maritime park.
The public is left scratching its head. What the heck is going on? A year ago, I wrote it off as “growing pains.” Now I’m not so sure. I feel like I’m watching the homely older sister getting upset because her cute younger brother is getting all the attention.
The curtain is rising on the third act of this soap opera. It’s too early to predict who will prevail in this battle to decide who is truly in charge of the city.