Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday August 14th 2018

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Dysfunction Junction

What’s Your Malfunction, City Hall?
By Jeremy Morrison

There’s a rift at Pensacola City Hall. It’s a contentious chasm that has suffered from both nurture and neglect.

“Clearly, there are some issues between the council and the mayor right now,” Pensacola City Councilwoman Megan Pratt said recently.

The rift has existed for more than a year. Ever since Mayor Ashton Hayward took office as Pensacola’s first strong mayor. It is often referred to as the “growing pains.”

“One might also call it ‘maturation of a process,’” offered Councilman Brian Spencer, explaining that he feels the awkward evolution should be “anticipated and tolerated.”

“I think the discussions regarding the dynamic of the relationship of the council and the mayor are necessary and productive,” he said.

When the city of Pensacola switched from a mayor-council form of government to a strong mayor system, it was a big shift. It was a shift in both logistics and mentality.

Whereas the mayor had previously been a largely ceremonial position—best suited for riding to ribbon cuttings in the backseat of a parade-route convertible—this new model puts the mayor squarely in the driver’s seat. City Council, likewise, has had their grip loosened from the steering wheel.

This shift in governance model has resulted in dramatics, theatrics and legitimate questions as the two branches—executive and legislative—struggle to arrive at a symbiotic existence.

City council has tended toward exhaustive discussions and public displays of discontent. While some members have lobbied for a calm, quiet and perhaps unquestioning transition, others squawk, squabble and tirelessly search for the boundaries of their new home within local government.

“Let’s sit down and have us a little powwow and get it together so we can look more intelligent to the public,” Councilman John Jerralds has suggested.

The mayor, meanwhile, appears content to play a confident ostrich. It’s a neat trick— head held high, but buried in the sands of denial.

“I’m not gonna engage in it, I don’t need to engage in it,” Hayward said, effectively cranking the radio to drown out council’s grumbling in the backseat. “I try not to look in the rearview mirror and focus on what I’m doing.”

The Growing Pains

The contention between Pensacola’s city council and its mayor is played out in a variety of venues—the budget, the Community Redevelopment Agency, economic incentives and personnel issues. One way or another the rift becomes evident at nearly every council meeting.

Back in May, the matter blew up in spectacular fashion when Mayor Hayward issued a memorandum informing council members that all communication with city staff would need to be channeled through the mayor’s office.

“I have not decided yet how I’m going to address the mayor’s memo, but I am not taking this sitting down,” Councilwoman Sherri Myers told her fellow board members at the time.

Soon thereafter, Myers filed a lawsuit against Hayward. While the mayor contended he was simply enforcing a longstanding rule that would allow for more efficient operations and prevent political influence, the councilwoman felt Hayward had overreached his authority.

“In a nutshell, this is about the separation of powers,” Myers said a few hours after filing her suit. “One branch cannot interfere with the powers of the other—that’s illegal.”

Like most of the disagreements between council members and the mayor, this lawsuit is rooted in questions about the city’s new charter. Each side of the equation usually uses the document to back up their position.

“It’s not going to get better unless everybody lives by the charter,” Myers said in July.

But there are varying views of the charter. Councilman Jerralds has repeatedly requested that city council “go page by page” in an effort to wrap their heads around the new model of government laid out in the document. He has pushed for this since before the charter’s passage.

“I said, ‘hey guys, let’s look at this,” Jerralds said. “Before you jump into it, in the water head first, let’s look at it—what does it say?”

Mayor Hayward said that he expected such growing pains. When conferring with the heads of other cities as he prepared to take office, the mayor was warned to brace for some turbulence.

“Every mayor I’ve talked with, that’s a strong mayor, said that the first two years are a challenge,” Hayward said. “It’s not the same-o, same-o anymore.”

He said the same thing recently when appearing on the locally-produced television program “Within Reason” with attorney and host Bob Kerrigan.

“They said the first two years are going to be challenging, it’s a new form of government,” Hayward told him.

The two men sat casually on the set. Hayward was dressed in his trademark business-casual—dark blazer, unbuttoned collar, dash-of-color kerchief.

Kerrigan, a supporter of the charter and Hayward, described the city’s new structure as “the perfect form of government” and provided a friendly format for Hayward to address the ever-more visible rift.

“I think everyone’s heart’s in the right place,” the mayor assured.

A couple of weeks earlier, up in his seventh floor office at city hall, Hayward had brushed off the rift. Questions about any fractures in his relationship with city council tended to evoke eye rolls and heavy sighs.

“There is nothing to address,” he said. “It’s a minority of council. And really, I’m not sure it’s even a minority anymore, I think it’s one person.”

Though the mayor declined to “name names,” it can be assumed that “one person” is Councilwoman Maren DeWeese, who has repeatedly made contentious statements in public meetings and on her blog. While other members of council have expressed concerns, DeWeese has been, at the moment, the most vocal.

However, the mayor isn’t buying into the idea that all the council is conflict with him.

“I just got off the elevator and Ron Townsend hugged me,” Hayward said.

It’s true, he does enjoy good relations with much of the council, and even DeWeese has repeatedly stated she is supportive of the charter and mayor’s efforts to lead the city. But everyone recognizes the rift.

“I’m basically watching it as it unfolds,” said Councilman P.C. Wu.

And council members who are decidedly in Hayward’s camp concede the need for some remedy to the rift. A characteristically exhausted Councilman Townsend recently noted as much, “I really don’t need the frustration.”

“Communication has really got to improve between council and the mayor’s office,” the retiring Townsend said.

During July’s marathon budget sessions, the rift was apparent throughout. The entire council weighed in at one point or another, with several expressing varying degrees of concern. Hayward termed the ongoing displays as “actually comical” and urged “unity.”

“It is what it is,” the mayor said. “I think your real question is, ‘Is council going to get on board?’”

But that doesn’t appear to be the lingering question emanating from council. Questions about charter specifics and each branch’s role permeate council discussions.

“I think that there needs to be some intervention,” Pratt said in late July. “It’s gotten to the level where there is enough mistrust on different levels that it’s not going to resolve itself.”

The Training Wheels Phase

The strong-mayor form of government did not happen overnight. Unsatisfied with a council-mayor model they considered lethargic, ineffective and unaccountable, a group of citizens, primarily from the business community, began a drive to make a switch.

John Peacock, a co-chair of the group, requested in 2007 that the city council examine the city charter. “We believe our citizens should give serious consideration to a ‘strong mayor’ type of government in order to expedite our renaissance,” wrote Peacock in a letter to the council. “An elected executive mayor would be in a position to develop a vision, then plan, lead and implement the envisioned changes.”

Eventually, the council formed a charter review commission. Attorney Crystal Spencer was chosen to chair the commission and oversaw its review of the charter and consideration of possible changes to the governing model.

“The city manager was, frankly, running our government and not accountable to the citizens,” she said. “It goes back to the accountability. Who did we look to for not moving Pensacola forward?”

The review commission conducted an extensive analysis of the city’s charter. They studied governing documents of other cities and heard from experts and the public.

Recently, Spencer, whose husband was elected to the council in 2010, reflected on the old council-mayor system. “By its very nature, it makes it difficult to have a single vision in leading the city,” she said. “That form of government did not allow for a person with a vision to move forward.”

The review commission eventually recommended a new charter based on the strong-mayor model, and city council offered it up to the voters. Spencer remained active in the process as the chair of Believe in Pensacola, a pro-charter political action committee.

The current city council members were pretty much split down the middle when it came to adopting a new system. Jerralds and Townsend opposed the charter referendum but have accepted the change and largely supported the mayor.

Wu, who also opposed the switch, routinely keeps council debates dignified when weighing in as other council members begin piling on Hayward and his administration.

“Of all the people sitting around the table, I’m probably the one that fought the charter the hardest,” Wu said during the budget sessions, advising his cohorts to wait-out any issues they may have with the mayor and trust the voters. “If it doesn’t work, in two years people can say, ‘doggone it, I’ve had enough.’”

Other council members feel differently. They think the body should better define itself and its role.

“For the last year, the council has said, ‘we’re going to be steady, not do anything,’ while the mayor gets up to speed,” said Pratt. “I think at this point it is important to ask ‘how do we function?’”

That’s a question council has grappled with since Hayward took office. In extreme scenarios, like Myers’ lawsuit, the brawl spills into the streets where eyes are blackened and teeth are knocked loose.

“I’m sorry there’s a lawsuit going on,” said Pratt, before conceding that charter-related questions may be best suited for the court system. “I think at this point, the amicable discussions aren’t solving it.”

City Attorney Jim Messer has repeatedly pointed the council toward a courtroom. He did so again recently in the budget workshops when it began to “devolve back to what we’ve been struggling with since my first day on the job.”

“This is not an insolvable problem,” Messer told the council, explaining that judicial clarification could prevent them from “chasing our tails in these meetings.”

Until a court said otherwise, the attorney continued, Hayward would be the final authority when it came to charter disputes with council members.

“The mayor’s sort of like Bruce Springsteen, at this point,” Messer said. “He’s the boss.”

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