Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday September 2nd 2014

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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.”

Myers is the only member of council to pursue the judicial path. Others, primarily Jerralds, continue to push for an internal examination of the charter via a council retreat. He’s looking at January 2013.

Councilman Spencer would prefer the council continue to work through the issues as they arise. While he sees some of the drama as “more disruptive than productive,” the councilman is confident the body can iron out the wrinkles on their own.

“As messy and cumbersome as it may appear to the public, I’d rather work through these issues in public,” Spencer said.

During the budget workshops, the councilman told his fellow council members that he would be glad when the “training wheels” came off.

“Once that happens,” he later elaborated, “we can be more agile, we can be faster, more nimble—when I say ‘we,’ I mean the administration and council as a whole.”

Seventh Floor Vibe

While Myers’ lawsuit pertaining to Mayor Hayward’s memo involves specifics, much of the unrest among some members of council seem to be based on a general vibe they perceive coming from city hall’s seventh floor executive offices, where the mayor, city administrator, chief of staff and city attorney have their offices. It’s like they don’t feel the administration is always being square with them.

Paul Jones, who heads up the city’s Management Information Services (MIS) Department, is new on the job. Which explains why he seemed a little dazed by the focused line of questioning during his budget presentation.

“My whole career has been IT,” Jones told the board, when Councilwoman Myers asked him for some background.

The councilwoman was asking job specific questions. Establishing that Jones supervises employees, including managers. Running down budget numbers.

Council President Sam Hall took a shortcut and asked the obvious question: “Who’s your department head?”

It’s a fine point, but important. The city council approves department heads.

“Well, I run the department,” Jones replied.

“Oh, so you’re the department head?” Hall said.

Jones knew it got weird at this point, he just wasn’t exactly sure why. Later, Chief Financial Officer Dick Barker would clarify—“I’m not taking anything away from him”—that Jones answers to City Administrator Bill Reynolds.

“Nice cover,” Hall told the CFO.

“He doesn’t know the shell game that they like to play,” Pratt said of the new MIS head.

Earlier they had freaked out about not being able to approve the head of the Housing department, because it was not listed as a “major” department—“I just think that this is just a bit of a semantic game for us to keep in mind, because I think a $16 million dollar budget is a major part of our city’s budget,” said Pratt.

The rest of the council laughed, chided the department head, asked if she would take the “bait.” Pratt said she found “that kind of game playing offensive in light of the intent of the charter” and asked the city attorney for a clarification on what constituted a “major” department.

“I think that this council—all the laughter and nodding of heads—I think there’s an agreement that $16 million is not minor,” Pratt said.

Council members have complained of the seventh floor’s style, painting it as aggressive. In April, Hall said members of Hayward’s staff had “threatened” him over a Pen Air deal before the council. When the final vote was taken, Councilman Larry Johnson told the council he felt “like I’ve got a gun held to my head tonight.”

Hall later said he had discussed his concerns with the mayor and been promised a “new day.” The council president has declined to discuss specifics of that conversation.

“Any disagreements I have with Ashton, I have behind closed doors,” he said recently.

Hayward didn’t recall the specific conversation, or the “new day” reference.

“I think what Sam meant probably was that Ashton was going to address some of the concerns of council members,” Hayward said. “I think he was probably just saying ‘alright, let’s take a break.’”

The mayor is visibly uncomfortable discussing this discord. He bristles at the notion that his staff might “threaten” council members, and has requested the personal attacks on his staff stop.

“This is the only town I know that is this vicious,” Hayward said.

For some council members, the primary, and recurring, point of concern on the seventh floor is the mayor’s Chief of Staff John Asmar. This concern is most often voiced by council members Johnson and DeWeese.

“I think Mr. Asmar has become a tremendous distraction,” said Johnson.

DeWeese has taken up the issue on her blog. She’s posted Asmar’s emails, which, among other things, show a relationship with the publisher of The Independent News. After the Fraternal Order of Police, with whom the city is currently involved in union negotiations, announced it’d taken a ‘no confidence’ vote in Asmar, the councilwoman requested that Hayward address the issue.

The mayor shot DeWeese a sharp email, calling her request “ridiculous.” He wrote the union “no confidence” vote was a negotiating tactic and everything else was a personal attack. He said Asmar was directed to share information with the Independent News, Pensacola News Journal and other media outlets.

“Why are we ‘Mickey Mousing’ the little things?” he said. “It really is ‘Mickey Mousing,’ too. This is a grown up game.”

Hayward shrugged off the attacks and chalked them up to personality conflicts, and noted that the national political scene is packed with hard chargers like Asmar.

“When you said that,” Public Information Officer Derek Cosson said during the interview with Hayward, “I thought about Rahm Emanuel. Rahm makes John look like Tickle Me Elmo.”

Asmar has a reputation as a heavy. Effective, but blunt.

“Everyone’s not going to like everyone’s personality,” the mayor said.

The chief of staff is perceived in certain camps as having too great an influence on the mayor. The notion has given way to terms like ‘Puppet Master’ and ‘Darth Asmar.’

“There are no conspiracies on the seventh floor,” Hayward insisted. “This is not the John Asmar show. It’s easy to find a scapegoat when you want to find one.”

The chief of staff also downplays his influence on the mayor, stressing that he is one of many advisors.

“The mayor’s his own man,” Asmar said in early August. “He’s a freethinker.”

The chief of staff recalled a recent visit from Councilman Wu, during which he breached the subject with Hayward. Wu relayed the conversation to the council.

“There are people under the impression that John Asmar is sprinkling pixie dust and the mayor is walking around like a zombie, not knowing what is happening,” Wu said, explaining that he had taken the issue up with Hayward. “The mayor looked at me and said, ‘I know everything that is happening.’”

While Johnson and DeWeese have waded into the conspiracy theories surrounding the chief of staff, much of the council considers Asmar an infrequent—and apparently amiable enough—acquaintance. Hayward is quick to point out that Asmar recently enjoyed an “upbeat and excited” lunch with Councilwoman Myers.

“Let me clarify something, okay, there is no contention between the council and the mayor’s chief of staff,” said Myers, laying the issue at the feet of individual council members. “That should not be translated as the council, as a body, having any conflicts with Mr. Asmar.”

Townsend agrees, “I have a good relationship with him.”

Whether it’s the Asmar issue, budgetary specifics or some other aspect of discontent, the mayor has chosen not to hash it out with council. He sits confidently in the driver’s seat, even as his car’s engine threatens to throw a rod.

“I’m focused on producing and I’m focused on winning,” Hayward said. “Winning and producing for the city of Pensacola.”

‘Where is the mayor?’

Last fall, citizens flooded a city council meeting because they felt an ordinance proposed by the mayor would negatively target the area’s homeless. They were looking for a chance to engage the mayor, as council considered the ordinance.

“One question—where is the mayor?” a woman asked President Hall. “Why can we never see the mayor?”

The same question has been asked repeatedly. It’s rare to sight Hayward at a city council meeting. He showed up this summer to hand out certificates to citizens recently annexed into the city limits. He also made an appearance to deliver his state of the city address, and back in the spring to rescue the Pen Air deal.

Hayward has not sat down with the city council to discuss the rift, the growing pains.

“It’s petty and it’s small and it’s the last thing we need to be doing,” Hayward said in early August. “I didn’t run for office so I could be caught up in petty arguments with city council.”

The mayor said he considers his primary responsibility to be revitalizing the city. Selling Pensacola to the outside world. He’s concerned the constant insights into the city’s dysfunctional inner workings will turn off prospective residents and businesses.

“I don’t think Pensacola wants to be known as ‘we-can’t-get-it-done,’” Hayward said. “I think people understand there’s a vibe—we’re winners, we know how to get things done.”

The mayor said he is confident that any issues between his office and the council will be resolved as the new form of government progresses.

“I think at the end of the day that will come to fruition,” he said on his way back from a public relations trip to New York City.

Jerralds sees it differently. He believes some healthy, in-person communication would be beneficial for the council and the mayor.

“I just think it’d be a good idea to sit down and talk,” the councilman said. “It’s like a marriage. It’s amazing what a little face-time will do.”

Crystal Spencer, the attorney who chaired the charter review commission, said that her group had envisioned some amount of participation.

“I think it was contemplated that they mayor would be at some of the council meetings. Not all of them,” she said. “There probably needs to be some better lines of communication.”

Pratt agreed, “There’s sort of a lack of communication both ways and it’s feeding on itself.”