Pensacola, Florida
Sunday November 23rd 2014

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Climactic Week in Pensacola Political Dramas
By Jeremy Morrison

The week began quietly. Mayor Ashton Hayward and Pensacola City Councilwoman Sherri Myers shared some casual Monday morning conversation as sunlight streamed through the window.

Soon the courtroom door would open. Soon it would begin. And it would last all week.

But for the moment, the fourth floor lobby of the M.C. Blanchard Judicial Building enjoyed an eerily cordial atmosphere. Hayward and Myers—and their respective attorneys—waited patiently to present arguments in the case of a lawsuit filed by the councilwoman against the mayor.

After that, the veto vote. And the High Road press conference. It was a week packed with a series of mayor-council back-and-forths that collectively served as the climactic unraveling of the long-running drama playing out within the halls of local government. For now, anyway.

In May, Hayward issued a memorandum requesting that all future communications between city council members and city staff be channeled through the mayor’s office. He said it would be a more efficient process and also prevent staff from feeling political pressure when contacted by a councilperson.

Myers filed a lawsuit in June, contending that the city charter allowed for council members to make “inquires” of city staff. She said such access was necessary to perform her duties, and that the mayor’s memo amounted to an overstep that she viewed as a “separation of powers” issue.

“It does not make logical sense that city staff cannot communicate with council members and vice-versa,” Myers’ attorney, Alistair McKenzie, argued at the Monday morning hearing.

The mayor’s attorney, J. Nixon Daniel, contended that Hayward was within his right to have communication between council and staff go through his office. The defense also focused considerable attention on definitions of words found in the charter—words such as “inquiry” and “deal with” and “conduct.”

“This obviously is an important case, it’s important to the citizens of Pensacola,” said Circuit Judge J. Scott Duncan, who promised a decision by week’s end. “I want to take some time in making my decision.”

Later on that day, the city council met for its Committee of the Whole meeting. With the mayor having vetoed one of the amendments the board made to his proposed 2013 budget, the council was considering if it should overturn Hayward’s veto.

“This is going to be one of the most important votes you will ever take on this city council,” Myers told her fellow council members.

In an earlier budget hearing, the city council had stripped $220,000 from marketing budgets and placed the funds into its own budget to hire staff. Hayward vetoed that move, maintaining that he needed the funds to realize new marketing efforts—including a city “re-brand”—detailed in the city’s new contract with Zimmerman Agency.

The council wouldn’t be voting on the override until Thursday. But the COW meeting didn’t suffer from a lack of mayor-council drama.

The council rejected Hayward’s appointee to the Downtown Improvement Board. Councilwoman Megan Pratt said the council should explore limiting the mayor’s purchasing authority and reworking his ability to reallocate funds within the city budget. Councilwoman Maren DeWeese suggested Hayward might have possible conflicts-of-interest, pointing to city contracts being awarded to companies whose owners have had professional relationships with the mayor.

On Wednesday, the day prior to the council’s override vote, Hayward called a press conference. He appeared before the media at city hall, flanked by three city council members and one councilman-elect.

“I have listened to the concerns of the city council,” Hayward said. “I want to build consensus between council and the mayor’s office.”

The mayor said he would begin attending “important” council meetings—his absence has been an issue for some members—and also offer the board regular reports from the administration. He referred to council members “manufacturing controversy” and asked that people “get past petty arguments.”

“I want to take the high road and I hope others will choose to do so as well,” Hayward said.

The mayor noted that the men standing with him were supportive of his vision for the city, and he said he felt his veto would be safe. After the mayor spoke, council members Brian Spencer, John Jerralds and P.C. Wu, along with councilman-elect Andy Terhaar, split off with members of the press to take individual questions.

Terhaar’s been attending council meetings recently as he prepares to take his District 3 seat in November. He’s bracing for the ride.

“It’s a little intimidating going to the meetings and seeing how the process is right now,” Terhaar said.

The next day, council addressed the mayor’s veto. Hayward stepped into the chambers just in time for the discussion.

While the council embarked on a spirited discussion, it was obvious from the onset that the six votes needed to override the veto didn’t exist. The final tally was 6-3, split, coincidentally, among gender lines.

With the veto standing, there’s only one question: what’s the definition of the word veto? Some members of council maintain that the mayor’s veto only zeros a line item in the budget, requiring council to make a supplemental budget resolution to return the funds to their original home.

The mayor’s office maintains that Hayward’s veto has the effect of hitting the reset button. “It’s the same budget now as when they started,” said City Attorney Jim Messer.

On Friday, Judge Duncan issued his ruling. Both Myers and Hayward claimed victory.

“As far as I can tell we received all the relief we were requesting,” McKenzie said.

The ruling was somewhat divided. Apparently, the mayor has the authority to institute a policy that prohibits direct communication between council and staff, except in the case of “inquiries.”

“I appreciate Judge Duncan’s wisdom and his ruling today in support of my policy,” Hayward said in a statement.

The city administration views the ruling as allowing inquiries by council members when authorized by the full council. McKenzie disagrees, calling that interpretation “really bad spin.”

Myers said she would soon test the judge’s ruling.

“I’m going to start calling city employees when I want to make an inquiry about something and we’ll see what happens,” she said. “If he doesn’t like it, he can take me to court.”