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2012 Winners & Losers

Picking winners and losers in an election year is relatively easy, but we at the Independent News chose to ignore the candidates, of course. Besides we prick and praise them on a weekly basis already.

We started the year with most of us thinking this would be a relatively quiet year. The Greater Pensacola Chamber, Escambia County Government Complex and Pensacola City Hall seemed to be headed to banner years. The Pensacola Young Professional’s Annual Quality of Life Survey showed most of the community was pleased with the direction the city and county were going.

However by October only the chamber seemed to have its act together. The city council imploded and the county commission booted out its county administrator, only to bring back the man they forced out five years ago. The public has been left wondering whether the area will ever get its mojo back. The top winner, Pensacola Blue Wahoos, and top loser, Pensacola City Council, are easy no-brainers, but we may surprise you with a few of our other choices. Let us know who you think we missed.

WINNERS

Pensacola Blue Wahoos
Picking the top winner for 2012 was easy. The Pensacola Blue Wahoos exceeded this community’s expectations in its inaugural season. Not only was the quality of baseball stellar—with Billy Hamilton setting the single-season stolen base record, a no-hitter and five players, shortstop Didi Gregorius, third baseman Henry Rodriguez, pitchers Pedro Villarreal and Tony Cingrani, making the leap to Major League Baseball with the parent club, Cincinnati Reds, but the family atmosphere was addictive.

The Blue Wahoos attracted 40 sellouts in 68 home dates at the Community Maritime Park stadium. The team had the highest overall attendance, 328,147 fans, in the Southern League and the highest average attendance—4,826, which is amazing since the ballpark only has 5,038 seats.

More over, owners Quint and Rishy Studer were committed to having a diverse work force at the park on game days. The club held job fairs at the Sanders Beach Community Center and Greater Little Rock Baptist Church. Everyone who filled out an application was interviewed.

The result was nearly half of the staff was minorities, and the team received praise from the national media and visiting baseball executives for its customer service and hospitality.

Though the team finished with a 68-78 record, the Blue Wahoos received four major awards. The Southern League honored the team with its 2012 Don Mincher Organization of the Year. Team president Bruce Baldwin was awarded by his peers the Jimmy Bragan Award as Southern League executive of the year.

Ballpark Digest also named the Pensacola Blue Wahoos as their Organization of the Year. Publisher Kevin Reichard attributed the award to the team’s astonishing first-season success.

“It’s a tribute to the strong operation put together by the Studers,” said Reichard in the press announcement. “Put together some experienced folks like Bruce Baldwin and Jonathan Griffith, add in a great ballpark and you have the making for success. Building a first-rate operation basically from scratch is an accomplishment worth noting.”

The park also was honored. Baseballparks.com, the popular website that annually reviews baseball stadiums all over the country, named Pensacola Bayfront Stadium the top new stadium in all of professional baseball. The park beat out the spring-training park and complex in Lee County, Florida for the Red Sox and Major League Baseball’s Marlins Park in Miami.

Baseballparks.com credited the design, fan amenities and site selection as contributing factors for the award. Past recipients of this award include AT&T Park in San Francisco, PNC Park in Pittsburgh and last year’s winner Salt River Field in Arizona.

“And with a uniquely different ballpark—one on the short list of having the best view in all of sports—as a blueprint for progress,” wrote Baseballparks.com in its announcement, “and additional financial development, the future is incredibly bright in Pensacola.”

Amen.

Dixon School of The Arts
We attended Escambia County School Board meetings and watched the district administration and school board admonish, berate and, at times, humiliate the leaders of this little inner-city school. Countless headlines were run branding the school as a failure.

With each attack and negative news article came more challenges for the school. Parents worried about the children’s education, teachers about their jobs. Prospective donors held off waiting to see if the school survived.

The reality is financial and academic problems that the school had to battle weren’t of its own making. The board of directors and management had completely changed over the summer of 2011, but the district administration and school board didn’t want to recognize the school’s $130,000 deficit wasn’t its current leadership team’s fault.

When it was revealed that the school district had withheld Title 1 funds, the administration labeled it an “oversight.”  When school supporters offered to buy school busses, the district tried to push on the school buses that were in such sorry condition that they cost more to repair than they were worth.

Despite these obstacles, Rev. LuTimothy May, Principal Kathy Bearden-Colbert, her teachers, the parents and children did not quit. Instead of becoming disheartened by the browbeating, they refused to accept the negative labels thrown at them.

When the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores and school grades came back, Dixon outperformed two of the district’s elementary schools, West Pensacola and Weis. In fact, the learning gains in Math and Reading matched the percentage gains at the much-heralded $17-million Global Learning Academy that had the benefit of hundreds of volunteer hours, including district administration employees.

Dixon did it with a black principal and teachers and without the latest equipment and technology. They did it with community and parental support.

Miracles still happen.

Math
Nate Silver proved that math wins over wishful thinking. The New York Times blogger correctly predicted the winner in 50 of 50 states in the presidential election and 31 of 33 Senate races. He said that President Barack Obama had a 90.9 percent chance of winning re-election.

Other political pundits either hedged their predictions saying the Obama’s margin of victory would be razor thin or, as in the case of Karl “Pac-man” Rove, touted a Mitt Romney landslide.

Silver, a statistician, used math to figure out the probability of an Obama victory.  He created a model that aggregated and weighted the plethora of polling data from each state. He took emotion out of the process and accurately computed the probabilities.

In an age of push polls and slanted surveys, Silver’s integrity and courage to stand by his predictions is refreshing and offers hope to all the math geeks out there.

Youth: Andreas Dias, Sara Papantonio and Mollie Johnson
This summer we saw high school students step up and become difference makers.

The Pensacola High student, Andreas Dias, created the first-ever Pensacola Kickstart Soccer Summer Soccer Program to expose children from low-income families to soccer. Dias, a midfielder for the Gulf Coast Texans, and other area players volunteered as instructors for the camp that was held in July at Lexington Terrace Park.

Gulf Breeze High School students, friends and soccer mates, Sara Papantonio and Mollie Johnson raised more than $10,000 over eight months to bring a week-long camp to AA Dixon Charter School in Pensacola. The pair recruited friends to volunteer as counselors for their “Kids Unlimited” Camp.

Dias, Papantonio, Johnson and their friends are shining examples of the next generation of community leaders.

Leadership Pensacola Class of 2012
The Independent News has a history of challenging the Leadership Pensacola classes to create service projects that will have a lasting impact.

With its Operation Hope, the 2012 LeaP class set out to renovate the USO centers at NAS Pensacola and the Pensacola International Airport. The group raised more than $130,000 in cash contributions and $70,000 for in-kind, far exceeding the original goal of $125,000.

The Pensacola Airport USO was rechristened “The Flight Deck” after it was expanded to 1,200 square feet and renovated with a new kitchen, carpeting, furniture, video games and flat-screen television. Operation HOPE also gave the USO center at Naval Air Station Pensacola an extreme makeover. The two facilities serve over 60,000 service personnel, their families and retirees every year.

The Greater Pensacola Chamber established in the fall of 1982 Leadership Pensacola to ensure the community’s pool of talented leaders would be continually renewed. The chamber hit the jackpot in 2012.

Women
This year women made up 53 percent of the national vote, and they voted for President Obama by 11 points over Republican Mitt Romney. Since 1952, Gallup has tracked the gender gap. This year’s gender gap between males and female votes was 20 percentage points, the largest ever using Gallup’s calculation method and the first time a candidate heavily favored by males didn’t win.

On the whole, female candidates, especially Democrats, did well across the country. New Hampshire elected a new female governor, Maggie Hassan, and two new U.S. representatives, Carol Shea Porter and Ann Kuster. The state has an all-female congressional delegation, which includes Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen.

The new 2013-14 Congress will have the largest number of incoming female House members since 1992, plus a record 28 women of color. For the first time, white men will be a minority in the House Democratic Caucus.

Despite having Republicans Olympia Snowe and Kay Bailey Hutchison retire, the U.S. Senate has 20 female members—also a record. The Senate added Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Tammy Baldwin (Wis.), Mazie Hirono (Hawaii) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.) to its roster and saw Maria Cantwell (Wash.) Kirsten Gillibrand (N.Y.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.) and Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) win re-election.

Not only did Romney’s “binders of women” comment not go over well with female voters, but Republican candidates who took extreme positions on rape were also soundly defeated. In Missouri’s U.S. Senate race, Rep. Todd Akin got in trouble when he argued in a radio interview that if women experience a “legitimate rape,” their bodies could avert unwanted pregnancies. In Indiana, Richard Mourdock, got trounced after he said pregnancies from rape are something “God intended.”

Unfortunately, the Republican House leadership may not have learned its lesson. Although Cathy McMorris Rodgers was selected to head the House Republican Caucus, House Speaker John Boehner gave all the key House chairmanships to his male colleagues.

Sigh.

LOSERS

Pensacola City Council, 2011-2012
The daily newspaper described the Pensacola City Council best when it said the gang of nine lived in a bubble. For the past two years, the council displayed a maddening inability to see how their bizarre antics and meandering meetings hurt their credibility with those they serve and provided fodder for those communities competing with Pensacola for new companies and jobs.

There won’t be any statues to honor the council of P.C. Wu, Sherri Myers, Maren DeWeese, Larry B. Johnson, John Jerralds, Brian Spencer, Ronald Townsend, Megan Pratt and Sam Hall.

Two council presidents failed to conflate the various agendas of their fellow members into a coherent positive plan and figure out how to work with Mayor Ashton Hayward to deal with the pension nightmare, nearly insolvent Community Redevelopment Agency and the other fiscal issues facing the city.

However, Pensacola got a mighty fine chicken ordinance.

The year began with Council President Sam Hall having to apologize to Rev. Nathan Monk for cutting him off from speaking to the council in December 2011. The Monk incident went viral on the web and Hall’s fellow council members were ready to boot him from the presidency.

The apology defused the situation, but Hall never recovered, eventually losing his re-election bid by more than 3,000 votes.

However, Pensacola got a mighty fine chicken ordinance.

Despite attempts by Council President Hall to clear the air between the council and the mayor—declaring once that he wanted “Kumbaya,” the council members descended into lawsuits against the mayor, attacks on the mayor’s chief of staff, city administrators and the city’s two newspapers, and unwelcomed forays into helicopter monuments, gospel festivals and Gallery nights.

However, Pensacola got a mighty fine chicken ordinance.

Bizarre conspiracies were floated by council members. The News Journal supposedly wrote critical editorials because Gannett wanted the city to buy its Romana Street office. Terrence Milstead turned down the council executive post because Ashton Hayward was his high school classmate. Chief of Staff John Asmar was “leaking” information to media without Hayward’s permission. All were untrue.

However, Pensacola got a mighty fine chicken ordinance.

Simple decisions like naming a council executive or selecting the city’s audit firm required subcommittees, hours of debate and byzantine political maneuvering.  Nearly every member had his or her own interpretation of the city charter and Florida law.

However, Pensacola got a mighty fine chicken ordinance.

The council did unite in September to cut out funding for the mayor’s new advertising agency and to reduce the budget of the mayor’s office. When Hayward vetoed the ad agency cut, the council alliance fell apart and the group failed to override the veto—which, of course, led to another debate over what was a veto.

However, Pensacola got a mighty fine chicken ordinance.

In the end, none of the four council members up for re-election, Hall, DeWeese, Jerralds and Townsend, were returned to office. Townsend retired. DeWeese dropped out of her race. Hall and Jerralds were defeated at the polls.

This is not a good omen for those facing the voters in 2014.

Did we mention Pensacola got a mighty fine chicken ordinance?

TEAM Santa Rosa
For nearly three years, the FBI and the State Attorney’s Office investigated the TEAM Santa Rosa, the private organization formed by the Santa Rosa County Commission and funded primarily through county tax dollars since 1992 to conduct the county’s economic development activity. The organization was hit with allegations of Sunshine Law violations, insider deals and mishandling of county funds.

In February 2012, Cindy Anderson, Team Santa Rosa’s executive director received a 60-day notice of termination from Board Chairman Dave Hoxeng in hopes that it would please the Santa Rosa County Commission and stall the demise of TEAM Santa Rosa. The irony is the Pace Chamber of Commerce had announced a month earlier that Anderson was its “Woman of the Year.”

Anderson’s firing only bought the group about five months. Hoxeng and others tried to push through a merger with the Greater Pensacola Chamber’s Vision 2015 but time ran out. The Santa Rosa County Commission terminated its contract with TEAM effective July 31.

In October, a state grand jury has found no reason to file criminal charges related to activities at TEAM Santa Rosa. Too little, too late.

Pensacola Veterans Memorial Park Foundation
The foundation and its president, John Pritchard, came under scrutiny after a series of News Journal articles found that the group responsible for maintaining Pensacola’s Veteran Memorial Park had used its funds for a building to house Pritchard’s VFW Post and no longer had the cash to care for the park.

In a letter to the Independent News, Joseph Halsted, who served as the foundation’s treasurer from 1989 until the Wall was completed in 1992, wrote that the Defense Commissary raised $500,000 to build the monument, that is a replica of the Vietnam War monument in Washington, D.C., and $500,000 for the ongoing maintenance.

“The Wall South Foundation agreement with the Defense Commissary Agency required that the funds must be placed in a perpetual blind trust with the Wall South Foundation only able to draw interest earnings for Wall Maintenance,” said Halsted. “The Commander of the Defense Commissary Agency, General John Dreska, specifically stated that he did not want ‘those Vets in Pensacola to build themselves a drinking hooch with his patrons money.’”

Mayor Ashton Hayward has appointed a steering committee to take over the memorial park and insure a recently awarded grant from BP for the park doesn’t go to stock the “hooch.”

Okaloosa Tourist Development Council
A year or so ago, everyone looked to Okaloosa County as having one of the best run TDCs in the region. Then, an invoice for a $710,000 yacht hit the county’s accounting department. TDC director Mark Bellinger said the boat was to be used for county tourism promotions.

Under fire from the Okaloosa County commissioners, Bellinger resigned. Two days later, the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office and the state attorney’s office had issued an arrest warrant related to the purchase of his $747,000 Destin home with money sent to the county by BP for oil spill restitution. Bellinger went missing and later was found dead in Alabama of an apparent drug overdose.

The county commissioners have since overhauled the TDC. Among the changes passed were tighter spending restrictions on advertising agencies on contract with the department as well as tighter spending limits for the director.

Florida Election Process
Election Day 2012 went fairly smoothly nationwide and wasn’t as close as Romney hopefuls had thought it would be. The presidential race was wrapped up before bedtime. The only holdout was Florida, where votes were still being counted into the weekend.

The state became a punch line for late-night hosts and fortunately Obama’s re-election was not doubted so the nation didn’t have to endure another hanging chad debacle like it did in 2000.

On Election Day in certain areas of Florida, voters waited more than seven hours to cast their ballots. Some stood in line even after the presidential election had been called for Barack Obama. Problems were particularly bad in the southern part of the state. There weren’t enough privacy booths for voters and some precincts didn’t have a sufficient number of scanners to record the votes.

Much of the blame is being placed on Florida Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled state legislature for measures that complicated voter registration efforts and a new law that cut early voting from 14 days to eight, with the Sunday prior to the election being dropped. The laws didn’t discourage minorities and young voters as GOP political strategists assumed it would and the Florida polls weren’t prepared for the deluge of voters.

Santa Rosa County had its problems and was the only county unable to report its absentee and early voting within an hour of the polls closing. Retiring Supervisor of Elections Ann Bodenstein blamed the machines and software for the snafu.

Scott and others have promised to fix the problem, but don’t hold your breath expecting any real improvements. The governor is up for re-election in 2014 with former Gov. Charlie Crist as his most likely opponent. Scott won’t want a big turnout.

Gerard Robinson
After a tumultuous year dealing with the implementation of tougher standards and shocking results of the new Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests, Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson surprised government officials when he abruptly submitted a letter of resignation in August, citing family reasons.

Robinson was lured in 2011 by Gov. Scott from Virginia where he was that state’s Secretary of Education. It didn’t go well for him.

The Florida Board of Education was forced to lower passing grades for the statewide writing tests after the passing rate plunged from 81 percent to 27 percent. When the number of schools receiving an “A” fell 1,481 last year to 1,124 in 2012, the department reissued grades for 213 elementary and middle schools and nine school districts as part of a “continuous review process.”  Oops.