The line was dead. Right at the perfect crescendo of a raging-bull rant, the phone had gone silent. The connection was lost.
“Actually, I hung up on you,” clarified Escambia County Commissioner Wilson Robertson.
The commissioner was at a boiling point. Fed up. At the moment, with editorial sentiments from IN publisher Rick Outzen concerning Interim County Administrator George Touart and the future expenditures of RESTORE Act funds.
“He knows that money is not going to be doled out by George Touart and his little friends,” Robertson said. “He knows this will be the most scrutinized expenditure of public money.”
It wasn’t the first time the former commission chairman has let his displeasure known since riding atop a fireball into his self-described final term. Robertson took an opportunity during last month’s swearing in ceremony to rail against local medial outlets—primarily the Pensacola News Journal for its coverage of his involvement last year with an Escambia County Equestrian Center hiree—and has continued ornery snipes since, including a near-dare to disgruntled citizens to “fire us.”
The next morning, Robertson seemed to have cooled off. Still pissed, but approachable. He took a seat in his county office and elaborated his positions on a number of matters … the media, RESTORE, politics, the rehiring of Touart and firing of former administrator Randy Oliver, the Beulah interchange, public perception and the so-called ‘good ol‘ boys.’
“When I say I don’t have to worry about ramifications, what I mean is I’m going to spend four years voting my conscience,” Robertson began. “A lot of politicians are afraid to vote their best votes because they’re afraid of the ramifications and the politics.”
Giving Touart a Try Commissioner Robertson was part of the 3-2 vote that showed the former county administrator the door in October. He was never a big fan of Oliver’s, and wonders why he ever took the job with the support of a similar 3-2 split.
“He never unpacked, he never put nothing on the wall,” Robertson said. “He probably knew he wasn’t gonna be here long.”
Following the firing, both Robertson and Commission Chairman Gene Valentino denied speculation that former administrator George Touart would be coming back to fill the void. In November, they joined Commissioner Kevin White in voting to rehire Touart, who resigned following ethical questions in 2007.
“To tell why George is the guy?” Robertson said. “Who else would you ask to be interim, but Larry [Newsome]?”
Robertson recalled telling people at the time of the Touart rumors that he wasn’t pursuing the option. But his dismissal came with a caveat.
“I said I am not going to stand in the way,” Robertson said, explaining his willingness to go along with Valentino and White.
The commissioner laid Touart’s controversial past at the feet of commissioners who had worked with the former administrator. Robertson said White had recently spoken privately in defense of bringing back Touart and questioned the treatment the former administrator received, chiefly that he didn’t get his retirement benefits.
“He said, ‘we done George wrong,’” the commissioner said. “I’m just quoting what Kevin told me after he got off the board.”
There is some question as to how long Touart will remain at the county’s helm. Commissioner Grover Robinson has called for a quick turnaround on finding a permanent candidate. Chairman Valentino has stressed he wants to take his time.
Robertson said he’s looking forward to working with Touart, and would like to see the interim stay on through the county’s budget process.
“I would like to be here when we go though a budget process with George,” the commissioner said, “because he and Amy [Lavoy] are fantastic.”
Robertson also credited Touart with helping to guide Escambia in new directions.
“I think you’re going to see more MSTU line items like the library,” the commissioner said. “George has some great ideas.”
And what about questions posed by the press and the community regarding Touart’s baggage? What about the accusations and investigations? What about the speculation?
Robertson’s not overly concerned. He doesn’t envision ethical issues arising this time around.
“I’d be shocked,” the commissioner said. “Because George Touart is smart enough to know, he’s smart enough to know he’s under the microscope.”
One of the issues under a microscope—insofar as Touart, and otherwise—is the RESTORE Act process. County officials are presently beginning a journey that will eventually see them deciding how best to spend an estimated $100 and $200 million stemming from Clean Water Act fines levied against BP as a result of the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
“Mr. Touart just happened to come along at a time when it may look like it’s a bigger picture with this BP money, but I can tell you it had nothing to do with it,” Robertson said.
The Escambia County Commission has decided to establish an advisory committee to assess potential projects vying for the funds. Robertson has stressed the importance the committee as an attempt to insulate commissioners from political pressures and bristles at the notion that Touart was brought back to cherry pick projects.
“That money is probably so far down the road, George probably won’t have a hand in that,” Robertson said.
During recent commission discussions regarding the restructuring of the advisory committee, Touart stressed the commissioners’ ultimate role in RESTORE—“you’ve got one shot, one shot with this money”—and told them that county staff already had “a billion dollars worth of projects.”
While Valentino has stated several times in the past that the advisory committee could be easily scrapped, Robertson laughed off suggestions that the commission would ever walk away from the concept.
“People would come out of the woodwork, including me,” he said. “I’m gonna tell you, that ain’t gonna happen. There ain’t nobody, including Mr. Touart, that’s going to convince us not to have a committee.”
As for appropriate uses for the RESTORE funds, Robertson has consistently downplayed environmental angles in favor of economic development and infrastructure projects.
“I know there’s people out there that are gonna really push for environment—we got that covered,” he said. “There’s gonna be people screaming and the federal government’s got that covered.”
While Commissioner Lumon May is pushing for a blue-ribbon committee and Commissioner Robinson has said the advisory body should focus more on public input and long-range vision, Robertson consistently stresses the importance of creating immediate jobs with “shovel-ready” projects.
“I don’t want that money to be spent in any way but to create jobs,” the commissioner emphasized.
BP and Beulah One project that Robertson has repeatedly mentioned in relation to RESTORE money is an interchange on Interstate 10 in Beulah. Associated with a long-on-the-books sector plan in the area, the project is now being tied to Escambia’s chances of luring sub-contractor jobs connected with Mobile’s landing of Airbus.
“So, now it’s two-fold,” Robertson said. “It’s the sector plan and Airbus.”
The sector plan is basically a vision of explosive growth in the county. It’s been on the drawing board for a while—“as George said the other day, he’s been working on it since back when he was here”—and was approved a few years ago.
Robertson explained that the sector plan—“a little city within itself”—was mapped out when the “economy was flying.”
“That’s when they all started buying up that land, speculating,” Robertson recalled, before describing how the whole thing faded into the background as the economy tanked. “—there’s no real demand now, but there was then.”
With Airbus coming to Mobile, Robertson feels it’s time to get things rolling again in Beulah. If it’s waiting around for state money, a project like that could languish quite a while. RESTORE could change the timeline dramatically.
“If we don’t get that interchange and let people develop … we’re not gonna get any of those jobs,” Robertson said. “We’re gonna be too late.”
Chairman Valentino has suggested RESTORE money should be used to acquire land to offer companies looking to relocate. On economic development missions abroad he has also touted a theoretical industrial park located in the vicinity of the proposed interchange.
Robertson also talked about such a high-tech industrial park. He mentions the county might find itself needing to construct a 100,000-square foot spec building to better lure Airbus-associated companies—“and you know if you do, you’d be in the driver’s seat to land a lot of jobs immediately.”
Valentino has also defended his decision to support Touart’s return, saying he was privy to circumstances that the public was not. When asked if Valentino may have supported Touart with his aim set on development in the Beulah area, Robertson said he didn’t know the chairman’s motivation.
“I’ll put it this way,” Robertson said, “I’m happy to have him back because he’s absolutely familiar with things.”
Good Ol’ Boys and the Perception Question Recently, Commissioner Robertson has become noticeably riled with political speculation within the community. He complains about blogs during commission meetings, and has taken to responding to comments on web forums.
Robertson gets particularly cross-eyed when talk turns to the influence of “good ol’ boys” in county government. He’s not sure who comprises such a mythical group.
“People think I’m one of the ‘good ol’ boys,’” he said. “—I don’t know, I been here a long time.”
Robertson said that he thinks people believe that residents with deep roots in the community have a reciprocal network that benefits its own. He disputes such a notion.
“It’s just I’ve been here so long, here in business, got so many relationships,” the commissioner said. “I think we’re considered to be good ol’ boys because we have so many friends and relationships.”
The ‘good ol’ boy’ speculation has increased in recent months. Moves like Touart or discussions about the Beulah interchange project and RESTORE money tend to spike the needle.
Robertson is adamant that there is no reason for concern.
“You know, we’ve go a Sunshine Law, we can’t go in back rooms, closed-doors and cut deals,” the commissioner said.
During a recent commission meeting, Robertson talked about public perception. He told his fellow commissioners the RESTORE advisory committee was needed to ensure the public could trust in the purity of the process.
In his office, the commissioner again talked about perception. He conceded that he could understand how a seat in the public gallery over the past few months could be a bit discerning.
“If I was sitting out there as John Q. Public, sitting out there not knowing what’s going on down here,” Robertson said, “yes, I would have that perception.”