The Pensacola City Council is currently considering if its two at-large seats should be phased out. After a second public hearing this month, the issue heads to the voters during June’s special election for the District 2 House seat left empty by the late Rep. Clay Ford.
Council is split down the middle on their possible downsizing. With concerns being raised over how the loss of the at-large seats—which serve the entire city, rather than a single district—will impact minority representation, each side of the debate contend their respective positions would prove more favorable to the African-American community.
Council President P.C. Wu recently raced home from the Southern Municipal Leadership Conference in Savannah, Ga. to cast the clinch vote that would move the issue forward.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I would not have traveled a thousand miles if I thought it was going to hurt minorities,” Wu explained just before council cast its 5-4 vote during the first public hearing April 25. “I thought it was important enough to come 500 miles, walk in this building, vote and get in the car and drive 500 miles back.”
Councilman Larry B. Johnson placed the issue on the table during the council’s April 22 Committee of the Whole meeting. He had publicly talked up the idea for a couple of weeks. The Pensacola News Journal had already issued an editorial of support.
“Since I’ve been on council, I’ve been hearing from constituents: ‘our council’s too big,’” Johnson said at the COW. “We need to shrink council.”
Shrinking the council wasn’t a new idea. Johnson floated it last summer, though it was never formally discussed. Other council members have also spoken out in favor of such a move, contending it would put Pensacola more in line with similarly sized cities and also provide for a more efficient local government.
While some members warmly embraced Johnson’s lead, others raised concerns. They wondered if a month was enough time for adequate public digestion and input. They wondered if dropping at-large seats would eliminate a point of contact for the African-American community.
And they wondered why. And, why now?
“My question is the process,” said Judge Tom Dannheisser, “and I agree with the Vice President, if you’re going to approach amending our charter, the first amendment to our constitution, is this the most important issue?”
At-large Councilwoman Megan Pratt continued searching for answers during the first public hearing.
“Ultimately, I keep asking myself, ‘what is the problem we’re trying to solve?’” she said. “Are we creating jobs with this? Are we improving the lives of the citizens in this community? Are we improving city services? I mean, usually when we take action, it’s to try to solve a problem.”
Both of council’s African-American members—Vice President Jewel Cannada-Wynn and Councilman Gerald Wingate—expressed concerns about how the cut might impact the minority community. They were concerned a month wasn’t enough time for public input and that the special election would only attract a small number of voters to the polls.
“I just want to say, I don’t approve of what we’re trying to do here,” Wingate told his fellow members. “I really don’t see any sound reason from going from nine members down to seven. And I told the mayor earlier this morning, even Jesus had 12 disciples.”
Public comment during the first public hearing, delivered primarily by African-Americans, was also decidedly opposed to cutting the at-large seats. They raised concerns about the timeframe and the impact on minority representation.
They also raised concerns about a previous federal lawsuit that resulted in mandated minority-heavy districts to insure equitable representation. Georgia Blackmon recalled the issue coming up during the Charter Review Committee meetings; she said an attorney from the League of Cities had advised against dropping seats.
“At first she said, ‘I wouldn’t do that,’ and they kind of ignored her,” Blackmon told council. “And then she said, ‘if you do that, that lawsuit is gonna jump wide open.’ So, there’s a reason why things happen. I do not want to lose anything that has been fought for, not only for me, but for my children and my grandchildren. So, I’m totally against it, I think it’s wrong and unfair to the community to try to sneak it on that ballot.”
City Attorney Jim Messer said that the restraints of the lawsuit were no longer an issue. President Wu pointed out that dropping the at-large seats would increase minority representation on the council—three seats hail from minority-heavy districts.
“There’s a lot of scare being thrown out there,” said Wu. “But if you do the numbers—two out of seven is a heck of a lot better than two out of nine, or three out of nine, I don’t care how you slice the number. I don’t know of anybody on council that would even entertain this notion if they thought it was going to hurt the minority community.”
Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward said after the first public hearing that he thought voters should have the opportunity to decide the issue. If the council’s current vote-line holds through the second public hearing May 9, the council-reduction issue will be placed on the special election ballot.
“The ultimate public input is at the ballot box,” Johnson said during the first public hearing. “That’s the ultimate.”
SECOND PUBLIC HEARING – CITY COUNCIL REDUCTION
WHAT: The final opportunity for public input, prior to placing the issue before voters in June’s special election.
WHEN: 5:30 p.m. Thursday, May 9
WHERE: Pensacola City Hall, 222 W. Main St.