Pensacola, Florida
Sunday August 19th 2018

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City Voters Losing Confidence

But They Still Love Their Mayor
By Rick Outzen

Pensacola voters’ confidence in the direction of their city government has slipped further since the Pensacola Young Professionals conducted their Quality of Life Survey, according to a survey completed by St. Pete Polls for the Independent News.

However the same poll showed that voters aren’t ready to blame Mayor Ashton Hayward for the loss of confidence, though they may not vote for his re-election.

Since PYP polled Pensacola voters for its Quality of Life report in June, the city of Pensacola has been rocked with the firing of City Administrator Bill Reynolds and a state attorney’s report that charged Reynolds and former Mayor Press Secretary Derek Cosson for violating the state’s public records law. The state attorney also questioned how the mayor’s administration handled public record requests, which prompted Mayor Hayward to hold, at taxpayers’ expense, a full day of training for his employees at the Saenger Theatre.

The Independent News hired StPetePolls.org to see what the impact of those events was on Pensacola voters’ perception of Mayor Ashton Hayward and his administration. StPetePolls.org conducts General St. Petersburg polls regularly, about once every 45 days, to track the trending of opinion on several topics. The organization accurately predicted Mike Hill’s victory in the GOP primary for House District 2, and even identified the point when Hill moved ahead of the early favorite, Ed Gray III.

Loss of Confidence
The PYP survey showed that before the firing of Reynolds and the state attorney report, 71 percent of the city’s voters believed the city of Pensacola was headed in the right direction. Though that is a drop of 18 percentage points from the 2012 survey, the number reflected a “relative degree of hope that things will continue to improve,” according to PYP.

Since then, that “degree of hope” has fallen 28 points. By August 19, only 44 percent of Pensacola voters believed that their city was moving in the right direction. The percentage of unsure respondents jumped from 5.6 percent to 25.1 percent.

Since he fired his city administrator, Mayor Hayward has been nearly invisible. He hired an interim administrator, Colleen Castille, and stepped up the training day. He did hold in early August his first Common Sense Pensacola class to teach people how to better handle their money, which got him some press, and launched his “Upwords” newsletter. However, for the first time in his tenure, Hayward did not give a “State of the City” address when he delivered the budget to the city council.

The political strategy of dodging difficult public conversations on city issues appears to have worked. While voters are less confident about the direction of the city, they aren’t ready to blame their mayor for it. More rated his performance “excellent” in the IN poll than they did in June, 22—15 percent. However, more voters were unsure about Mayor Hayward, which brought his overall positive rating down seven percentage points, 57—64 percent.

What Inferiority Complex?
When PYP announced on Aug. 7 the results of the Quality of Life Survey at the Greater Pensacola Chamber’s Gopher Club breakfast, Mayor Hayward and other community leaders were present to hear the good news.

When the daily newspaper asked him about the results, Hayward said, “People believe we can be a real city and we don’t have to have an inferiority complex.”

Few mayors would say that their citizens have an inferiority complex, but Hayward may not be far off in his assessment.

The Independent News asked Pensacola voters whether they believe the city has an inferiority complex. One of five voters strongly agreed with the mayor. Another 28 percent somewhat agreed. A little over a third of Pensacola voters disagreed, and 15 percent were unsure.

However, the recent events at city hall haven’t shaken the voters’ confidence in the new city charter that created the strong-mayor form of government. Hayward is the first mayor elected under the charter and is the chief executive officer of the city and in charge of its operations. Prior to 2010, Pensacola was run by a city manager and the mayor’s role was more ceremonial.

The IN poll found that 61 percent believe the city is run better under Mayor Hayward than the city-manager form of government. Only nine percent strongly disagree.

Re-election Challenge
Despite the majority of Pensacola voters having a positive rating of his job performance, they aren’t so sure about re-electing him.

When asked if they would vote for Ashton Hayward for mayor if the election was held today, only 47 percent answered “yes.” One of four replied “no” and 27 percent weren’t sure.

In head-to-head battles with two candidates that have pre-filed, Donna Clark and former City Councilwoman Maren DeWeese, Hayward got over half of the votes. The challengers each failed to receive more than 15 percent of the votes.

Escambia County Commissioner Gene Valentino, who lives inside the city limits at Port Royal Condominiums, has frequently been mentioned as a possible candidate for mayor. His second term ends next year. Valentino shouldn’t make the jump to city office, according to the IN poll. He got the fewest number votes of any challenger, 9.4 percent.

However, two other county officials did much better against Hayward, though the mayor still received over 40 percent of the votes. Supervisor of Elections David Stafford got 21 percent to Hayward’s 44 percent. Stafford won re-election last year to his third term.

Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson did the best of any of the challengers, garnering 24 percent to Hayward’s 43 percent with a third of the voters unsure.

Neither Stafford nor Robinson have said that they would run for Pensacola mayor in 2014, but they appear to have the name recognition and reputations to challenge Hayward.

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