The email invitation was a surprise: “Join us for Mornings with the Mayor. This one-hour meeting welcomes all press and media partners to sit down, bring forward your pressing questions, and get answers straight from the source.”
We later learned that Mayor Ashton Hayward had gotten the idea from Todd Strange, the mayor of Montgomery, Ala., whom he had visited to see how that city had revitalized its downtown.
Prior to becoming mayor, Strange served as chairman of the Montgomery County Commission for nearly five years. He also was the former president, CEO, and co-owner of Blount Strange Automotive Group. An experienced politician and business leader, Strange worked hard to keep open lines of communication.
“We went to city hall and it was unique because Todd meets with the media once a week,” said Hayward. “I was talking to my team that we should invite the media once a week. The media always has opinions and objectively reports the news. I’m sure they want to know what’s happening at city hall and hear my ideas.”
The “Morning with Mayor” was a dramatically different approach for a mayor and his staff that had, in the past, its favorites for “news leaks” and appeared to shut out those who wrote articles them deemed as unfavorable. The Independent News had once been dropped from all city press releases, and its blog had been blocked on city servers.
The meeting was the first opportunity in nearly a year that the Independent News had been given to directly ask the mayor any questions. Prior to the Tuesday morning session, all questions were handled through his media handlers.
However, the recent shake-ups, layoffs and other departures at the daily newspaper—and an upcoming re-election bid in 2014—appeared to have made Hayward more open in dealing with the media.
Talk of Ambush
Mayor Hayward handled the session surprising well. He was his usual smiling, affable self. He did tend to overtalk and run together some of his ideas, but considering the relative inexperience of the reporters in attendance, he had few troubles in the room…other than maybe the Independent News.
The only time voices were raised was in the discussion on how Hayward felt the Collier Merrill, Rob Mackey, and others had “ambushed” the city council three weeks earlier over the contract for food services at the Pensacola International Airport.
Merrill’s The Fish House and Mackey’s Bagelheads are part of the Creative Food Group that had finished second to the St. Louis-based OHM Concessions in the bid process. Under OHM’s plan, nationally branded franchises – Chick-fil-A, Einsten Bros. Bagels, Surf City Squeeze and Corona – would open up shop in the airport.
The Fish House and Bagelheads had attended the Sept. 26 council meeting, along with other partners Varona’s and Pensacola Bay Brewery, to protest the fairness of the selection process. While they had not filed an official protest with the mayor’s office, Merrill had been told by City Administrator Colleen Castille to voice their objections directly to the council at the meeting.
The city council voted to table the issue. At week later, Mayor Hayward had sent out a newsletter defending the process and his selection and accusing Merrill and his team of strong-arming the council and ambushing them at the meeting.
When asked about the “ambush,” the mayor said, “We put a process in place. We had a committee. They didn’t protest it. Let’s move on to the next deal.”
He explained why he had pulled the item off the agenda for the following council meeting.
Hayward said, “What I thought would be smart, since Mr. Johnson made the motion to table and it’s my agenda item, let’s look at this, let’s make sure that everything was done correctly. We feel like everything was done correctly.”
The mayor pointed out that Robert de Varona, who had held the food services contract for nearly two decades, was part of the consulting team and knew how to file a protest.
But was it an ambush?
“That’s what I called it,” said Hayward, “It was ambush.”
How so? Creative Food Group went to the council meeting as it was instructed to do by the city administrator.
“They did, but in my opinion I said it was an ambush,” replied Hayward. “You’ve said things that I’ve done, that I might not have thought that, but I don’t call and raise cane.”
But we’re right.
“Maybe you might think that, and as a journalist you should. I felt like it was an ambush, so we said it was an ambush,” said the mayor. “They’re good people. We all have skin in the game.”
He added, “We will see what happens. They might win. If they do, we will move on. We’re going to support them and were going to say let’s make Pensacola a better place. I’m a big boy. Sometimes you win ‘em, sometimes you lose ‘em. It’s not one person against another.”
The mayor said that he felt that not voting for OHM Concessions was sending the wrong message to those outside Pensacola. “If we are going to do the process correctly, then we don’t care about bringing outside business to Pensacola.”
He went after the argument that some had made that his recommending OHM was a sign that he hasn’t supported local businesses.
“If I move into Pensacola and start a business, am I not local?” asked Hayward. “That argument is weak.”
He proudly held up a print out that he said showed that, to date, the city had spent $23 million with local vendors. “That’s pretty strong, so we do do business with local vendors.”
The mayor appeared to be surprised that the issue had blown up like it did. “There have been many people that have lost out on bids that are close friends, but they didn’t raise this kind of cane. “
Were they wrong to come to the council meeting?
He said, “No. Listen they wanted to make a point, I wanted to make a point. I’m going to visit their restaurants and I’m going to be friends with them.”
On Monday, Oct. 21, City Administrator Colleen Castille pulled the Airport Food Services contract off the agenda for the city council’s meeting on Oct. 24. It’s uncertain when the mayor will bring it back up.
The mayor said that there has been no progress on closing the fire pension and that he had made no decision on who will be fire chief—Matt Schmitt has been the acting chief since 2010.
He would like to renegotiate the Wahoo’s use agreement for the Bayfront Stadium. Hayward said, “I think we’re looking at a way we can all win together.”
There still are no plans for old Blount School property on Gregory Street, in which the city has invested $466,700.
“I don’t want to make a mistake—I’ve made plenty, obviously, in the past two years and nine months,” said the mayor. “Let’ s make sure that when we do something in Pensacola this time, it’s done right. I want the project over there to be stellar for the community that lives there. I think we can have something going there in the next 12 months.”
Hayward ended the session with a promise to hold more media chats and a request for help.
“I can tell you Pensacola is on the way up,” he said. “People with money are coming to Pensacola now. They are looking to come over here on the weekends. It’s not just Fairhope anymore. It’s Pensacola.”
Hayward added, “Because we’re talking it, we’re telling the story and we’re positive about that story. We should drive everything, and I need your help to continue to drive that.”
“I think we all know I’m focused on making our city great.”
“…in my opinion I said it was an ambush. You’ve said things that I’ve done, that I might not have thought that, but I don’t call and raise cane.”