Pensacola and Escambia County proved once again in 2013 their ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. When things seemed to be heading smoothly, egos, hidden agendas and politics interjected themselves to derail the progress yet again.
How else can you explain that this nation’s first settlement only has 50,000 residents after 454 years?
The Greater Pensacola Chamber, Escambia County Government Complex and Pensacola City Hall all experienced meltdowns. The intrigues rivaled “Game of Thrones” with a different character killed off nearly every month-Brian McBroom, John Asmar, Bill Reynolds, Derek Cosson, Randy Oliver, Jim Hizer, Larry Aiken, Clyde Mathis, Lee Gore and George Touart, just to name a few.
The chamber and county seem to have calmed down, but Mayor Ashton Hayward’s latest ambush of Collier Merrill and The Fish House has people scratching their heads.
The top winner for 2013, Pensacola City Council, and top loser, Greater Pensacola Chamber, were not difficult choices, but we may surprise you with a few of our other choices. Let us know whom you think we missed.
Pensacola City Council
This past year the legislative branch of Pensacola’s city government solidified its role under the new charter. I’m not sure whether the difference was P.C. Wu taking over the council presidency, the hiring of Lila Cox as the council executive, the addition of four new council members or simply the members finally figuring out how to work together.
The city council successfully pushed Mayor Ashton Hayward to appoint city resident Bentina Terry over his original choice, David Penzone, to the Escambia County RESTORE Advisory Committee. Terry was later selected as the committee’s first chairperson.
Amazingly the council’s unity did not shatter when Councilman Larry Johnson proposed in the spring a charter amendment to eliminate the two at-large seats. If anything, the body became more effective after the referendum passed, showing they had become less of a “rubber stamp” for the mayor’s initiatives.
The city council stood firm on the airport food services contract going to local operators, which forced the mayor to pull the item off the council’s agenda indefinitely. They also have agreed to review the city’s policies regarding food trucks.
Most recently, the city council passed on first reading a domestic partnership registry. Such registries provide some basic legal rights for two unmarried people—a non-family caretaker, elderly couples who stand to lose benefits if they were to wed, or couples who simply don’t want to marry or cannot legally marry—but whose lives are intertwined and would benefit from the legal rights that convey with a domestic partnership.
Will the Pensacola City Council hold itself together in 2014? My guess is no. After all, this is Pensacola.
Four members are up for re-election—Wu, Johnson, Sherri Myers and Brian Spencer. Megan Pratt loses her at-large seat because of the aforementioned referendum. Charles Bare has pre-filed to run for mayor in 2014. There will be a lot of competition for attention next year.
Steven Barry & Lumon May
The two newcomers to the Escambia Board of County Commissioners have finished a remarkable first year. They have not sat quietly waiting for the others to show them the ropes. Instead, they have fought hard for their constituents, refusing to bow down to more seasoned veterans on the board.
Barry and May have two very different styles.
Barry speaks sparingly during the televised meetings, but when he does, he speaks directly to the issue without pandering to members of the audience or those watching online. He hasn’t been afraid to challenge county staff or his fellow commissioners, but often does it without raising his voice.
Likewise, May doesn’t back down from a fight. He uses humor to soften his criticisms, but he isn’t afraid to speak his mind or question what is happening inside county government.
This odd couple has dealt with county administrator searches, the turnover of the Escambia County Jail, tourism, economic development, mass transit and the Emerald Coast Utility Authority’s attempt to move its waste collections outside the county. And they did it while keeping their sanity.
It’s only fitting that May be the commission chairman and Barry his vice-chairman for the coming year.
Rishy & Quint Studer
The Studers are a two-person economic development catalyst for downtown Pensacola. Though the mayor likes to take credit for their efforts, the couple has transformed downtown over the past two years.
We all know about the Pensacola Blue Wahoos and the energy that the Cincinnati Red’s Double-A affiliate has brought to the community, but this is only one part of their contribution to the local economy.
Their office building at the Community Maritime Park went from a $12-million to a $16-million investment when they signed an agreement with a tenant that called for an additional floor to be built.
On Palafox Street, the Studers own the Rhodes Building and two corners of the intersection of Palafox and Main streets. Bodacious Olive, Bodacious Brew and Carmen’s Lunch Bar are consistently busy, and The Artisan building, which is next door to Jackson’s Steakhouse, will open next year.
Earlier this year, the Studers made an offer for the Pensacola News Journal’s offices and parking lot. We hear the deal is progressing and there have been rumors that they will build apartments on the site. The YMCA is another option that we’ve heard.
The Studers also own the site of the old Waterfront Mission on the corner of Baylen and Main streets and have yet to decide what they will build there. They recently bought the buildings across Main Street next to Al Fresco and we’ve heard a florist may go into that spot.
As a young sailor in Vietnam, he survived the muddied, bloodied waters of the Mekong Delta. He was elected to serve as a Pensacola city councilman, then named mayor and later served as the majority leader of the Florida House of Representatives. Maygarden has repeatedly proven his leadership and his ability to get things done.
He began this year as the new chairman of the West Florida Historic Preservation, Inc. Board of Directors, now operating under its new name, UWF Historic Trust. University of West Florida President Dr. Judy Bense asked Maygarden to specifically champion historic tourism and serve as a special liaison for Historic Preservation to her office.
In August, Maygarden was selected to be the interim president of the Greater Pensacola Chamber to help restore public confidence in an organization reeling from the loss of its CEO, an investigation in how it handled BP gift cards and questions on its tourism marketing. Within a month, he was named president and CEO of the chamber, dropping the “interim” designation.
The Gulf Power vice president is clearly destined for greater things. We might not have her in the area much longer, but her impact on this community has been monumental.
As previously mentioned, Terry serves as the chair of the Escambia County RESTORE Advisory Committee. In February, the Greater Pensacola Chamber named her Community Leader of the Year for her efforts as the co-chair of the Chamber’s Vision 2015 initiative for economic development and for her work with the Community Maritime Park Board that ensured several minority contractors were given the opportunity to be a part of the project.
She also chairs the Florida Chamber Foundation. At the opening ceremonies of the 2013 Future of Florida Forum, Terry delivered the foundation’s annual state-of-the-state report.
Terry was ranked No. 3 on the 2013 IN Power List. If she is still in Pensacola next spring, we expect to see her higher on the list.
One of the initial supporters for a “strong mayor” for Pensacola, Peacock has had a significant impact on the greater Pensacola area.
His Panhandle Charitable Open, the annual golf tournament in memory of his son John Ryan Peacock, has contributed over $400,000 to local non-profits since 2006. The 2013 tournament raised a record $95,000 that was given to local charities, including Gulf Coast Kid’s House, Council on Aging, and Child Guardians, Inc.
Last year, Peacock moved his residence and his Edward Jones office to downtown Pensacola and immediately became more involved in city politics. Mayor Ashton Hayward appointed him to the Downtown Improvement Board.
Since then, Peacock has lobbied hard for the funds needed for bollards to be installed along south Palafox to make Gallery Nights and other events hosted on the city’s main downtown street safer. Those bollards were installed this fall.
The Northern Judicial District of Florida Chief Judge has made re-entry and lowering repeat offender rates priorities. She established in 2010 the Robert A. Dennis Re-entry Court to help ex-inmates make a successful transition to life outside.
Judge Rodgers has been the driving force for Re-Entry Alliance Pensacola (REAP), an initiative that matches former prisoners under federal supervised release with mentor attorneys to work together on community gardens.
Mayor Ashton Hayward has gotten involved with REAP. He and Judge Rodgers have joined forces to push for inmate job training, mentoring and therapy to alter criminal thinking to pro-social thinking.
This year Judge Rodgers, Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward and Dr. Ken Ford of the Florida Institute of Human and Machine Cognition partnered to bring to Pensacola “Pull of Gravity,” a 90-minute documentary that explores the challenges of re-entry and recidivism.
Pensacola Ice Flyers
Pensacola’s professional ice hockey team clinched the franchise’s first Southern Professional Hockey League championship in April with a 2-0 victory against the Huntsville Havoc at their home rink inside the Pensacola Bay Center.
As odd as it may seem, Pensacola loves its hockey. They followed the Ice Pilots until the team folded in 2008, and quickly shifted their allegiance when Ice Flyers came into town the following year as part of the newly-formed Southern Professional Hockey League.
The team’s name is both a tribute to Pensacola’s heritage in naval aviation and to original owner Tim Kerr, who previously played 11 seasons with the National Hockey League’s Philadelphia Flyers.
In October, the Ice Flyers celebrated their 2013 championship by raising a banner at the Pensacola Bay Center and defeating the Columbus Cottonmouths 6-2. Over 4,400 fans watched and cheered for their home team. Expectations are high for another President’s Cup trophy.
Greater Pensacola Chamber
At the first of the year, Chamber CEO Jim Hizer was praised for his leadership in the success of the Vision 2015 campaign in exceeding its goal of raising $6.5 million to attract 3,000 new jobs to the community. By the end of May, the chamber’s executive committee was telling Hizer that his leadership was no longer wanted.
In February, the annual audit of the Greater Pensacola Chamber found irregularities in a BP-financed gift card program the chamber had run since 2011, which led to a special investigation into the program. Hizer led the blame on his former CFO Brian McBroom, which led to McBroom filing lawsuits for $3.62 million against Hizer and the chamber in March.
In June, Chamber officials tried to block the Pensacola News Journal from attending an executive committee meeting, which prompted the state attorney to investigate whether the chamber had to operate under the Florida’s Sunshine laws. The state attorney later issued a report the chamber needed to comply with the state’s open meeting and public records laws because it was receiving public funds for tourism and economic development.
Then there was the $270,857 30-second, television commercial that Nashville-based firm BOHAN Advertising produced for the chamber to promote tourism. Local ad agencies and production companies howled at the invoices. Once again the chamber was placed on the defensive for not using local talent.
By the end of the summer, things had calmed down for the Greater Pensacola Chamber. The audit of BP gift cards accounted for all but $4000 of the $518,500 cards.
Hizer left the chamber in August with no fanfare. Former Pensacola Mayor Jerry Maygarden was hired as his replacement. John Hutchinson, a Gulf Power vice president, resigned from the chamber board before he was sworn as the organization’s chairman for 2013-14. Attorney Gary Huston replaced his chairman.
In September, Judge Boles dismissed the lawsuits by McBroom against the chamber and Hizer. The judge did give the plaintiff’s attorneys an opportunity to re-file their suits on breach of contract and defamation. Several counts of the McBroom lawsuits were dismissed, but the judge allowed him to re-file.
As the public scrutiny died down, the hotel industry made its push with the Escambia County Commissioners to take control of the tourism tax revenues away from the chamber and place under a new organization, Visit Pensacola, Inc., that they would control. On Dec. 5, the Board of County Commissioners voted to do it.
Pensacola’s daily newspaper has a sales contract for its building, has divested itself of most of its production staff and operations and has nearly turned over its editorial staff.
Gone are Publisher Kevin Doyle, Interim Publisher and Marketing Director Rebecca Boles, Executive Editor Dick Schneider, Managing Editor Ginny Graybiel and columnist Shannon Nickinson. The reporting staff has lost Nate Monroe, Erin Kourkounis and Eric Heisig.
The daily issues are thinner. The photos are bigger and the articles shorter. It’s not unusual to find an editorial written by the Tallahassee Democrat, another Gannett-owned newspaper, substituting for one written locally.
Sadly the cutbacks have very little to do with the profitably of the News Journal. For decades, Pensacola’s daily newspaper has been a “cash cow” for Gannett. However, the staff and budget cuts are tied to corporate demands to improve the overall profitability of the newspaper division of the organization.
As Gannett continues to prop up its stock prices, it’s difficult to predict what will happen next for the News Journal.
Emerald Coast Utility Authority
The utility had two goals this year—take its solid waste somewhere other than the Perdido Landfill, which is owned by Escambia County, and sell the downtown block that once was the site of its Main Street Wastewater Treatment Plant.
ECUA signed an agreement with Southern Waste Recovery to take residential and commercial trash from unincorporated Escambia to a yet-to-be constructed facility in Baldwin County, Ala., rather than to the county’s landfill. It argued that its plan was an environmentally progressive alternative to burying garbage in the Perdido Landfill and would provide at least a $1 million yearly cost savings.
The county argued that the plan would turn the landfill from a revenue producer for the taxpayers into a financial drain and Southern Waste Recovery did not have the ability to fulfill the contract.
In October, the News Journal reported that California-based Rainbow Environmental Services, the parent company Southern Waste and West Florida Recycling, was no longer directly involved in the project. Rainbow was the key player that convinced the ECUA board to give Southern Waste a 15-year contract.
ECUA approved in July selling the Main Street site to Texas developer Aaron Wiese for $7.6 million. When it was learned Wiese had been arrested for DUI earlier in the month, the deal collapsed.
This past year, Rick’s Blog picked up a new reader, Rachel Terry. Her comments showed that she loved Mayor Ashton Hayward and praised the leadership of outgoing Pensacola City Council President Sam Hall.
Terry was not a big fan of Councilwoman Sherri Myers. She wrote, “Name me one elected official in Escambia County filled with more hate than Sherri Myers.”
She appeared to have problems with other women too. Terry posted, “Barbara Mayall, Sara Beard, Diane Mack, Dixie Miese, Dorothy Dubuisson, Georgia Blackmon, Liz Watkins and Ann Regan need another outlet for their petulance.”
Terry also didn’t like Councilman Charles Bare, who defeated Hall for the at-large council seat. She said, “He won against a weakened candidate, one who was the victim of political fallout and poor health.”
A background check into the posts revealed that Rachel Terry wasn’t the name of a female reader. No, it was former Pensacola City Council President Sam Hall. He had started posting on the blog in November 2012. In April 2013, Hall created a fake Facebook page, using photos from a hiking magazine, for anyone checking into Terry’s identity.
You can’t make this weird stuff up.
The former Air Force officer and state lawmaker was the first African American and first woman elected Lieutenant Governor of Florida. She softened the harsh image of Governor Rick Scott. Well, at least, that was the plan.
In March, Carroll resigned following allegations that she was involved in an effort to steer money into Internet cafes owned by Allied Veterans of the World that were alleged fronts for gambling, the subject of federal and state criminal investigations.
Her resignation came shortly after Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigators questioned her about Allied Veterans, which Carroll once represented as a public relations consultant. She was not accused of wrongdoing, but she said she resigned to avoid being a distraction to Scott’s administration.
In October, Kelly Mathis, the group’s attorney and the first of 57 defendants to go on trial, was found guilty of racketeering.
The Independent News discovered earlier this year that the general counsel for the University of West Florida was under investigation by The Florida Bar for practicing law without a license.
When first questioned by the paper, the university claimed that Gore, who had previously served as the general counsel at the University of Southern Mississippi, had passed the bar in February 2013, and was serving as “Special Assistant to the President” within the General Counsel’s office until the investigation was complete.
Last month, we learned Gore had been terminated from that position as of Oct. 31. He was moved to assistant to the provost, Martha Saunders, who was USM president with Gore.
Gore isn’t expected to be employed by UWF much longer.
Pensacola Bay Transportation
The Mobile-based company that handles transportation for Escambia and Santa Rosa counties was heavily criticized by its workers and passengers for unsafe vans and long delays in picking up its clients.
On May 16, a Pensacola Bay Transportation Ford E-450 van burst into flames. Fortunately, the last passenger had been dropped off and the driver jumped out of the van just minutes before it became completely engulfed in flames.
According to the Escambia County Transportation Disadvantaged Service Plan (TDSP) FY 2013/2014, the van had 288,308 miles on its odometer. Of the remaining 28 vehicles that the transit company operates for the disadvantaged, 10 have more mileage. One, a Ford E-350, has 458,199 miles and 14 are at least 10 years old.
Owner Margie Wilcox has blamed the county for not buying her company new vans. County officials are looking into taking over the service sometime next year.
Westboro Baptist Church
The Wichita, Kan., church has gained notoriety for its protests of military funerals because its pastor’s belief that those servicemen and women died because of America’s lax attitudes toward homosexuality.
When rumors that the Westboro Baptist Church would be protesting at the funeral of Army Staff Sgt. Jesse Thomas, a Pensacola High alumnus, thousands came to the service at East Hill Church of God in Christ on Jordan Street. They came waving American flags and holding signs to honor the fallen soldier and show support for the family.
Westboro Baptist had issued a news release stating church members would protest the service, but they didn’t show.
Pensacola responded that Saturday, “Don’t mess with our heroes.”
Mayor Hayward’s Year: Win, Lose & Draw Edition
This year has definitely been a mixed bag for the city of Pensacola’s first strong mayor, Ashton Hayward. The voters and media are not as easily swayed by his bright smile as they were back in 2011.
His speeches are becoming a little worn. His favorite sayings like “Day One,” “Perception is Reality” and “Pensacola is open for business” have vanished. Instead he is referring to himself in the third person, which is never a good sign.
For most elected officials, there is a path normally followed. The first year is when all the initiatives are introduced, usually within the first 100 days while still in the “honeymoon period.” The second year is the hardest year, when the official gets pushback and must modify programs. The third year is when all of those initiatives bear fruit, leading to a smooth fourth year that in turn, helps the official glide into a re-election campaign.
Hayward has taken a different path. His administration didn’t harvest much “fruit” in 2013, which is why we created this “Win, Lose & Draw” review of his year.
Win: In early November Southwest Airlines launched service from Pensacola International Airport.
Lose: Several projects touted by the mayor in 2012—Majestic Candies, Pen Air Federal Credit Union and Project “High Hat” at the port never came to fruition.
Draw: Project Stallion is still a possibility. The not-so-secret deal has been reduced from 500 to 350 potential employees at the commerce park at the airport. County commissioners have balked at the city’s request of $10 million to complete the deal.
Win: The mayor announced at his 2013 State of City address, “Our City budget has been reduced by nearly $30,000,000.”
Lose: Handing over the library system to the county made up $4.8 million of that reduction. Another $19.8 million came from the city’s enterprise operations—Pensacola Energy Services (down $11.8 million), Pensacola International Airport ($4 million) and Port of Pensacola ($392,900).
Draw: The city is not broke, but it is strapped for cash—primarily due to decisions by city councils prior to his election in 2010. The mayor is battling Quint and Rishy Studer, Ray Russenberger and Collier Merrill in an attempt to get them to renegotiate their contracts with the city. It’s too early to see if the mayor will win those fights.
Win: The Pensacola International Airport and Port of Pensacola have new directors.
Lose: Pensacola Energy’s revenue for this past fiscal year was $7.3 million below its budget, the Port $400,000 below and the Airport $3.7 million below. The city adjusted its expenses to cover the shortfalls, but the drops in revenue aren’t healthy signs for the future of the city’s “businesses.”
Draw: Sanitation Services showed a $585,700 profit for fiscal year 2012-13. However, the county is trying to purchase the business from the city to give Mayor Hayward the $10 million he needs for Project Stallion.
Win: Hayward appointed Amy Miller as the director of the Port of Pensacola, after Clyde Mathis was forced out of position for reasons not disclosed by the Mayor’s Office.
Lose: Hayward still hasn’t recommended anyone to the city council to serve as the fire chief. African-American Joe Glover has been denied the position because he refused to drop the appeal on his discrimination lawsuit against the city.
Draw: His diversity study, which cost the city $250,000, was adopted by the city council in August 2012. It was completely ignored in his 2013 State of the City address. The city council held a workshop on the study on Dec. 9.
Win: The American Institute of Certified Planners named Palafox Place one of 10 “Great Streets in America for 2013.”
Lose: Few of the recommendations made by the mayor’s Urban Redevelopment Advisory Committee have been enacted by the city. Mayor Hayward told the media last month that the city doesn’t have the funds and must spend its dollars wisely. The recommendations were made over a year ago.
Draw: The influx of new businesses and more competition has divided the profits for downtown businesses. The city needs to work on drawing more customers downtown.
Win: Mayor Ashton Hayward brought in the First Amendment Foundation to hold a seminar for his employees about how the state’s public records work. He took the responsibility for processing public record requests away from City Clerk Ericka Burnett and hired Jane Ballard as his Public Records Coordinator.
Lose: The seminar was done only after his former public information officer pled guilty to not releasing a public document and the state attorney’s office issued a report criticizing how his administration was handling requests.
Draw: Mayor Hayward initiated “Mornings with Mayor” to allow local media to discuss issues and ask him questions directly on a weekly basis. The first session was held Oct. 15. The second chat was three weeks later on Nov. 5. No more sessions have been scheduled.
Win: Mayor Hayward has hired women to three key positions—Colleen Castille (City Administrator), Tamara Fountain (Communications Administrator) and Amy Miller (Port of Pensacola).
Lose: The mayor has yet to present to city council a fire chief candidate. We’ve been told by a city official that Clark Merritt, who was hired last year as the mayor’s Chief of Economic Opportunity and Sustainability, is being transferred to the port. Other long-time department heads are expected to leave city hall in the coming months.
Draw: The mayor’s two top policy advisors are Castille and Fountain. Neither lives in Pensacola or Escambia County. Neither has ever worked for a city government prior to being hired by Mayor Hayward.