Over the course of any given year, the IN staff writes a wide range of cover stories. Some of those stories have a way of sticking out in the memories of those who researched, wrote, read and discussed them. When remembering 2013, a few stories resonated with several of us in the office—either as moving, upsetting, entertaining, or sometimes, simply as an issue on which some progress has been made. Luckily, several of the stories we reported on have seen developments since their print dates and are revisited here.
How Not to Do Business: City vs. The Fish House (December 5)
The story was prompted by the city’s notice, the equivalent of a white collar step-to, claiming that Seville Harbour, Inc. and Merrill Land LLC were in default of the terms of their lease of the city-owned property on which the Fish House and Atlas Oyster House sit. In the notice, among other things, the city stated that the companies had 90 days to pay back royalties dating back to 2000—five percent of the gross sales of the Fish House and Atlas Oyster House, or approximately $5 million—or the city would terminate the master lease of the land and close the restaurants on Feb. 13, 2014.
This was news to the companies involved. Though brothers Burney, Collier, and Will Merrill own Merrill Land LLC and co-own Great Southern Restaurant Group (which comprises The Fish House, Atlas Oyster House, and Jackson’s Steakhouse), GSRG is an affiliate, not a subsidiary of Merrill Land. The legal situation, as far as the responsibility to pay royalties to the city from the restaurant’s earnings, hinges on that fact. The Fish House owns the building on the property, and leases the parcel of land on which it sits from Merrill Land, which subleases it from Seville Harbour, Inc., which has the master lease with the city. Right—that’s why lawyers have jobs.
On Dec. 10, the city rescinded the default notice, but further discussions about the terms of the lease are forthcoming, and welcome, according to all involved. Also on Dec. 10, Mayor Ashton Hayward issued a statement saying, “The city is not backing down…Now, because of the agreement, we are able to have an informed discussion.” The parties hope to sit down and hash things out by the end of the year.
First Comes Love, Then Comes… Local Love Stories and the Heart of the Marriage Equality Movement (October 3)
In October, the IN presented the stories of multiple local same-sex couples who have traveled to other states to marry. Part of the story focused on the challenges the couples face living in a state that does not recognize the legality of their union, particularly when it comes to issues of obtaining benefits for their partners, the right to make decisions for one another in health care settings, and even being denied discounts on car insurance because their state doesn’t recognize their marriage.
While marriage equality hasn’t been secured in Florida in the two months since the story ran, some progress has occurred. Within the city limits of Pensacola, the city’s newly passed Domestic Partnership Registry (DPR), set to open in March 2014, extends certain rights to cohabitating adults, regardless of gender. While not intended to equate to marriage, DPRs allow couples important rights including those related to health care, participation in a dependent’s education if the partners are raising children together, and burial and funeral decisions, among others. DPRs now apply in at least 15 municipalities, encompassing over half of Florida’s population.
At the state level, the 2014 election may provide Floridians another vote on the question. On Nov. 20, Equal Marriage Florida announced they were half way to collecting the required 683,000-plus signatures to have an amendment placed on the 2014 ballot—the deadline to do so is Feb. 1, 2014. Equality Florida, another advocacy group, continues to prepare a lawsuit to challenge the constitutionality of Florida’s 2008 “Marriage Protection Amendment.” The chance of similar cases filed in other states reaching the Supreme Court and resulting in a federal ruling on the constitutionality of state anti-gay marriage amendments also remains.
Eat Street: Will the Food Truck Phenomenon Ever Make It to Town? (August 22)
As we have an office full of food truck enthusiasts, this summer, the IN decided to take a look at the state of affairs for food trucks in Pensacola. Why were there so few, we wondered. The IN discovered that the existing guidance for vendors in Pensacola was limited when compared to other not-to-distant cities such as New Orleans, Tampa, and Orlando that have recently enjoyed a surge of food truck action.
Shortly after the story ran, a food truck began popping up downtown during lunchtime and late night hours. With an increased number of bars downtown, it makes sense the food trucks—and also carts and/or sidewalk set-ups—would locate in the area full of revelers looking for a bite to eat.
A handful of brick-and-mortar restaurant owners took notice of the truck parking downtown and also realized clear regulations were needed to maintain harmony. New York Nick’s owner Nick Zangari approached the city council with the support of several downtown restaurant owners, concerned about the impacts to existing restaurants. This led the council after discussing the matter at its regular meeting in November, to hold a public workshop dedicated to the issue in December.
The council heard from city staff, food vendors, and restaurant owners, and, at the workshop, determined to send the issue before the city’s Planning Board. To provide the clearest guidance for those following and enforcing future guidelines, an ordinance governing mobile food vendors will be developed, as well as changes to the city’s Land Development Code to reference zoning for food trucks. The public will have more opportunities to comment at the Planning Board meetings. Once the Planning Board has devised a plan, city council will have the ultimate say as to the future guidance for vendors in the city limits.
Not Invisible Anymore: The Reality of Rape in the Military (April 4)
Showings of the documentary, “The Invisible War” led to this cover story, tackling the difficult subject of sexual assault in the U.S. military. Monument to Women Veterans hosted a screening at The Pensacola Little Theatre, and the film was also shown at the University of West Florida as part of The White Ribbon Film Series.
“The Invisible War,” was awarded the Audience Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Documentary.” Filmmaker Kirby Dick tells the story of military rape through the voices of the male and female victims—many who felt that they were victimized twice, once by their attackers and then by the military system.
As a military town, the film was all the more relevant. The IN spoke with two locals “Nan” and “Bill.” Both had been raped while serving in the military. Their stories echoed those of service members in the film who found the process of investigating and prosecuting sexual assaults in the military woefully inadequate and, more often than not, neglectful.
On March 13, the Senate Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee held hearings on rape in the military. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) on the subcommittee, has since championed the Military Justice Improvement Act, which seeks to move the decision to prosecute certain crimes—including sexual assault and rape—to independent military prosecutors, rather than remaining in the chain of command. Gillibrand had hoped to attach the act to the annually passed National Defense Authorization Act, but learned on Dec. 9 that would not occur. Gillibrand has stated she will continue to push for a vote of some kind as soon as possible.
The Big House and the Bigger Picture (May 9)
Looking back, it was almost a chicken-and-egg situation: what came first, this cover story or the report of Department of Justice findings? Alas, conditions at the Escambia County Jail have been the subject of multiple cover stories for the IN over the years, and this particular story was published shortly before the findings of a DOJ investigation were issued in a letter to the county in May.
The focus of the cover story in early May focused on the aging jail and its staffing needs in light of a dispute over Sherriff David Morgan’s proposed budget that was $18.8 million higher than the previous year’s, a large portion of which was intended to address understaffing issues. The county commission balked at the Sherriff’s request and voted 4-1 in June to assume control of the jail, confident it could address the understaffing and other issues—including patterns of civil rights infractions—that the DOJ identified as problematic.
The county commission assumed control of the jail on Oct. 1 and received a Draft Settlement Agreement from the DOJ on Dec. 16. The draft agreement outlined procedures for revamping security policies, procedures, and training curricula, a system of consolidated reports for tracking prisoner violence, implementation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act requirements, a timeline for achieving adequate staffing levels over four years (for a total of 100 new hires), elimination of the practice of housing prisoners by race, and providing adequate mental health care and medication. The draft agreement is a first step in negotiating a plan for the county to address the goals, which the DOJ has established to improve the conditions at the jail. This, as they say, is the tip of the iceberg that is the county jail reform story.
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