Pensacola, Florida
Sunday October 21st 2018


Olson’s No-Confidence Conversation, Part One

By Jeremy Morrison

Last week, Pensacola City Councilman Charles Bare made it known he intended to seek a vote of no confidence following the revelation that City Administrator Eric Olson contacted a citizen’s employer regarding the individual’s emails. The councilman was successful in securing the six necessary votes to have the item slated for the Aug. 20 council meeting.

“I have questions of whether he is the right candidate for the city administrator,” Bare told the council Monday. “He has maintained that what he was doing was the right thing, and the fact is, constituent services are not even part of his job description.”

Olson contacted Naval Air Station Pensacola, where Melanie Nichols is employed, to alert them to the fact that Nichols was emailing the city from her work email account and request that she cease.

Nichols is president of the North Hill Preservation Association and is in regular communication with city staff. She has since maintained she had permission to use the email account to correspond with the city and has charged that Olson targeted her because of her opposition to the replacement and expansion of a radio tower in the Long Hollow Storm Water Basin.

Local media, as well as the First Amendment Foundation, has been critical of Olson’s move, describing it as “chilling” and “beyond the pale,” and arguing that such actions could be viewed as an attempt to silence citizen input. Several council members seemed to share that assessment of the city’s top administrator.

“I think the first thing that went through my mind was a mixture of shock and bewilderment,” Councilman P.C. Wu said. “It’s not the government’s government. The government belongs to the people. If you do anything to limit people’s access to that government, you’re on a very dangerous slope.”

Though he didn’t approve of Olson’s actions, the councilman initially shied away from voting to pursue a no confidence vote. He painted it as fruitless, since the city administrator answers to the mayor and such a vote would carry no weight.

Councilwoman Sherri Myers also expressed concern about the effectiveness and end goal of such a venture.

“What is this going to fix?” she asked.

“I’m not gonna say this is absolutely going to fix anything,” Bare said. “The mayor is going to make his own decision.”

Councilman Brain Spencer urged his fellow board members to hold the conversation until the Aug. 20 meeting. He said he supported its continuation in order to give the matter a more appropriate venue for public participation.

“I’m hoping this Thursday night,” Spencer said, “we’re able to have a conversation that the mayor, whether he attends, can take under advisement.”

While Councilman Spencer’s give-the-public-a-forum angle swayed both Wu and Myers—“I think Councilman Spencer really hit the nail on the head with this one,” Myers said—the body’s president and vice president did not support the effort to continue the no confidence conversation at the formal meeting.

“I do think people make mistakes,” President Andy Terharr said. “This is not a pattern of behavior for Mr. Olson.”

“If the citizens have a problem with Mr. Olson and his behavior, I think they should direct it to the mayor,” Vice President Larry B. Johnson said.

Terharr gave the city administrator an opportunity to address the issue prior to council taking a vote on continuing the matter to Thursday. Olson spoke about his commitment to public service and desire to “help make Pensacola a better place” and said the incident had been misread by the public.

The Navy veteran also told the council his action wasn’t done with any ill-will intended and that he regretted the negative attention it had garnered.

“Why would I want to do this? There’s no reason. The last thing I wanted to do is give the city of Pensacola, the mayor, this council a black eye,” Olson said. “I think the city is moving in a positive direction. I think that’s what the people should know. And when that’s not the headline, we all pay a price.”

Following the administrator’s comments, several members of the public spoke to the subject. The speakers, connecting Olson’s recent actions with, as resident Dottie Dubuisson put it, “a pattern we have experienced as a community,” evoked applause several times, most notably when requesting the administrator issue a formal apology to Nichols.

The final public speaker arrived to the meeting just in time to make his comments. LuTimothy May, recently let go as the city’s community outreach administrator, stepped up to the microphone still out of breath from his hurried trip into the room.

“I drove 25 miles to get here and speak,” he said, urging the council to place the discussion on their agenda.

A few minutes later, out by the elevators, May elaborated. He said his decision to come and speak at the meeting was made following a conversation he had with Nichols.

The former city staffer—attributing his firing to “organizational restructuring by Eric Olson”—said the incident involving Nichols was symptomatic of a larger issue within city hall.

“It’s a culture,” May said. “There’s a culture that’s been created that suggests these behaviors are acceptable.”

A few feet away, Mayor Hayward talked with a reporter from the local television news. He explained how Nichols is a “fantastic” neighborhood volunteer—“you know, she’s always on top of her issues”—how a “difference of opinion” exists and how “the whole situation is unfortunate.”

“What are you gonna do?” the reporter asked, wrapping up her interview.

“Well, I’m not going to let Mr. Olson go,” Hayward said.

Stepping away from the camera, Hayward answered questions from PNJ and Inweekly reporters. He described Olson’s actions as benign, as “just reaching out to let another government agency know” and said there are “two sides to the story.”

The mayor categorized assertions that Olson had attempted to “silence a citizen” as “absolutely false.” He also questioned why Nichols didn’t contact him directly.

“Why didn’t she pick up the phone and call the mayor like she’s always done in the past?” Hayward said.

The mayor said he planned to attend Thursday’s council meeting to listen to the discussion pertaining to the no confidence vote in his administrator, but declined to offer his personal assessment of Olson’s actions.

Hayward said, “I think going down this path—this is right and this is wrong—everybody is going to have their opinion.”