Pensacola, Florida
Sunday December 17th 2017

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The Buzz 8/27/15

‘Sorry’ Is The Hardest Word The Aug. 23 Pensacola City Council meeting was a long night for Melanie Nichols, president of the North Hill Preservation Association.

“It was pretty much what I expected,” Nichols said. “I knew he wasn’t going to do anything.”

The homeowners’ association president seemed personally hurt by Mayor Ashton Hayward, who earlier in the week let it be known he had no intention of taking any action against his city administrator following an incident that has been described as “chilling,” “beyond the pale,” and last night, “heinous.”

“I will never speak to him again,” Nichols said of the administrator. “I have no respect for him.”

The city council’s message to Mayor Hayward was less decisive. It delivered him a 4–4 split on a no-confidence vote in City Administrator Eric Olson. Council members Charles Bare, Sherri Myers, Charles Wingate and Brian Spencer voted in favor of the rebuke.

“This was an egregious error in judgment, and I think Mr. Olson knows what he did was wrong,” said Council President Andy Terhaar, before the vote was taken.

The marathon meeting amounted to a ceremonial dress down of Olson, who had contacted Nichols’ employer at NAS Pensacola to complain that she was sending emails to the city from her federal email account. Widely read as an overstep that could be interpreted as intimidation from a city official, the action sparked a barrage of criticism from citizens, media and elected officials.

The evening began with an apology from Olson. The city administrator delivered his concession to Nichols and the community at large after defending his actions through clinched teeth for a week.

“In hindsight, I should have taken a different approach,” Olson said, “and I apologize for not doing so.”

Later on, the mayor weighed in on the issue.

“I asked Mr. Olson, ‘did he call somebody to get them fired?’ He said, ‘absolutely not.’ I moved on,” Hayward said. “This is not personal. It never was. I believe Mr. Olson has zero intent to hurt Ms. Nichols.”

Citizen after citizen disagreed, and used the city council forum to let Olson know how they felt.

“What you did was lousy, and what’s happened since the situation came to light has been lousy,” said Laura McKnight. “Mr. Olson, I don’t have confidence in your ability as administrator, but that’s something that you’ve done, and not something that we’ve done.”

There were calls to fire the administrator. Calls to withhold his salary. Calls for discipline of some kind.

But that wasn’t going to happen. The mayor had already stated such following council’s Monday agenda session, then again in subsequent media interviews.

“I’m still not convinced anything wrong happened,” Councilman Larry B. Johnson summed up the sentiment.

Hayward offered up a slogan from Cadillac — “penalty of leadership” — and a few words about moving the city forward.

“We’re all in this together,” the mayor said. “I can take the hits, they’re not fun.”

To Nichols it sounded about as genuine as Olson’s apology and the city’s position that the administrator — retired from the Navy — was simply attempting to alert the Navy to an employee using her work
email account for non-work business.

“He knew what he did,” Nichols said after the meeting. “He didn’t call my boss to recommend a promotion.”

The neighborhood volunteer still believes she was targeted for her opposition to a radio tower in the Long Hollow Storm Basin. She points to public records request pertaining to the tower as the source of the city’s ire. She thinks that’s why the city has aggressively tended to the issue since it became public.

“Yes, it was the tower,” Nichols said. “I think they were trying to discredit me. I was asking the right questions.”

Nichols had already sent the city a cease and desist letter following Olson’s call to her boss. She said she was moving forward with a lawsuit against the city for harassment and violation of her first amendment rights.

“They have continued to make false allegations,” Nichols said. “They did not cease the harassment.”

The community volunteer also said she didn’t buy Olson’s apology.

“That was not an apology,” Nichols said before walking out of city hall. “He apologized for the perception of what he did.”

Bye Bay Boulevard After hearing from a fairly evenly split gallery full of neighbors, the Pensacola City Council gave their unequivocal answer: half of the last remaining open space along the bluffs in the East Pensacola Heights Neighborhood, the right of way along a short defunct stretch of Bay Boulevard, will be given to private property owners.

The council voted unanimously to vacate the property. Mayor Ashton Hayward had laid it out pretty plainly at the discussion’s onset.

“It’s real simple, we don’t need the right of way, the city doesn’t need the right of way,” Hayward said. “There’s not a park there.”

Though not an official city park, the property is used by the public. The city doesn’t maintain it, but it did install a bench overlooking the bay. The portion of the strip fronting the property belonging to two couples — the Austins and Picas — falls beyond the bench overlook, which will remain open to public access.

Some residents in the neighborhood have actively pushed for council to reject the request. They contend that the vacation is handing over currently used public property that affords the entire neighborhood access to bluff-and-bay views.

“I don’t understand how the city can give away public land to private citizens just because they want it,” said Kevin Smith, who lives three blocks from the site and said he takes daily trips there with his son.

“Three percent, that’s all that’s left,” Harriet Allen pointed out the rest of the right away along the bluffs was already privatized. “You say the city doesn’t want it? How can you say that? We’re the city. We’re begging you. Please don’t vacate the right of way.”

Other people, however, spoke in support of the request.

“This is not a park,” said neighborhood resident Pat Selkirk, “but it is in someone’s back yard.”

Paul Austin informed the city council that he had cancer and wanted to limit public access for safety reasons.

“Security and safety is my primary concern,” Austin said. “In my absence, I want my wife to feel safe and secure.”

The argument to vacate wasn’t a particularly tough sell to council. They leaned on the fact that half the publicly accessible area, the 150-foot portion with the park bench, would remain open and listed off their rationales for supporting the request.

“I’m not a big proponent of government hanging onto land just to hang on to it,” said Councilman Charles Bare.

Councilman Larry B. Johnson, who represents the neighborhood, scolded the critics of the vacation.  He said it saddened him to see a portion of the neighborhood not being more welcoming the Austins and Picas.

“It really hurts me,” said Johnson. “It breaks my heart, actually.”

Mayor Hayward had also noted the need for a different perspective. He talked about the good fortune of having new property owners moving into the city, having them pay taxes and build houses. The mayor called it a “fabulous story.”

Hayward said, “This is a story we really need to talk about.”