Pensacola, Florida
Friday December 15th 2017

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Outtakes—Citizen Participation Vital

By Rick Outzen

On Monday, June 27, the Pensacola City Council held a workshop to discuss its boards and advisory committees. Only three members attended—Charles Bare, Sherri Myers, and Andy Terhaar. The lack of interest from the other council members was sad.

For decades, municipalities have sought input from their citizens on land development, zoning, historic preservation, redevelopment, parks, environment, pensions and other issues. The boards are a reminder that their government is truly their government. City employees and elected officials serve them and answer to their wishes.

However, we have seen an erosion of this at Pensacola City Hall. Initially, Mayor Ashton Hayward formed advisory committees on pensions, port, and downtown redevelopment, but he has not created any others in three years. He discontinued town hall meetings in December 2013. His last State of the City address was October 2013.

The Pensacola City Council abolished its committee structure in 2010 and rewrote its rules that reduced citizens’ comments when it replaced its Committee of the Whole meetings with agenda reviews.

The Boyd Forum was created to provide for additional public input at council meetings, but it has evolved to the one time citizens can publicly address their city officials each month, now that the council only holds one regular monthly meeting. The mayor, city administrator and some council members have quit attending the forums.

City boards are designed to keep city processes in the citizens’ hands, not in the hands of bureaucrats whose jobs depend on pleasing politicians. However, these boards can only be as effective as the support city staff provides.

The problems that we saw with Planning Board on issues such as Long Hollow radio tower and the proposed Manna Food Pantries warehouse are tied to lack of staff properly advising the board. In both instances, staff didn’t correctly interpret the city code or chose to ignore it. We have seen board members vote on their clients’ projects while city staff sat silent. Mayor Hayward has not provided the board with legal counsel to sort through issues.

In the issue involving the Architectural Review Board and the demolition of the John Sunday House, we learned that the ARB had tabled incomplete applications for a decade. According to its minutes, the board tabled 72 items under the Hayward administration from 2012-2015. The new city attorney has stated that was wrong. Why hasn’t the mayor assigned an attorney to help the ARB?

If the City Council can ever get more than three members to care, I hope city leaders will work to strength city boards and support the important role they play in city governance.