BABY STEPS A step forward, whether it’s big or small, propels you ahead. Through all the turbulence, misfortune and stagnation that we have battled over the past decade, there were many steps, some big and some small, that propelled us in a new direction. Some of the people who led us to take those steps can be so easily forgotten if we aren’t careful.
At the beginning of next year, Ashton Hayward will be sworn in as our first strong mayor. The steps towards that newly-empowered position didn’t begin with Hayward, and it didn’t begin with Crystal Spencer and the Pensacola Charter Review Commission. And though the paper was an early advocate for scrapping the city manager and weak council form of government, the idea didn’t originate with the IN.
Ray Russenberger, who had brought his rapidly expanding paging company to Pensacola and renovated the Thiesen Building in downtown Pensacola for its headquarters, began pushing the idea in the late 1990s. He preached that you can’t run a progressive city by committee and with staff that isn’t answerable to the voters. Russenberger knew that no one had ever erected a statue to honor a committee.
When he began pushing the idea, the mayor of Pensacola was selected by a majority vote of the council. Vince Whibbs Sr., Jerry Maygarden and Admiral Charles P. Mason were never elected mayor. Admiral Mason didn’t even live in Pensacola when he was asked to be the mayor. He was retired living in Jacksonville when he was called in 1946 to move here and serve.
Russenberger supported a referendum to make the mayor an elected position. His hope was that the elected mayor would be more responsive and proactive in dealing with city issues. That referendum passed, and John Fogg became in 2001 Pensacola’s first elected mayor since 1913. Fogg had been first appointed to the position in 1994 and reappointed in 1995, 1997 and 1999. His election changed very little in how the city was run.
After the 2001 election, Russenberger began planting the seeds for a new city charter, realizing that would be the only way to break the malaise that gripped his adopted city. He tried to win a seat on the Pensacola City Council and unsuccessfully ran against Jack Nobles in 2004.
It would take three more years for the City Council to even discuss strong mayor. That effort was led by John Peacock and Jim Schmitz, who spent a year studying various forms of city governments. In June 2007, Peacock presented the concept to the city council. When he realized that the he didn’t have the council votes for a referendum for strong mayor, Peacock asked for a charter review commission.
The City Council approved the charter commission in November 2007. Two years later, city voters passed the new charter that called for the mayor to be the city’s chief executive officer. Russenberger and The Russenberger Foundation contributed $2,875 to the pro-charter political action committee, Believe in a Better Pensacola.
It was all these steps taken over more than 10 years that led to Hayward’s election. I hope he gives a nod to Ray Russenberger at his inauguration.