Pensacola, Florida
Sunday December 17th 2017

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Underhill’s ‘Brutal’ Honesty

By Duwayne Escobedo

Doug Underhill said one thing he learned as a counter-terrorism officer and in 25 years of service in the U.S. Navy was how to be brutally honest.

“People say, ‘Can I be brutally honest with you?’ What other kind of truth is there? I don’t think it’s blunt at all,” Underhill said.

That kind of honesty, though, has earned him criticism as the District 2 Escambia County commissioner and this year’s board chairman.

He was brutally honest about the county needing to build a temporary facility or “Tent City” at the Road Prison in Cantonment to house its inmates. He said the county could no longer afford to spend money to place its inmates in other county jails. Escambia spent all of its insurance and federal grant money paying out $5.68 million in 2016 to place its inmates elsewhere.

Law enforcement officers, defense attorneys, other commissioners and the ACLU lambasted the idea.

Underhill said the day the new $134 million jail opens in three or four years, Escambia County will need another “temporary” space for 500 inmates. He said in the Navy they used “rapid deployment structures” that could withstand sandstorms and 140-mph winds. Underhill said he just wants to see a variety of ideas on how to incarcerate the inmates.

“We don’t want criminals living like kings, but we’re not looking to dehumanize them either,” he said.

The new jail—”the most complex project ever done in Escambia County”—and public safety, in general, are among Underhill’s top priorities. He said the county would have to pay for a second wing on the new jail and demolish and rebuild “Castle Gray Skull,” as he calls the current jail that was built in two phases in the early 1980s.

Underhill also wants to tear down the Central Booking and Detention Center that exploded in April 2014 and killed two inmates and injured hundreds of others after rains flooded it. He would convert the spot into a stormwater pond that he said could help take care of all the flooding in the area.

“That’s a monument to our failure standing there every day,” Underhill said. “It’s holding us back. We need to move as quickly as possible to get things done.”

Another priority of Underhill’s is economic development. He’s brutally honest when it comes to FloridaWest, the county’s economic development arm.

People, Not Land
“FloridaWest has not produced a single job, and they are my economic development guru?” Underhill asked. “All FloridaWest knows how to do is produce shovel-ready spaces.”

For four years, the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority, Ascend Performance Materials, Gulf Power and the University of West Florida, Pensacola-Escambia County Development Commission, FloridaWest Economic Alliance and the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity have partnered to create The Bluffs, a privately- owned corridor for manufacturers to locate.

Developers project that as many as 60 manufacturing and industrial tenants could create as many as 15,000 jobs for the Northwest Florida community. The full development of the project could result in $1.1 billion in additional Gross State Product for Florida’s economy, Florida TaxWatch reported.

Earlier this month Gov. Rick Scott signed a budget appropriation for $3.1 million to build the proposed Industrial Boulevard to cross a flood plain and connect the north and south sections of The Bluffs campus.

The funding and the support of Gov. Scott, ECUA, Ascend, Gulf Power, and UWF have not deterred Underhill’s criticism of the “shovel-ready” project.

Recently the county commissioners approved moving forward with a land swap with the U.S. Navy, trading land known as Navy Outlying Field Eight (OLF-8) in Escambia County owned by the federal government for property in Santa Rosa County. OLF-8 is located in Beulah near the sprawling Navy Federal campus and will be converted to an industrial park for light manufacturing.

Underhill complained that in 2014 officials estimated the cost at around $6 million but, according to his calculations, the price has now skyrocketed to nearly $14 million.

Commissioner Steven Barry has disputed Underhill’s figures. At the commission’s June 23 agenda review, Barry presented a report that listed expenditures and encumbrances as of June 20 that totaled only $8.9 million.

Underhill told Inweekly, “We need to stop investing in real estate and start investing in people. Growing our workforce is what (FloridaWest) should be doing. Our bench isn’t deep enough.”

More Openness
He also said he is deeply committed to improving District 2. Underhill’s goals include:

•Increasing Sorrento Road to four lanes, which was at one time on the Florida Department of Transportation priorities list.
•Building a new high school in the area, which he said was promised 25 years ago to the fast-growing southwest area.
•Spending $8 million to pave the red clay roads in Beach Haven, which will solve stormwater issues in the area.
•Developing a Perdido Key master plan for development.

Underhill unrolled plans for Perdido Key that sat on his county commission office desk. They have been developed after hours of town hall meetings with the public, he said, debating among other things, whether to plant banana trees or palm trees.

He’s committed to open government, saying his inbox should be searchable online. He opposes government corruption, recalling during his service in Yemen “baksheesh” was just a way of life.

“I can say this is not mine, but this is ours,” he said of the plans for Perdido Key. “What can we, as a community, do?”

Underhill said for years too much government business has been done in backrooms out of the public’s eye.

“Our citizens have built cynicism over a lifetime believing the government is done in the backroom of the IPC (Irish Politicians’ Club),” he said. “They believe the good ol’ boys are going to do whatever they want anyway. That’s the single biggest impediment to the county being all that it can be.”

Underhill admitted after serving his country he returned to Perdido Key “not 100 percent healthy,” suffering PTSD or posttraumatic stress disorder.

“Life here is more complex and muddied compared to life over there,” said Underhill, who has recovered. “In combat, that world has a clarity of purpose.”

Underhill called his waterfront home a “sanctuary.” It’s where he and his wife, Wendy, a commercial real estate appraiser, and two sons, Brett, 16, and Avery, 14, spend much of their time on jet skis, kayaking, fishing and doing “anything we can do on the water.”

Being a county commissioner since 2016 has taught him, he said, that “you’ve really got to be able to take a punch. I have no ambitions or illusions about higher office. I’m not dependent on anybody. I’m focused only on doing this job well.”