Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday March 20th 2019

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Strong Mayor 2.0

Report Provides Roadmap

By Jeremy Morrison

At the end of the last meeting of Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson’s transition team held March 4, Chairman Quint Studer asked members to score the meeting. And just as they have at each of its meetings over the past three months, members replied with enthusiastic 10s.

Except for Mayor Robinson. He was exceptionally pleased, as the team had just handed in its final report.

“I’m going to go with Spinal Tap: 11,” the mayor said, referencing the 1980s mock-rockumentary about a fictional metal band.

The mayor got an early peek at the team’s report on Friday, before its official Monday release. In it, the group outlined what it considered to be the city’s most significant needs, opportunities, assets and risks, as well as what it felt were areas on which Robinson’s administration needed to focus.

“The mayor sent me a note Friday night that said, ‘Wow,’” laughed Studer, following the report’s release.

The chairman had already expressed earlier during the team meeting how impressed he was—“I was blown away over the weekend when I was reading this entire report”—but also noted his initial skepticism when Robinson asked him to head up the transition team process.

“My thought was, ‘Do you really need one?’” Studer recalled.

Through completing its deep dive on municipal operations and relationships, the chairman said he came to understand how beneficial the process was going to be and how the team’s work represents a valuable roadmap for the mayor and the city. As he noted in the report’s opening pages, he quickly realized that the “transition team exercise would create a robust community conversation and result in an influx of innovative and fresh ideas for making our community better and stronger.”

“I think our report will keep Mayor Robinson busy through his first term,” Studer said.

When Robinson first took office last November and tasked the team with assessing the city and offering recommendations, he was looking for both the readily realistic and ambitious. It appears the roadmap he’s been handed hit its mark.

“I thought we would come up with some good ideas. I did not know we’d come up with this,” Mayor Robinson thanked the transition team. “It energizes me when I look at this report and see how it can help move the city forward.”

The Plan for Pensacola

When Mayor Robinson assembled his transition team, he appointed 11 members, each tasked with a specific field of study. While the report delves into the landscape and logistics of each category, the spirit of the document is encapsulated early on in Chairman Studer’s opening summary.

Studer is explicitly addressing the need for the city to have a formal strategic plan, but undercurrents of this observation can be felt throughout the report’s 86 pages—“No plan … means a city is more likely to be reactive versus proactive.”

Three months into office, Mayor Robinson has begun to tackle some of the items addressed in his team’s report. He has already started to address some staffing issues and reshuffled the city’s organizational chart.

Other items in the report, such as plans to conduct an employee culture survey, are currently on the soon-to-do list. While still others—like setting a 100-percent-by-2040 renewable energy goal—are considered shoot-for-the-stars ambitious.

Key takeaways from the report include calls for a vision statement and an emphasis on creating safer streets for pedestrians. The document is divided up into sections, each representative of the following categories: crime and safety, economic development, education, environment, finance, governance, governmental efficiency, legal, neighborhoods, traffic and walkability, transparency.

One area receiving attention from Robinson already is that of walkability. Citing accidents involving pedestrians as the area’s most significant safety concern, the mayor has identified the issue as one of his top areas of focus. In late February, he announced plans to hire someone to oversee the city’s Complete Streets efforts, which involves rethinking streets with non-vehicular traffic in mind.

Drew Buchanan, who worked on walkability issues for the team, described how the Pensacola area has been identified as the most dangerous for pedestrians. The city is, he pointed out, the worst area in the worst state for such measurements.

“I’ll let that sink in,” Buchanan said.

In addition to focusing on implementing Complete Streets concepts, Buchanan also recommended creating a position within the city to oversee bike and pedestrian issues, working to improve downtown parking issues and also developing a network of regional bikeways.

Buchanan’s category offers a prime example of how various categories on the transition team overlapped in scope and observations. Sidewalks and street lights, which fall within walkability for instance, also pertain to issues in areas like crime and safety, the environment, neighborhood and even education.

“A lot of common themes,” noted Michelle Salzman, who studied the issue of education for the team.

On the education front, an issue which the city does not play a direct hand in, Salzman recommended the city engage regional partners, like Escambia County and the Escambia County School District, in creating a committee to tackle educational issues facing the community. She also suggested implementing a program which encourages city employees to mentor local students.

Where economic development is concerned, Brian Wyer recommended adopting the so-called Covenant for the Community, which requires the city to hire 70 percent local workers on public construction projects. Other recommendations focused on improving the city’s economic development outreach efforts as well as better defining how the city should approach economic development and measure its successes in that area.

“Make sure we’re on the same page on what economic development really is,” Wyer said.

Some of the report’s categories pertained to more internal matters, such as governance structure and efficiency. Other categories dealt with more external concerns, essentially assessing the city’s interactions with its citizens.

One of the cornerstones of Mayor Robinson’s campaign last year was a promise to engage the city’s various neighborhood organizations better. Rev. Dr. Isaac Williams, who looked into the issue for the transition team, found a receptive audience in the city’s neighborhoods.

“I discovered the citizens are passionate and proud of their neighborhoods in the city of Pensacola,” Williams said.

As the city continues to see development spread westward, Williams stressed, officials should be careful to safeguard residents currently living in areas ripe for expansion against the threat of gentrification “and the impact that it is having on the West side of Pensacola,” he said.

Christian Wagley, who assessed the city’s environmental concerns, identified the top three areas he felt the mayor should focus on as protecting trees, taking action to mitigate the impacts of climate change and addressing walkability concerns.

Wagley also proposed stepping up the city’s efforts to deal with stormwater issues, particularly the number of employees it has tending to clogged storm drains.

“There used to be three crews doing that,” he said. “Now there’s only one.”

Team member David Peaden noted that categories such as his—governmental efficiency—were “pretty boring.” Even so, recommendations in such a dry category can be pretty juicy. Peaden, for example, has suggested evaluating the city’s current slate of boards and committees, with an eye toward slashing any found to be outdated or unhelpful—“Some of them have outlived their usefulness.”

And Bruce Vredenburg, who dug into the city’s finances, offered up some routine recommendations—such as establishing staff succession plans—but also some more controversial ones—like making the city’s current windfall of Local Option Sales Tax a permanent source of income instead of risking losing it on the whim of referendum voters.

“That constitutes a pretty significant risk for our city,” Vredenburg said of possibly losing LOST income.

In addition to the team’s work, Chairman Studer, who has a consulting background performing similar assessments for corporations, suggested that Robinson consider hiring government consultants to perform deeper dives into financial and technical areas of city operations. In such areas, he felt his team of volunteers could dig only so far due to limited experience and access to information.

“I think things like compensation, productivity and best practices were areas we were limited in because of our lack of experience in government operations,” Studer said.

In closing out his team’s tenure, Studer urged city officials to act upon the work contained in the transition report. Without any action, the team’s report will be rendered worthless.

“Its true value,” the chairman said, “will be implementation. Otherwise, it’s just another document collecting dust.”

Zen and the Art of Municipal Maintenance

Upon digesting his transition team’s final report, Mayor Robinson told Chairman Studer it made him feel “consciously incompetent.” This realization is a good thing, he said, because it’s a step toward something much better.

“That’s OK,” Robinson said. “The part is to realize we will eventually get competency as we move forward. The goal is, as Quint says, to eventually get to where we’re unconsciously competent.”

That is where the mayor is hoping the roadmap provided by his transition team will lead the city, to being “unconsciously competent.”

“If we do it, and we do the right thing without even having to think about it, that’s what we want to be doing,” Robinson explained during a question-and-answer session with local media following the report’s release.

And while elements of the report are rather ambitious, not to mention expensive, both Robinson and Studer said they were confident the city was up to the challenge.

“It’s doable,” said Studer. “Some of its prioritization, some of it’s going to cost, and you’ve got to figure out how to make that happen. But I don’t think there was anything ultimately so unrealistic that people say, ‘Oh, we can never do that. That’s impossible.’ I think it’s all within the realm of work for our organization.”

But Robinson cautioned the recommendations contained in his transition team’s report wouldn’t be accomplished overnight. Even the low-hanging fruit will take some effort to pick from the proverbial trees, and more ambitious items will take much longer.

“We can do all the things that are in there,” Robinson said. “I think the challenge will be we can’t do all of them at one time, tomorrow.”

Studer said he viewed the report as a long-term document, a viable resource beyond the current administration. In fact, he stressed, it was important for the city to adopt a long-range vision independent of who the mayor happens to be at a given moment.

“This report is meant to outlast Mayor Robinson, whether he’s here eight years or 12 years,” Studer said.

Pensacola City Councilwoman Sherri Myers told the mayor and his transition team she was glad to see the city begin to address some of the items outlined in the report. Among them are recommendations concerning issues she has long championed, such as walkability.

“I’m feeling good, I’ll tell you that much. I read this report last night. It’s really uplifting; I’d give it an A-plus,” Myers said after the report’s formal unveiling at Pensacola City Hall. “I’m just sitting back there saying, ‘Hallelujah! Thank you, Jesus!’”

Read Transition Report Recommendations.