The punch and cookies made it comfortable enough to loosen your tie. A spread of fruit and macaroons kept it classy.
Pensacola City Hall’s second floor was abuzz Monday, Aug. 8 as people gathered upstairs after hearing Mayor Ashton Hayward’s first State of the City address. A few people casually guarded their optimism, but most were enthusiastic about the mayor’s vision and his first budget.
“Today we have the opportunity–and the responsibility–to take a bold step towards a better future for our citizens,” said Mayor Hayward in his address after he delivered his proposed budget to the council, “by creating economic opportunity, improving our neighborhoods, cleaning up our environment, restoring citizen confidence in city government and taking decisive action to move our city forward.”
He told the audience of nearly 150 city employees and supporters, “We can take these bold steps, because this is not just a budget that I am presenting to you. It’s a plan, a statement of our priorities, and a covenant with our citizens.”
Councilman Ronald Townsend, who chaired the special Pensacola City Council meeting in the absence of Council President Maren Deweese and Vice President P.C. Wu, nursed a cup of coffee at the reception. After the mayor’s 20-minute address, Townsend had invited the audience to come to the city’s budget hearings the following week and enjoy the “squabbling and the wrangling”.
“Ashton has a vision,” Townsend said, taking another sip of coffee before predicting “compromise” and a “meeting of the minds”.
The word “vision” gets thrown around a lot when it comes to Hayward. That could be because Hayward is the first mayor—as Pensacola recently transitioned to a strong-mayor form of government, as opposed to its traditional city manager-council model—with any power to implement his vision.
The higher you go in City Hall, the better the view gets. From the seventh floor of city hall, you can see the Maritime Park rising from the dirt as the waterfront wraps around a warm, sun-drenched downtown. This is where Mayor Hayward’s team maps out how to execute Hayward’s plans for Pensacola.
“We’re just the conduit,” John Asmar, the mayor’s chief of staff, said later in the day, settling back in his chair. He was flanked by the city finance director Dick Barker and the mayor’s public information director Travis Peterson.
The conduit to which Asmar is referring might be considered the mayor’s team, his proposed budget or the structural changes contained therein. But what travels through this conduit is much more intangible.
What travels through this conduit is Hayward’s promise of a better day—his promise of a shining city that prospers, hits home runs and most importantly creates jobs for its citizens. It’s as much an attitude as anything else.
Back at the post-address reception, Derek Cosson, creator of Progressive Pensacola, a website that covered Pensacola city politics for the past five years until it shut down in June, could barely contain his optimism. He had yet to get a look at Hayward’s proposed budget—no one had—but was nonetheless enthusiastically supportive of the young mayor.
“I’ve just been excited about the direction he’s moving in,” Cosson said.
Several members on the city council were also encouraged by Hayward’s address.
Councilwoman Sherri Myers called the mayor’s address “very inspiring”, while fellow council member Brian Spencer said the speech was “laced with realism and optimism”.
“I totally support it,” Councilman Larry Johnson said of the overall plan laid out in the address.
But there are also reservations. The mayor is throwing some pretty big fish onto the table, and the city council is accustomed to eating chicken. Councilman John Jerralds predicts there will be “growing pains”.
One of the major changes that may cause pain with the council is Hayward’s proposed creation of two new offices with corresponding cabinet positions. The idea, according to Peterson, is to “reorganize around the leadership style of the mayor”.
According to the mayor’s proposal, an Office of Economic Opportunities and Sustainability will be created to develop the city’s prospects and foster economic growth. The office will oversee the city’s Housing, Inspections and Planning departments.
A Department of Neighborhood Services is also being proposed. This new department will oversee the Library, the Parks and Recreation Department and Neighborhoods. This department would be charged with reaching out to specific areas to assess the needs of different neighborhoods.
“I’m totally ecstatic,” Director of Parks and Recreation Dave Flaherty said of the plan to more directly engage residents.
The mayor is also proposing an increase in stormwater rates. He argues that rates were set over a decade ago and need to be adjusted to reflect current needs. Hayward has pointed to increased environmental strain on local waterways and the need to remediate them.
According to Al Garza, Pensacola’s director of Public Works, the fee would increase from $52.80 to $68.43 per average household. Last year the council rejected an increase, and stormwater measures continued to drain a reserve fund.
“You can’t live that way,” said Garza.
These, of course, are just highlights. The mayor’s proposed budget is a collection of numbers that fill a three-ring binder a few inches thick.
The city council will wade through all aspects of the proposed budget this week as they continue to get comfortable with sharing power with a mayor. The mayor, it seems, is already fairly comfortable with the arrangement.
A half hour before his State of the City address, Hayward excitedly lapped the City Hall gallery. He flashed million-dollar smiles and shook every hand he could find.
Some early arrivals to the address got a hug from the mayor. He seemed to want to personally welcome everyone to his big day, his vision’s official unveiling.
A woman entered the back of the meeting hall and surveyed the room. The mayor rushed to greet her.
“Which side is the supporters’ side?” she asked.
“All y’all are my people,” Hayward laughed.
In his vision, that’s true. In real life, there’s sure to be some push back.