In May 2004, Pensacola and Escambia County were study crazy. Everything from rezoning the northern part of the county to the Port of Pensacola was being studied by some consultant or blue ribbon task force.
Ideas were everywhere. Adm. Jack Fetterman was talking about building a maritime museum. The Studers were interested in a ballpark for their minor league baseball team, and the University of West Florida, under President John Cavanaugh, was trying to build a bigger presence in downtown Pensacola.
Lots of studies, lots of consultants, lots of committees and lots of ideas, but no one was willing to pull the trigger on any of them. The Independent News decided someone had to pull together all of these elements, and we published our first Ballsy Plan Issue.
Since then, we have done one every year, and it has been surprising how so many of them are finally coming to fruition. This year’s plan is as daring as the first one. It will ruffle a few feathers, but we know each recommendation would have a positive impact on this community.
REDUCE SIZE OF COUNCIL The Pensacola City Council is too big. The discussion of the simplest agenda items takes 45 minutes if all nine members pontificate on their position for five minutes each. The Pensacola Charter Review Commission voted in June 2009 to cut the at-large seats. Only seven single-member districts were presented in the original draft sent to the Pensacola City Council, but the council forced the commission to keep the two seats.
The public reason given for the at-large seats under the old council manager form of government was that every citizen could vote for four council members–mayor, two at-large seats and their district representative. However, their votes only accounted for four members of the 10-member council. The real reason for the at-large seats was to dilute the African-American vote. The power was placed in the hands of the city manager, his staff and those who influenced them.
Pensacola has a little more than 53,000 residents but has nine council members. There is no other city in Florida of this size that has a city council so large. Our original thought was to cut the number of council members to seven by eliminating the two at-large members. The seven members are elected by defined districts and are held accountable by the voters in those districts. The seven focus on serving the needs of their districts.
However, we think the proper number is five, similar to Escambia County Commission, School Board and Emerald Coast Utilities Authority. The council presidency could rotate on a six-month basis among the seats, similar to how the county commission does it annually.
For those worried about minority representation, two seats with majority of African-American voters could be easily established by drawing Districts 6 and 7 and part of District 5 into two districts. Two seats could be made from the majority white districts, 1, 2 and 3, and the remainder of District 5 and District 4 could be combined into a district that is racially balanced.
The African-American voters would go from possibly controlling 22 to 33 percent of the city council to 40 percent. And while their two council votes could not block a council vote, they would play a huge role in overriding any mayoral veto.
MOVE PENSACOLA VIC AND CHAMBER TO MARITIME PARK The new Pensacola Bay Bridge will take out the Pensacola Bay Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, commonly known as the VIC, that’s located at Wayside Park by the boat ramp on 17th Avenue. The Pensacola Bay Area Chamber of Commerce, which runs the VIC, needs a new office.
While we hear the Chamber is thinking about moving its offices and the VIC to the new Technology Park at the foot of the I-110 off ramp, the IN wants them to relocate to the Community Maritime Park. The Tech Park location will be as hard to reach for tourists as the Wayside Park building. A sign could be placed on Chase Street to give visitors plenty of time to navigate to the proper lane and follow Bayfront Parkway to what will be the crown jewel of downtown Pensacola.
Tourists will see our historic downtown and see how they can expand their visit to the greater Pensacola area beyond Pensacola Beach. They can be easily directed to Perdido Key, the National Naval Aviation Museum on NAS Pensacola and our other top attraction, Joe Patti’s Seafood Company, which will only be a block away.
The Chamber should also be able to operate more efficiently with all of its staff under one roof. Administration could be used more effectively and duplications eliminated. Its new headquarters will add to the vibrancy of the maritime park. Tourists will walk the park, visit the shops and gain a much better feel of our entire community.
SPECIAL GRAND JURY ON SCHOOL SAFETY Ask just about any high school or middle school teacher in Escambia County public schools about school safety and discipline and she will roll her eyes. If she trusts you, the teacher might share a few horror stories.
Whatever happens in the classroom is often deemed by the school and district administrators to be the teachers’ fault. Discipline reports are discouraged or, as in the case of Warrington Middle School, allegedly simply disappear. Teachers are left to fend for themselves and bartering with their students for class time to teach. The teachers’ union is more worried about pay raises than having safe work environments for its members.
When the IN investigated the collapse of discipline at Warrington Middle School, we found the Escambia County School District had reported less the 40 percent of the crime and violence on its campuses to law enforcement, while the overall state percentage for the same type of incidents is 84 percent. At Tate High School, a freshman coed was allegedly sexually assaulted, and the school principal chose to “investigate” it himself rather than bring in law enforcement.
Teachers are too frightened for their jobs to speak out publicly. Their fear of reprisals from the administration are real, which is why the IN believes State Attorney Bill Eddins should empanel a special grand jury on school safety and discipline and offer protection to those teachers who testify. The School Board should agree to immunity for those who are called before the grand jury.
Escambia County should be known for having the safest schools in the state of Florida.
BUILD BETTER HABITAT HOMES This plan is going to get us in trouble, but somebody has to say it. Pensacola needs better Habitat homes, ones that aren’t so generic and easily identified as low-income housing. Home ownership is a critical step out of poverty and into middle class, but the homes need to have character.
Pensacola Habitat for Humanity has been in existence since 1981 and serves Escambia and Santa Rosa counties. The affiliate has completed more than 800 homes. We don’t want to diminish its impact on the community, but it’s time to move beyond building the most, cheapest homes possible, but to look at fewer, high-quality residences that help the property values in the neighborhood.
Brad Pitt’s Make It Right organization is doing just that in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, which was literally wiped out when the Industrial Canal levee was breached in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina. More than 5,300 homes were destroyed. Pitt’s mission is more than providing housing to low-income families. He wants the homes to be a catalyst for the entire neighborhood.
Make It Right kicked off its housing project in December 2007. According to its website, makeitright.org, it has built 75 sustainable, LEED Platinum certified homes for Lower Ninth Ward families, which makes it the “largest and greenest community of single-family homes in the world”, according to the U.S. Green Building Council. Make It Right wants to double that number.
Once a family qualifies to participate, it gets to choose from a variety of designs. To date, 21 architectural firms have donated designs. Because the homes are all LEED Platinum certified, the utility bills are two-thirds less than homes of similar size.
We believe that if we are going to rebuild our poorer neighborhoods that we will need to re-examine what types of homes are built in those areas. Pensacola Habitat for Humanity has proven it can build homes for the poor. Now it’s time to raise the bar.
REVITALIZE NEIGHBORHOODS FROM WITHIN The above Ballsy item is closely tied to another idea that also has its genesis in New Orleans. Too many of the failed efforts in the poorer neighborhoods have failed because they have been conceived, planned and delivered by outsiders, who very well may have the best intentions, but little true understanding of or buy-in from those they hoped to help.
The Independent News believes that the revitalization of our poorer, inner-city neighborhoods must begin from inside those neighborhoods. We need to give neighborhood leaders the tools to develop their own plans and help them implement them.
Broadmoor is a New Orleans neighborhood that borders the Uptown area. In 2005, it flooded badly in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The Bring New Orleans Back Commission issued a preliminary report map that marked Broadmoor as a suggested area to be turned into park land. Broadmoor residents, hundreds of which had returned home after being evacuated to Shreveport, Houston and other cities, strongly objected and convinced the city to allow them to rebuild. Their motto was “Broadmoor Lives”.
The Broadmoor Improvement Association was born. When it learned its neighborhood school wasn’t reopening, they formed a charter school. National foundations like the Clinton Global Initiative and the Carnegie Foundation became interested. A public library and fine arts center are being built within blocks of the school.
Pensacola and Escambia County have neighborhood associations and neighborhood watches. Sheriff David Morgan is in the second year of his Operation Clean Sweep initiative. Mayor Ashton Hayward is challenging the school district to do something with its closed facilities.
The logical next step is to engage the neighborhoods themselves and get their buy-in in becoming part of the solution.
BRING BACK PRIMARY RUNOFFS In 2001, the Florida Legislature abolished primary runoffs beginning with the 2002 fall election. Instead of having the two top finishers in a primary in which neither candidate got over 50 percent of the votes cast, the candidate receiving the highest number of votes in the primary election was declared nominated by their respective party.
The City of Pensacola has a runoff for its election. If it followed the system used by the state and county, then Mike Wiggins would be the mayor of Pensacola. Conversely, if Escambia County had a primary runoff, Gene Valentino would have had to face Karen Sindel in a run-off for the Escambia County District 2 seat and very likely would have lost given that he only got 34 percent of the GOP primary votes.
In 1994, Lois Benson led the field in the Republican primary for District 1 Congressional seat. She lost to political newcomer Joe Scarborough in the runoff. Scarborough went on to defeat Democrat Vince Whibbs Jr. in the general election with 61 percent of the vote.
The elimination of the runoffs gave a huge advantage to the incumbents, who have the most name recognition. The more challengers in the primary, the more likely the incumbent wins because his opposition is splitting its votes.
Florida lawmakers said back in 2001 that they dropped the runoffs because the supervisors of elections complained that the tight timeframe between the primaries and the general elections created a burden on their employees. Strangely, no one suggested simply moving the primary election dates to the beginning of August, thereby giving the supervisors an additional four weeks.
The IN wants the primary runoffs reinstated. To win his party’s primary, the candidate should have to win the majority of the votes cast. The best candidates are not necessarily making it to the general election.
PENSACOLA PROMISE The scholarship program that guarantees a college education at Pensacola State College or University of West Florida for Pensacola high school graduates died last year. We think it needs to be given a second chance.
Council President Maren Deweese worked on Pensacola Promise, which was modeled after very successful programs in other parts of the country, for nearly two years, but failed to gain the support of the majority of the Pensacola City Council. The sticking point was that she wanted to use city dollars to fund the program.
The IN would like to see the scholarship program developed as a non-profit with no government dollars involved. Initially, the program would only involve the graduates of the public high schools located within the Pensacola city limits, Pensacola High and Booker T. Washington.
Pensacola Promise would not only encourage our inner-city students to study harder and dream big, but also could be a catalyst for people to move inside the city limits.
The Kalamazoo Promise allows any graduate of Kalamazoo Public Schools to obtain a 100 percent paid scholarship to a state university or community college in Michigan. There are partial scholarships for students who weren’t enrolled all 12 years in the Kalamazoo public schools. The Kalamazoo Promise is funded entirely by anonymous donors.
Pensacola Promise wouldn’t have to cover students that qualify for Florida’s Bright Futures or those who are awarded other scholarships to Pensacola State College or University of West Florida. Last year, 500 PHS and Washington High seniors took the ACT. If half of those qualified for Pensacola Promise the cost would be $400,000-$500,000, which is possible to raise in this community.
The goal would be to raise an endowment that would reduce the annual fundraising requirements. As additional funds are raised, the program can be expanded to include other Florida state colleges and universities and students from the other public high schools in the county.
RESURRECT CONSOLIDATION COMMISSION It has been over 18 months since the Escambia County Consolidation Commission disbanded when the Northwest Florida Legislative Delegation refused to take its recommendation for consolidation of Escambia County, City of Pensacola and Town of Century to the state legislature.
There have been several announcements about functional consolidation since then, but little has happened. Unfortunately, we can’t rely on the elected officials and their bureaucracies to do it. We’ve gotten nothing but lip service and not one function consolidated. Even with tax revenues declining, the city and county can’t find even one function to consolidate.
The IN believes we have to resurrect the consolidation commission. It needs to be much smaller and focus only on functional consolidation. The new commission could roll out its recommendations on a quarterly basis. The Mayor of Pensacola and the Escambia County Commission would have 30 days to approve, modify or disapprove the changes.
In his State of the City address, Mayor Ashton Hayward said that he would push for consolidation. “The Escambia County Commission has spoken favorably about functional consolidation efforts, including emergency dispatch communications, traffic signal synchronization and Geographic Information Systems (GIS), among others,” said Hayward. “Over the course of this budget year, I will be advocating for the implementation of these consolidation opportunities with our partners at Escambia County, and hope to generate more cost savings for the taxpayers as a result.”
It’s time to quit talking and get things moving. Maybe the Functional Consolidation Commission will give the elected officials the political cover they need to get this done before the next budget cycle.
DESIGN YOUR OWN PARK COMPETITION We borrowed this idea from Binghamton, N.Y. The competition aims to turn neglected spaces into wonderful neighborhood places.
The City of Pensacola is filled with public parks, but are those parks meeting the needs of the neighborhoods they serve? How would they be changed if the people living in those neighborhoods had a say in how they were redesigned or upgraded?
In Binghamton, city leaders are providing neighborhoods a trained facilitator to help guide them through the process. A major symposium has been planned that will bring to the city world experts on the importance of play, public places and neighbors managing their own affairs. Those experts, along with a panel of local experts, will consult with the groups about their projects and act as judges for the competition.
Such a competition and symposium fit into our idea for rebuilding neighborhoods from within and could lead to an evaluation of all the city parks. The city may find that not all of its parks are utilized and may be able to eliminate a few of them.
We visualize this competition as an annual event that gradually moves across the community, starting with the most heavily used parks like Bayview Park and Hitzman-Optimist Park.
ABOLISH SRIA, DROP TOLL Escambia County will soon be able to tax the leaseholders on Pensacola Beach. The Santa Rosa Island Authority (SRIA) was formed to manage the beach leases. If the county is collecting property taxes, it shouldn’t also collect lease fees. The need for the SRIA goes away.
The property taxes collected should also be sufficient to cover any bonds linked to the Pensacola Beach bridge. We can tear down the toll booths and eliminate the biggest bottleneck to getting on Santa Rosa Island. Beachgoers would have a straight shot at the beach.
Pensacola Beach could become a county department and save the SRIA overhead. Marketing efforts could be consolidated with the Pensacola Bay Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. Business owners wouldn’t have to charge the SRIA surcharge.
This idea is so simple and so obvious that it will never happen. Too many people would lose control of their fiefdoms.