Pensacola, Florida
Sunday October 19th 2014

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The Ethics Perception


Wilson Robertson cooly sipped a Diet Dr. Pepper and surveyed the gallery. By the end of the evening he’d be looking at three possible ethics investigations.

“I have absolutely nothing to hide,” said Robertson.

The Escambia County Commissioner had invited the public to Thursday’s commission meeting, where he planned to prove he was not unduly involved in the hiring of a new marketing director for the county’s equestrian center. A few minutes into the public forum it became clear the meeting would take a different course.

“I’d like to see you go, Mr. Robertson,” said Julie Patton.

Citizens were not pleased at the apparent scenario: that the Commissioner pushed for a particular candidate, Forest Gibbs, with questionable qualifications and eventually landed his man a job with a hefty salary increase.

“This is a Florida statute,” said Commissioner Grover Robinson, who called for the issue to be addressed. “The question is, was this violated?”

While a few people expressed confidence in Gibbs ability to turn around the financially-limping equestrian center, most people at the meeting focused on Robertson’s role in the hiring process. By law, commissioners cannot be involved in the hiring or firing of county employees; that responsibility lies with the county administrator.

As Robertson rested his head on his fist and listened, citizens quoted Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. They said they were “embarrassed” and “concerned.” In addition to calling for Robertson’s resignation, speakers also asked that Gibbs be removed from his marketing post.

In a series of Pensacola News Journal articles, it was recently revealed that Robertson lobbied hard for Gibbs, an acquaintance, to get the marketing job. While he has no marketing experience, Gibbs did eventually get the job, with salary and benefits hitting about $80,000 (as opposed to the advertised range of just above $51,000).

The Commissioner has responded by attacking the newspaper, alleging that reporter Jamie Paige got it wrong in his series of stories.
“The way he put it was that they were spun,” Paige said, during a break in the meeting.

Speakers, however, lauded the daily paper. They praised Paige’s “excellent watchdog journalism” and suggested that if Robertson truly had a case he should try to sue the paper.

Following a short break, Robertson announced he had a solution. The Commissioner said that “after thinking about the situation all day long,” he had decided the best way to resolve the matter was to request an opinion from the State Attorney’s office.

“In the paper it’s being called illegal,” Robertson said. “So, my lord, if it’s illegal, let’s have the state attorney look at it.”

That suggestion eventually morphed into requesting that the state attorney’s office, in addition to the Attorney General and the Commission of Ethics review the issue.

The Commission also saw to it that Gibbs was removed from the marketing position. Though the body cannot hire or fire, they can convey such wishes to County Administrator Randy Oliver.

“The only way I can assure you that the process is 100 percent pure is to restart the process,” Oliver told the Commission, searching for guidance. “What you’re telling me is that you want to assure that this process is 100 percent pure?”

During the break, Commissioner Robinson had noted that he would not be focused on Robertson’s removal from the count board.

“It’s not about Wilson, it’s not about me, it’s not about Forest,” Robinson said. “If he resigns that’s fine, it’s not what I’m asking for.”
For his part, Robertson said he welcomed the investigations.

“I don’t want it to look like this is being swept under the rug,” the Commissioner said.

In addition to calling for the investigations, the Commission also laid out new hiring rules, which dictate that commissioners may not act as a recommendation for or communicate with a potential county employee.