“First of all, what happens at the dead-line hour?” Pensacola City Councilman John Jerralds finally stared down the elephant in the room.
“I can’t answer that question at this point,” replied City Administrator Bill Reynolds.
For more than two weeks, Occupy Pensacola has camped out at City Hall. During the Nov. 10 council meeting, members of the movement and city officials attempted to get a handle on what might happen when the group’s current permit expired the following morning .
By the end of the night, Occupy Pensacola’s future wasn’t all that much clearer. Except for that things are probably going to come to a head soon one way or the other.
“At some point this has to end,” Reynolds stressed to the Council. “We will see at what point that will be. It’s important to realize there has to be an end game.”
The local Occupy sprang up on Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza about a month after Occupy Wall Street began in New York City. The group now expresses their frustration with the status quo on the lawn at City Hall, but the expansive spread of tents has become a contentious issue.
After Mayor Ashton Hayward made it known—citing a city ordinance (Sec. 8.1.7)—that he wanted the tents gone, the city council decided to allow the Mayor to basically waive the regulation if he so chose. Hayward essentially did nothing, which had the effect of extending the Occupier’s campout until the next city council meeting.
During the meeting’s open forum, people with the Occupy movement argued for their right to keep the tents. The group’s lawyer, Alister McKenzie, equated the tents to a “monument to protest” and said their banishment would amount to restricting freedom of speech.
“What’s going on out there is frustrating and beautiful at the same time,” Bill Paul defended the group’s presence.
Councilwoman Sherri Myers expressed concern with the ordinance the Mayor had cited. She said she considered the tents to be a freedom of speech issue and drew parallels with Civil Rights-Era suppression, citing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s planning of a tent city in Washington D.C. to lobby for an economic bill of rights.
“Dr. King’s message was the same message that Occupy Wall Street has,” Myers said.
The Councilwoman went on to say that after some background work, she had discovered the ordinance was originally adopted by the city in 1968. She theorized as to why the city may have passed it then.
“I find it interesting that this ordinance was passed in 1968,” Myers said. “I feel certain that this ordinance was passed to ensure that there was not a replication of Resurrection City in Pensacola.”
After much discussion, Myers eventually suggested the Council again allow the Mayor to waive the ordinance. But then, Reynolds clarified that the Mayor no longer intended to use that ordinance, that the group did not have a permit but rather a ‘letter of no objection’ and that the tent issue would ultimately fall into the lap of Neighborhood Services Director Dave Flaherty because the tents were pitched in a city park.
Reynolds said the Mayor’s team was currently reviewing the options, but suggested the tents would eventually be booted due to existing city rules. Myers questioned whether the City Hall lawn was actually a park.
“I think that’s semantics,” Reynolds said, after clarifying that the lawn was technically slated as a place where events or festivals could occur. “I think the bottom line is that it’s city property.”
With that revelation, the Council took a moment to absorb the fact that its previous motion may have been something of a wild goose chase. Jerralds—who withdrew his second of Myers’ motion—suggested the board put an end to the “tennis game,” take no action and see what the Mayor did next.
“If we’re going to give him that authority to exercise that authority, let him do it on Monday,” Jerralds said.
Councilwoman Megan Pratt said that she was looking forward to getting beyond the tent issue so that the board might explore some of the Occupiers “bigger issues.”
“Two weeks ago it wasn’t about tents on city property,” Pratt said. “It was something bigger and different and we need to get to that because those are important questions.”
Because the Council took up the issue just before a holiday weekend, Nov. 14 was the first chance to revisit the matter. But the Mayor played it cool.
“There were other, more pressing issues that were on our calendar,” said Travis Peterson, the Mayor’s spokesman.
Occupy Pensacola now sits in an undefined limbo. But it seems limbo may be limber. As of press time, City Hall still looked like the hippest campground in town.
“I think everybody’s just got other things they’re dealing with right now,” Peterson said. “It’s on a list, but not at the top of the list.”
TDC HOUSEKEEPING Escambia County Attorney Alison Rodgers visited the Tourist Development Council on Nov. 8 to do a little housekeeping. She recently became concerned that the TDC’s membership was not holding to state statue, which governs the body’s composition.
“Under state law, it’s very specific,” Rodgers explained.
According to the state statute, TDCs must be comprised of a certain number of elected officials, members of the lodging community and other persons having an interest in tourism. In addition to two city council members and one county commissioner, the body is supposed to have at least three, but not more than four, members of the lodging community who collect a bed-tax and the remaining members—either two or three—are to be people who have a stake in tourism but do not collect the tax, such as someone from the restaurant community.
Earlier this year, County Administrator Randy Oliver had the TDC board members fill out forms that detailed their particular designations.
“When we took a look at it, I became concerned,” Rodgers said. “Some of the names didn’t seem to be designated to the correct designation.”
It seemed the TDC had the correct membership composition, they just needed to shuffle around their designations. Rodgers gave the board’s chairman, Denis McKinnon, as an example; she said that while his company, Coldwell Banker, formerly owned entities which collected a bed tax, that was no longer the case.
“The county still has him as a motel/hotel owner,” she explained. Rodgers said the board was receptive to straightening out the designations.
“They took the time out and filled out the form right there,” she said.
SUSTAINABILITY TAKES A HOLIDAY A local environmental group decided to reschedule its presentation originally slated for the Pensacola City Council’s Nov. 10 meeting.
Elaine Sargent, spokesperson for Sustainable Gulf Coast/Pensacola 350, said the presentation will most likely be made in January. The decision to postpone was made following a group meeting on Nov. 8.
Sustainable Gulf Coast/ Pensacola 350 is affiliated with 350.org, an international group that aims to find solutions for problems associated with climate change.
“Our basic message is to create a sustainable community with the Mayor and city council taking the lead,” Sargent said.
The group’s mantra is loosely ‘local solutions to local problems.’ Members strive for a greener community. Sargent said the group would push for a more “walkable, bikeable” Pensacola.
“Our city should be looking to the future,” she said. “—public transportation, planting trees, that sort of thing.”
The group’s presentation is tentatively planned for Jan. 13, 2012.