Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday September 2nd 2014

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Therapy in Crazytown

By Jeremy Morrison

Attorney Doug Sale seemed almost relieved when the Pensacola Community Redevelopment Agency cut him loose. After listening to nearly two hours of discussions, he had apparently reached the same conclusion in regards to his future relationship with the CRA—“I just can’t.”

“I don’t want to sound like I’m taking my marbles and going home,” Sale told the CRA board. “You have got some issues that must be resolved in this city before something much more serious than hiring a little ol’ lawyer from Panama City comes before you.”

It was the attorney’s first trip to town to visit with his clients. Weird as the meeting was, he seemed to think it worth the drive down Highway 98.

“I couldn’t resist it,” Sale said as the November 28 meeting wrapped up. “It was too challenging professionally and intellectually.”

“Bail before the ship goes down,” CRA board member John Jerralds laughed.

Sale’s visit to Pensacola was hardly a waste. It provided the CRA and city officials with a marathon group therapy session. What City Attorney Jim Messer had referred to as an “opportunity moment” before the meeting began.

Sale had come to the meeting to answer questions. But he also had a few questions of his own, such as who would be paying his bill?

“You want your money back?” he asked. “I can give it to you. That’s not the point.”

Sale was hired in June by CRA Chairman Megan Pratt and former CRA Administrator Becky Bray. The attorney has done a good bit of work for them—“clearly, less than $20,000”—and a bulk of his tab has already been paid by the city.

During its September 19 board meeting, the CRA, which is comprised of the entire city council, give a 60-day approval to an interlocal agreement for the city to run the CRA that had been proposed by Mayor Ashton Hayward. Board member Sherri Myers wanted more control on the CRA administrator and wanted Sale to offer an opinion on her thoughts at the next meeting. Others, including Pratt, expressed interest in exploring other modifications. None were voted on by the board, only the extension was approved.

Since that meeting, Bray and Pratt worked with Sale to draft an alternative interlocal agreement. The ‘Administrator’ morphed into an ‘Executive,’ with the new position reporting to the CRA chairman instead of the mayor. Then, the week before the Thanksgiving holiday, Hayward fired Bray and questions arose over the legitimacy of Sale’s contract.

Myers told Pratt that the CRA board members should have been involved in the discussions with Sale.

“We should have had these conversations during this 60-day period and we wouldn’t be sitting here now,” Myers said, adding that the board shouldn’t be expected to consider alternate language they had never seen before on a contract set to expire December 1— “I can’t operate that way.”

But these issues are symptoms to be viewed in a broader context. And so, the evening’s discussions dove deeper, into a “tug of war” and a “playbook” and a “power struggle” and a “dead horse.”

At the crux of the matter is the CRA’s relationship with the Mayor, specifically, who exactly should have control of staff. This particular dispute does not exist on an island. Similar struggles have played out in other council theaters since Pensacola changed to a strong-mayor form of government.

In the venue of the city council, Hayward has made it clear he intends to enjoy the newly minted strong-mayor position. But where the CRA is concerned, everyone is experiencing what Sale calls “growing pains” and Messer would probably refer to as a “sticky wicket.”

“We don’t know what the rules are,” said board member P.C. Wu in frustration. “One side is saying it’s a touchdown. One side is saying it’s not a touchdown.”

The CRA is a special taxing district within Pensacola. Its board is charged with developing a CRA plan that spends the tax revenues generated within its boundaries for the betterment of that area. While the agency is an independent entity, it does contract with the city to administer the CRA plan. Currently, some members feel the existing interlocal gives the Mayor too much power; Hayward is happy with the current agreement.

“We don’t want this to have an appearance of a power-struggle of any sort,” Jerralds cautioned his fellow board members.

While this issue of a new interlocal agreement was going to take some time, most of the board seemed ready to retroactively ratify Sale’s contract—due to the fact that an actual vote was never taken on hiring the attorney—and get Pratt off the hook for any questionable procedure breakdowns and illegalities.

“I’m trying to choose my words because I don’t want to jump all over the chair, who I have a tremendous amount of respect for,” said board member Sam Hall, who was recently elected as city council president.

The general consensus among the board seemed to be that Pratt may have been a bit sloppy, but ultimately had the CRA’s best interest at heart. The board voted to approve Sale’s contract and pay him money owed. Pratt, Jerralds, Myers, Wu, Hall and Ronald Townsend voted to approve, while Vice Chairman Brian Spencer and Larry B. Johnson opposed the motion. Maren DeWeese was absent.

Pratt said that Bray had brought up the notion of hiring a separate attorney, and it seemed like a natural move in context of board discussions.

“It seemed that there was a general consensus,” Pratt said. “I will not disagree here, we probably need to flesh out our processes and there is confusion here.”

There may be a snag, however, to CRA’s retroactive move. Messer pointed out that he wasn’t sure the CRA had the authority to ratify the contract, but thought it might instead rest with the Mayor.

“If the mayor pays it, then you apparently had the authority,” Messer said, adding that if Hayward opts not to pay Sale’s bill the matter will need to go before a judge.

Then there was the matter of drafting a new interlocal agreement, or not, and whether to keep Sale on the team. The CRA was less cohesive on these points.

Wu suggested it might be good to keep a separate attorney.

“He’s not wed to the Council’s position, he’s not wed to the Mayor’s position,” Wu said.

Myers said she thought the current arrangement—extended two months ago—gave too much power to the mayor, specifically the ability to hire and fire staff that was charged with working with the CRA.

“I think the system is broken,” Myers said. “And I say that based on the firing of Thaddeus Cohen, on the firing of Becky Bray.”

Hall also said the existing framework for the CRA didn’t seem to be working out under the new form of government.

“I think we’re just asking for trouble,” he said. “I think it’s critical that we get that playbook worked out.”

The new city council president said that he wanted to include Mayor Hayward in the process, thus respecting the intent of voters, but also thought it important to preserve the CRA’s individuality.

“As the CRA board, I’m not willing to give that up to him,” Hall said.

Sale told the board that he would work with both the CRA and the Mayor’s office to craft a new interlocal agreement everyone could work with. John Asmar, the Mayor’s chief of staff, said that they were up for conversations but that Hayward preferred the current agreement—“to be in the driver’s seat, to get it done.”

“The alternative is that the CRA hires their own staff, rents their own building, do their own accounting,” Asmar said.

Myers made a motion to keep Sale on as legal advisor. Although several members had lobbied for such—notably Wu—that sentiment died on the floor for lack of a second.
Hall suggested that the group extend the agreement until the next board. Pratt asked if he meant the next “board meeting.” Hall said he had meant until a new CRA board took seats in 2013.

“So, you’re asking to extend it for another year?” Pratt asked.

“Fourteen months, whatever it is,” Hall said. “I’m of the opinion, if it’s not broke don’t fix it. And it seems to be working for us.”

Wu said they had a “very divided council.” Myers suggested there was an element of orchestration to the mess. Pratt argued for staying the course on drafting another interlocal.

“This document isn’t about Mayor Hayward or us, it’s about the CRA,” the chairwoman said. “If we put it off until next year at this time, I think it will get brushed under the rug.”

Johnson said the issue was a “waste of time” and had him “spinning my wheels.” The CRA then voted on Hall’s motion—seconded by Wu—to extend the current arrangement until the next board formed.

The chairwoman then said she had a question that had been on her mind since first taking office.

“When can I quit?” Pratt laughed.

She suggested that the board elect a new leader to coincide with the city council’s recent changing of the guard. Johnson asked if that meant she did not wish to be nominated for another round in the Chair. Pratt told him to ask her next month.

Johnson threw Spencer’s name onto the table, but Pratt said the matter would need to be placed on the next meeting’s agenda.

It was some rousing therapy, but some questioning does remain as to who’s paying the bill.

“I would appreciate it if you pay me, don’t care if you don’t,” Sale told the room.