To get Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward to sit still for an interview is a challenge. The man is perpetual motion. His phone rings and vibrates constantly from phone calls, text messages and e-mails. His office schedule is often double-booked. If you set up a meeting at a restaurant, his familiar mug with its uber-bright smile promptly attracts well-wishers offering encouragement and looking for snapshots with the mayor for their Facebook wall.
The IN corralled Hayward on a Sunday morning, after his cup of coffee and before he headed off to church with his wife An and son Aiden. He was relaxed and the interview probably took him in some directions that he hadn’t expected.
Hayward was sworn in on Jan. 10, 2011 as Pensacola’s first strong mayor. The political novice had campaigned in 2009 for the new city charter that made the mayor the chief operating officer of the city. The next year he upset the popular Mike Wiggins, a long-time councilman and incumbent mayor under the city-manager form of government.
His inauguration speech showed his excitement and his inexperience. His start as mayor was slow. Though he quickly recovered, Hayward admitted that he was cautious in the beginning.
“One of the things that was important to me was to pull in the reins on myself, personally,” Mayor Hayward said about his first month in office. “I’m action-oriented, but I realized I needed to get a look at landscape, do my due diligence and then make my decisions.”
It took a while for Mayor Hayward to assemble his team. City Manager Al Coby, City Attorney Rusty Wells, Community Development Director Thaddeus Cohen and Human Resources Director Mary Ann Stalcup retired, resigned or simply weren’t rehired.
John Asmar was hired in February as special counsel to the mayor and later chief of staff. Jim Messer became the city attorney in May and Bill Reynolds was brought on in July as chief administrative officer.
“I knew I had to work and take risks,” said Hayward. “I was fortunate to get John on board early and we started working fast and furious because I had to get points on the board. There had been enough talk about potential. Let’s just do it.”
The pace was fast. The mayor’s office had to produce its first budget. Two community resource centers were announced. A disparity study was approved. Advisory committees were established to study the Port of Pensacola and the city pension plans.
For a city government accustomed to thinking of projects in terms of months and years, the pace caused friction and concern both inside City Hall and with the Pensacola City Council.
“We didn’t have a lot of time for process, because it was such a huge cultural change for the employees and the public,” said Hayward. “I’m not a ‘sit at desk’ type of mayor. I wanted people to realize that I was going to do anything and everything to get this city going, whether it be flying to California to meet with Hubbs-Seaworld about a marine hatchery or to Dallas to discuss Southwest Airlines coming to Pensacola.”
The faster the pace, the more contentious the relationship became with the city council, particularly with Council President Maren DeWeese and Councilwomen Megan Pratt and Sherri Myers. The vitriol that surfaced in council meetings caught him off guard.
“A little of it surprised me,” said Hayward. “Everything we do is politics, but I was hoping that more people in city government, especially our council, would have been more on board.”
Hayward, DeWeese and Myers had worked together for the passage of the new city charter. DeWeese had supported Hayward when he ran for mayor. The newly-elected mayor had lobbied for DeWeese to be the first city council president. On the surface, it appeared the group should have been able to work together.
“We get caught graveling over petty issues when we know our people are hurting, need jobs,” said Hayward. “We all need to be bigger than personal difference and try to bring our community together.”
Hayward pointed out the near-constant state of disruption that the city battled the past decade—a stream of referendums and petition drives to stop the Community Maritime Park, three hurricanes, recession, city charter referendum and the defeat of a 15-year incumbent.
“A new generation is stepping into leadership positions and these generational changes are difficult enough without sniping from the council,” said Hayward. “Come on, people, are we that petty?”
UNRESPONSIVE SCHOOL DISTRICT
Another elected official that surprised Mayor Hayward was Superintendent of Schools Malcolm Thomas with whom the mayor met last fall to discuss the vacant buildings owned by the school district inside the city limits. The mayor had purchased the old Blount Middle School that was privately-owned and announced its demolition.
After Hayward and his staff met with the superintendent and presented recommendations that addressed the closed schools, like Hallmark and Spencer-Bibbs, they hoped he would discuss the issue with the school board. Instead, nothing happened.
“There wasn’t really any follow-up from the school district. There was no ‘let’s work together,”’ said Hayward. “Our staff went through a lot of effort to come up with what we thought needed to be done, told Malcolm that we wanted to work with him, but right now, it’s stagnant.”
The mayor believed that closing schools hurt how people perceive Pensacola, particularly the boarded up administrative buildings on Garden and Spring streets, which will be one of the entrance ways to the new Maritime Park.
“No one wants to come to an ugly city. No one especially wants to see abandoned, boarded-up schools,” said Hayward. “We bought the old Blount school and will be tearing it down soon. We wanted that to be the first step in dealing with these schools and we wanted to work with the district on the other schools.”
“There needs to be a plan in place where we work together on these properties,” said Hayward. “I’m waiting.”
The mayor said that he was concerned over the quality of education, especially at the schools inside the city limits. He sees education and economic development linked together.
“Economic development is tied to education,” said Hayward. “It’s vital to creating jobs and to attracting people to live in your city. It’s challenging to recruit people to come to our town if the perception of our schools is not good.”
Although public education doesn’t fall under the mayor’s office, Hayward said that he wants to help.
“It’s part of my role as mayor to make education better in our community,” said the mayor. “Education is the most valuable thing we can do for our children.”
JUST GETTING STARTED
Hayward said that he sees 2012 as being as busy as his first year.
“It’s tremendously important that the projects we launched last year come to fruition,” said Hayward. “We need to look at our organization and see how we can make it more efficient and effective. The pension issue has been avoided by past administrations and city councils. We are going to have to deal with it this year. It is a tremendous challenge and we will need to work with our unions to solve it.”
Economic development and job creation will remain on the forefront.
“Pensacola is open for business and we’re looking for partnerships to help our community grow,” said Hayward. “We’re just getting started.”