KEEP TALKING While it appeared Pensacola City Attorney Jim Messer was ready to go to war over the city’s natural gas franchise dispute with Gulf Breeze, city officials have chosen to stick to the negotiating table for now. Mayor Ashton Hayward sent a letter to Gulf Breeze officials April 9 expressing the city’s desire to resolve the matter.
“He wants to do everything he can to try to execute a contract with Gulf Breeze,” said Pensacola City Administrator Bill Reynolds, adding that he thought a “45-day window would be appropriate” for working the issue out.
Pensacola and Gulf Breeze have been attempting for some time to work out differences regarding natural gas franchise rights. While Pensacola—which owns Energy Services of Pensacola—has longstanding franchise rights for all of Escambia County, Gulf Breeze officials have nonetheless begun to provide natural gas to Pensacola Beach.
The Escambia County Commission recently granted Gulf Breeze franchise rights to the beach, citing the fact that Pensacola has yet to provide service to the area and stipulating that Gulf Breeze would need to relinquish franchise rights if Pensacola decided to provide natural gas to the beach in the future.
A few days prior to Reynolds’ 45-day window estimation, Messer had been ready to take the matter to court. The attorney was dissatisfied with the mandated conflict resolution process, feeling it was going nowhere. He had planned to seek permission from the Pensacola City Council at its Committee of the Whole meeting when Gulf Breeze Mayor Beverly Zimmern raised a red flag.
“They were all uptight about the agenda item,” Messer said.
Indeed, Gulf Breeze officials had expressed concern over Messer’s request. City Manager Buzz Eddy said he thought the two entities were still engaged in talks until he saw the matter on the Pensacola City Council Agenda. He said that Pensacola was sending “mixed signals.”
“It’s difficult to focus on offense and defense,” Eddy said.
“There are no mixed signals,” Messer said, referring to the notion as “nonsense.”
The attorney said that both paths could be pursued simultaneously, using an analogy to illustrate his point.
“The best way I can think about it is a railroad track,” Messer said. “What happens on one rail doesn’t affect what happens on the other rail.”
According to Pensacola’s attorney, it is necessary to lay the groundwork for legal proceedings while, at the same time, attempting to reach an amiable agreement outside the courtroom.
Messer said his original intent in requesting to move the show before a judge was so that he could file an injunction against Gulf Breeze. He said that because Gulf Breeze had already begun providing service, the injunction possibility was not likely.
“Gulf Breeze has already turned the gas on, so that’s a moot point,” Messer said. “Once the gas is on the judge is not gonna turn it off—but now it’s on the agenda and I can’t get it off.”
The attorney told Pensacola City Council members last month that he wished to fast-forward into legal proceedings because he didn’t think the conflict resolution process was producing any results. He said today that he did not discuss his exact injunction strategy with the council during its meetings because it would have revealed the strategy to Gulf Breeze officials—“If I talk in public I might as well just call [Gulf Breeze Attorney Matt] Dannheisser up and show him my hand of cards.”—and he didn’t meet with council members privately on the matter due to Sunshine Law issues.
“You see, there’s too many moving parts to this thing,” Messer said.
The attorney said that he didn’t feel the respective legal counsels could work constructively.
“I felt that the negotiations between Dannheisser and I were being affected by our respective personalities,” Messer said.
After the weekend, Reynolds said that the mayor had contacted Gulf Breeze officials earlier via letter regarding the matter. Legal action will not be considered by the city council at this time.
“We’re all eagerly anticipating closing that deal with the city of Gulf Breeze,” Reynolds told city council members during the Committee of the Whole.