While there was no commitment to an investigation, the Pensacola City Council did decide to continue exploring.
“It’s not about guilt or innocence, just fact-finding,” said Council President Sam Hall.
Two weeks ago, the Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 71, requested that the council investigate Mayor Ashton Hayward following an Oct. 19 Gallery Night incident during which the police union contends the mayor misused his position to intimidate officers as they attempted to reopen downtown to vehicular traffic. At that time, the council decided to gather relevant information, including a statement from Hayward on the matter—to “hear both sides of the story”—and then determine if an investigation was warranted.
Since that time, the mayor released a statement addressing the scheduling logistics of Gallery Night and police behavior during the Oct. 19 event, and also met privately with individual council members. Hayward did not, however, provide an account of the incident in question to the council.
Councilwoman Maren DeWeese complained that the only official record of the incident—there were no police reports and Hayward’s statement was issued to the press—was the FOP’s request to council for an investigation. She requested that the council get sworn statements from all the relevant parties.
“We must establish a permanent record of what happened with this situation,” she said. “If not, it will fester.”
“Are you going to issue subpoenas to get those statements?” asked Councilwoman Sherri Myers. “Because some people may not want to give us their statement.”
The council unanimously decided to issue subpoenas for the statements. Councilman John Jerralds was absent.
That decision came after a lengthy discussion about the overall issue. The mayor was not in attendance, but the Committee of the Whole meeting room was packed, in large part, with members of the police union.
“We came to y’all to do the right thing,” lodge president Erik Goss told the council. “And we want you to do the right thing. It’s that simple.”
The police union has relayed to council the accounts of two anonymous officers who say they were approached by the mayor and John Peacock, his recent appointee to the Downtown Improvement Board, during the Oct. 19 Gallery Night. Hayward and Peacock were concerned about police tactics, and apparently said words like “terrorists” and “Beirut.”
An officer has alleged that Hayward also intimidated him, demanding that he get on his radio and tell other police to “relax.” The union has also implied that the mayor was drunk—or “disheveled”—at the time.
Earlier in the COW meeting, President Hall had said he found the union’s position “compelling and truthful,” but then asked Goss what exactly he wanted from the council. What would be the end result of a possible investigation?
“A simple apology,” Goss said. “And it didn’t happen.”
Hall asked if it would help if the mayor responded to the officer’s concerns.
“I don’t want to use the term ‘apology,’” he said, “but some type of public comment?”
“I think he already did,” Goss said.
“You’re right, he did,” Hall conceded.
Goss said that the mayor’s statement amounted to “spin.” Several council members also complained about this “spin” on the issue. In addition to the mayor’s statement regarding the operation of Gallery Night and police interaction with citizens, city officials have also linked the FOP request to the police’s contract negotiations.
“I was upset about the spin,” said Councilwoman Megan Pratt. “It should never have been perceived that they were doing this as a negotiating tactic.”
Incoming councilman Charles Bare told the council that the mayor had “overstepped his bounds.” He urged them not to “sweep this under the rug.”
“It comes down to bullying,” Bare said. “As a kid, I didn’t like bullying. And as an adult I like it even less.”
Most of the council expressed sympathy for the union’s concerns. Myers called Hayward’s comments “highly inappropriate” and “disturbing,” while Pratt said the mayor’s behavior was “over the line.” DeWeese noted she was “obviously frustrated about it” and Hall said he hoped he could make it through the discussion without tearing up— “It saddens me. I stand with the police officers on this.”
“In my own mind, I see something happening,” said Councilman P.C. Wu pondered a proper solution. “But as I said before, Mr. Goss, I’m still grappling with what that is.”
Wu told the union president that it didn’t seem fruitful to hound Hayward for an apology.
“I don’t know if we can force someone to make an apology,” he said. “And if it is a forced apology, I’m not sure it’s one you would want. Am I making any sense?”
Hall suggested formalizing something on the books—“something that maybe even has some teeth to it”—preventing elected officials from interfering with the police. Myers said the council should remove Peacock from the DIB.
Councilman Brian Spencer, however, said he was “speechless” after hearing council’s discussion. He described it as “inflammatory comments that verge on irresponsibility, in my opinion.”
But Spencer did in the end find his way on board the unanimous vote to subpoena sworn statements. He had previously been the lone dissenting vote when the council initially requested a statement from Hayward, saying he was sure a statement would be forthcoming without such a request.
Though the council will now get Hayward’s version in a sworn, subpoenaed statement, most of the members have apparently spoken with the mayor privately about the matter. Earlier in the day, City Spokesman Derek Cosson said that Hayward didn’t plan to attend the COW meeting, but confirmed that the mayor had discussed the issue with council members individually.
“The mayor did reach out and meet with all of the council members about the Gallery Night issue, except for Councilwoman DeWeese, who did not make herself available,” Cosson said. “He was able to address things from his point of view.”