Pensacola City Council members are once again split on what Mayor Ashton Hayward can and cannotâand should or should notâdo. The familiar debate over the particulars of the cityâs new strong-mayor form of government this time originated from the realm of the downtown Community Redevelopment Agency.
âI do wish we could learn to do things a little differently around here and I think we would get better vibes from each other,â said Councilwoman Sheri Myers halfway through Monday nightâs discussion.
During the councilâs meetingâwith the council acting in its role as the CRA Boardâmembers were informed that the mayor had formed an Urban Redevelopment Advisory Committee. CRA Chairman Brian Spencer expressed his enthusiasm when formally relaying the committeeâs creation.
âI think we are fortunate to have this committee now appointed so they can help us understand as a CRA what we can do,â Spencer told his fellow council members.
But not everyone shared the chairmanâs sentiment. Some council members took issue with the committee, arguing that it was Haywardâs backdoor attempt to circumvent the CRA board itself.
âTheyâre playing the game of semantics,â Councilwoman Megan Pratt said.
Last year, Prattâthen acting as the CRA chairwomanâand then-CRA Administrator Becky Bray encountered some pushback after working with an attorney to draft a new interlocal agreement with the city. There were procedural questions surrounding the move and, in the end, the mayor fired Bray and the existing interlocal was extended.
Under the new charter, the strong mayor has the authority to hire and fire city employees. Bray was a city employee, though some council members believe there is confusion as to who such an employee works for and answers toâthe mayorâs office or, in this case, the CRA board?
Pratt said that, in various venues, the city council had âlet it slide a little bit because of the transition,â but that the mayor now needed to be held to the letter of the charter. She told her fellow council members that the newly announced Urban Redevelopment Advisory Committee was an attempt by the administration to work around the CRA board.
âIf it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck it is a duck, Iâm sorry,â Pratt said.
Council President Sam Hall said that he didnât have a problem with the mayor forming the advisory committee, but took objection to the administrationâs comment in an earlier press release that a 2010 plan for the CRA had be gathering dust. Councilman John Jerralds suggested the council and mayor schedule a âface-to-faceâ and sit down for a âserious powwowâ in an effort to determine what authorities the new charter grants the strong mayor and how the mayor and council can better work together.
Councilwoman Myers read from a description detailing the new advisory board. She said that the state statute governing CRAs does not provide for an outside advisory board.
âThe purpose of this committee is clearly to provide advise to the CRAâit says it right hereâI do believe that exceeds the mayorâs authority,â Myers said. âNumber one, I donât believe itâs constitutional, number two, that gives me no confidence in this process.â
Earlier, Councilwoman Maren DeWeese had asked Spencer if the new advisory board would be using the councilâs 2010 plan to base their work on.
âIs that the data that is going to be used,â she asked.
âI understand they are looking beyond that,â Spencer told her.
The mayorâs chief of staff, John Asmar, told the council that the committee âwas not intended to be an advisory board to the CRA.â He said the body was formed to advise the mayor in regards to the redevelopment area.
âTo assist him in assisting you,â Asmar said. âJust like he did with the port and pensions.â
At the same time, Asmar said that Hayward is âa doerâ and âall about implementationâ and was ready to move the CRAâs progress along.
âHis intent is not to reinvent the wheel, but to get this done,â Asmar said.
Pratt wondered what additional costs the new committee might entail, particularly insofar as staffing goes. Asmar said he didnât foresee any new costs, as the committee was a volunteer board.
Pratt continued pushing Asmar, who did concede that if the body required any staff it could probably be handled by the new CRA administrator. This didnât sit well with Pratt, but Asmar argued that the administratorâs attention would not be divided because Hayward viewed his advisory board and the CRA board as working on the same mission.
âItâs one and the same,â he told her. âHe sees it as the same great work.â
President Hall suggested that the council place the item on Thursdayâs agenda and put the matter to a vote in order to officially show their support for the mayorâs new committee.
âI would hope there would be at least five votes on council to give the mayor approval,â Hall said. âI know thatâs a dangerous road to go down politically.â
The vote notion was never brought up during city councilâs ensuing Committee of the Whole meeting.
Instead, the councilâstill in their role as CRA boardâdove into the city charter with City Attorney Jim Messer in an effort to figure out the extent of the mayorâs power. But the board was told that the charter was written in such a way that it only outlined what authority the mayor did have.
âSo, weâre not gonna find what the mayor canât do,â Messer explained.
After a couple of more snipes from either side of the argument, the CRA chairman flashed a disapproving grimace and wrapped up the issue.
âIâm disappointed in this discussion and where it is headed,â Spencer said.