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Thursday October 30th 2014

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CRA’s Backdoor?

Pensacola City Council members are once again split on what Mayor Ashton Hayward can and cannot—and should or should not—do. The familiar debate over the particulars of the city’s new strong-mayor form of government this time originated from the realm of the downtown Community Redevelopment Agency.

“I do wish we could learn to do things a little differently around here and I think we would get better vibes from each other,” said Councilwoman Sheri Myers halfway through Monday night’s discussion.

During the council’s meeting—with the council acting in its role as the CRA Board—members were informed that the mayor had formed an Urban Redevelopment Advisory Committee. CRA Chairman Brian Spencer expressed his enthusiasm when formally relaying the committee’s creation.

“I think we are fortunate to have this committee now appointed so they can help us understand as a CRA what we can do,” Spencer told his fellow council members.

But not everyone shared the chairman’s sentiment. Some council members took issue with the committee, arguing that it was Hayward’s backdoor attempt to circumvent the CRA board itself.

“They’re playing the game of semantics,” Councilwoman Megan Pratt said.

Last year, Pratt—then acting as the CRA chairwoman—and 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 to—the mayor’s office or, in this case, the CRA board?

Pratt said that, in various venues, the city council had “let it slide a little bit because of the transition,” 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.

“If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck it is a duck, I’m sorry,” Pratt said.

Council President Sam Hall said that he didn’t have a problem with the mayor forming the advisory committee, but took objection to the administration’s 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 “face-to-face” and sit down for a “serious powwow” 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.

“The purpose of this committee is clearly to provide advise to the CRA—it says it right here—I do believe that exceeds the mayor’s authority,” Myers said. “Number one, I don’t believe it’s constitutional, number two, that gives me no confidence in this process.”

Earlier, Councilwoman Maren DeWeese had asked Spencer if the new advisory board would be using the council’s 2010 plan to base their work on.

“Is that the data that is going to be used,” she asked.

“I understand they are looking beyond that,” Spencer told her.

The mayor’s chief of staff, John Asmar, told the council that the committee “was not intended to be an advisory board to the CRA.” He said the body was formed to advise the mayor in regards to the redevelopment area.

“To assist him in assisting you,” Asmar said. “Just like he did with the port and pensions.”

At the same time, Asmar said that Hayward is “a doer” and “all about implementation” and was ready to move the CRA’s progress along.

“His intent is not to reinvent the wheel, but to get this done,” Asmar said.

Pratt wondered what additional costs the new committee might entail, particularly insofar as staffing goes. Asmar said he didn’t 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 didn’t sit well with Pratt, but Asmar argued that the administrator’s attention would not be divided because Hayward viewed his advisory board and the CRA board as working on the same mission.

“It’s one and the same,” he told her. “He sees it as the same great work.”

President Hall suggested that the council place the item on Thursday’s agenda and put the matter to a vote in order to officially show their support for the mayor’s new committee.

“I would hope there would be at least five votes on council to give the mayor approval,” Hall said. “I know that’s a dangerous road to go down politically.”

The vote notion was never brought up during city council’s ensuing Committee of the Whole meeting.

Instead, the council—still in their role as CRA board—dove into the city charter with City Attorney Jim Messer in an effort to figure out the extent of the mayor’s 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.

“So, we’re not gonna find what the mayor can’t do,” 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.

“I’m disappointed in this discussion and where it is headed,” Spencer said.