Independent News requests Mayor Hayward hold a press conference on Pitt Slip leases

December 11, 2013

The time has come for Mayor Ashton Hayward to explain his position on the Pitt Slip leases and why he believes The Fish House and Atlas Oyster House owe the city five percent of their gross sales retroactively to April 2000. His press release from last night leaves more questions than it answers.

I sent the following email this morning to Mayor Hayward and his Communications Administrator and copied all the local media, whom I hope will join me in this request:

From: Richard Outzen
Subject: Request for Press Conference
Date: December 11, 2013 8:09:51 AM CST
To: Tamara Fountain , Ashton Hayward
Cc: Randy Wood , Terry Cole , Dave Hoxeng , “” , Jim Sanborn , Joani Delezen ,,,, Mollye Barrows


The Independent News requests that Mayor Ashton Hayward hold a press conference on his dispute over the Pitt Slip leases. Since the News Journal reported on the notification of default, he and his administration have refused interviews with all local media.

This is too important an issue for the taxpayers of the city for the mayor to remain on the sidelines with his only communications being done through press releases.

Two months ago, Mayor Hayward launched his “Mornings with Mayor” press conferences to establish an open line of communication with the media and for him to field questions directly. The sessions were to be held every week, according to the mayor.

The last “Morning with the Mayor” was Nov. 5.

The mayor needs to hold a press conference and explain his side of this dispute to the media and the public.


Richard Outzen
Publisher, Independent News
(850) 438-8115

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  • Richard Hawkins December 11, 2013 at 9:54 pm

    The red herring here is what a lease would go for if negotiated today. The leaseholders believe they have a valid contract and I have seen no evidence to the contrary.

    If Ashton has that kind of evidence on Ray and Collier, I want to see it.

  • Justin December 11, 2013 at 5:24 pm

    I’m with Dale. Rick has a clear conflict of interest here and it is unprofessional of him to continue pushing this one-sided view of this issue. I am a big fan of the Fish House but they have a sweetheart deal, no way around that.

    • Rick Outzen December 11, 2013 at 7:17 pm

      You haven’t answered my question why aren’t your friends fans of Ashton?

      Rather than attack me deal with the issues.

      Ashton won’t talk with media which makes it difficult to get his side of the story.

  • A Citizen December 11, 2013 at 5:19 pm


    Those are not the only questions that need to be answered, nor are they the most important. Forgotten in all the mess is this question:

    Are we, the city folk, getting a good deal here, or are we subsidizing (while forgoing services, infrastructure improvements, payments to pensions and loans, salary increases, etc., etc.) a couple of successful businessmen with better lawyers who can find technical loopholes they can use to avoid paying their fair share?

    This is the only question that really matters, all the rest is (dirty) water under the bridge.

  • Dale Parker December 11, 2013 at 11:48 am

    I cannot help but think that your relationship with Collier Merrill and Ray Russenburger is coming out in your writing and judgement.

    It is very clear that Mr Merrill attempted to engineer himself a legal means to avoid paying the 5%. He felt all along, these restaurants are independent of my Land Company and therefore the 5% does not apply to me. However, if you look at his lease with Mr Russenburger, language appears in that lease that addresses that point specifically as if Mr Russenburger knew ahead of time this would be an issue.

    Now what we appear to have is and as I understand it a history of the City backroom dealing this property to the previous lessors, then to Mr Russenburger, then subleased to Mr Merrill… with NO RFP by the way. Then the City, having a history of backroom dealing and sweeping things under the rug. All of which are supported by sloppy legal documents and contracts. In short, it is a mess.

    However, the bottom line is the Spirit of the Contracts are specific. The low rent was to allow these businesses a chance to thrive, then once thriving the 5% would kick in. Any fool can see that. By hiding behind a legal separation of Collier Land and The Restaurant Group he owns is disingenuous to the City and her taxpayers who are basically subsidizing his operations at this point.

    In fact, I have a friend renting a warehouse at Ellison Industrial Park paying more than he is for 2 Waterfront Restaurant properties!

    Furthermore, I am also confused as to how Mr Russenburger had a lease with the City stating that the improvements would revert back to the City when the lease expired and managed to sell these building to Mr. Merrill. That to me sounds like the classic “I have a bridge in Florida I would like to sell you”. How could Mr Russenburger manage to sell buildings to someone that ultimately he did not own? Am I mistaken here? What kind of title search was done?

    Bottom line is this, there is WAY TOO MUCH emotion going on here. This is not about the Mayor (Of which I DO NOT SUPPORT AT ANY LEVEL). This is about an expiring lease and what is actually owed the City if anything. What appears to be happening now is that like the Airport fiasco, this has become a PR campaign to smear the City and attempt to make them the political bad guys in order to better the pot for Mr Collier.

    I say, take the emotion out of it. Lawyer up and take it to court and let the judge decide. Not emotions, not PR Campaigns, Not sign holding people in council chambers….

    • Rick Outzen December 11, 2013 at 3:56 pm

      I spent nearly a week reviewing all the available documents. Many of the points you are bringing up can be answered if you read the contracts. I knew when I wrote the piece that no matter what I wrote I would be criticized but that doesn’t excuse me from printing the facts.

      When Russenberger sold the building to Merrill Land in 2000, the original lease had 15 more years. The building was an improvement and could be sold without city approval, per the lease. No RFP was required for a private company to sell to another company–in 2000 no restaurant had been successful on the property.

      When all the leases and all renewals have expired the building reverts to the city (around 2045) before then they are privately owned—this is in the 1985 lease.

      The restaurants/Great Southern Restaurant Group and Merrill Land have always been two separate companies. You may see the separate corporations as disingenuous but that is purely subjective and has no basis in law.

      What some may consider disingenuous is for Mayor Hayward to make this claim nearly six months after the renewals of the lease. The claim should have been discussed months, if not years, ago.

      As to your friend at Ellyson Field, I have a friend who bought his house in 1985 and only paid $85,000. His neighbor bought his house in 2005 and paid $380,000. Should my friend pay the prior owner another $295,000. Your analogy doesn’t hold up. Times and conditions change.

      The issues are –without emotion:

      1) was their a partial assignment in 2000,
      2) is Great Southern Restaurant Group a subsidiary of Merrill Land LLC
      3) if the answers are yes, did the city’s lack of action until Nov. 2013 impact its claim
      4) have the leases been properly and legally renewed
      5) when was the city obligated to officially notify the lessee that the leases weren’t renewed – if that is the mayor’s position.

      This all may have to go to court to be settled. We will report on it when it does.


  • CJ Lewis December 11, 2013 at 10:03 am

    This is an issue of great public importance because Hayward is acting – and acting badly at that – in the name of the City Council and the people of Pensacola. No one would fault him for negotiating in good faith in the open to get a better future deal for taxpayers if there is something to negotiate, to date an unproven contention. However, killing the goose (Fish House/Atlas Oyster House) that laid the golden egg playing such a pivotal role revitalizing the waterfront seems an act of madness and desperation made even more insane because to date there is no evidence presented to the public that Hayward has actually met in person with Ray Russenberger and Collier Merrill to discuss this issue, relying instead on legal snipers to take pot shots at them and their businesses from the rooftop of the tightly-guarded political bunker complex on the 7th floor of City Hall.

    On Monday, Councilwoman Sherri Myers tried without success to get an update for the City Council. She requested that Mayor Hayward, City Administrator Castille and/or and City Attorney Messer explain the actions and inactions of the Hayward (Mis-)Administration at this Thursday’s regular meeting of the City Council. Castille appears to be at the center of this mess and judging by her overall performance Monday (consistent with her overall performance to date), she is lost without a written script perhaps reflecting her background as a professional political appointee and not a professional City/County Administrator/Manager. She makes George Tourat look like magnificent in comparison. Although he seems to be the person who lit the fuse, Messer appeared to wash his hands of the whole sordid affair on Monday explaining that the matter was being handled by an attorney (Nix Daniels) working for Hayward.

    The legal squabble, i.e. SNAFU, again raises a point I have many times framed for the Council. The Charter Review Commission twice voted to authorize the Council “and” the Mayor to retain independent legal counsel. That specific provision was not included in the much abbreviated and often cryptic and deceptive final version of the Charter but it is an easily found part of the public record demonstrating the intent of the Charter Review Commission that gave the Council most though not all of the tools it needs to do its job, for the most part the current Council seeming to prefer to embrace impotence. I have presented the Council with copies of the key records proving that they have this implied authority, also an inherent authority required to exercise their legislative function. I think they have a “duty” too because when they embrace being powerless, unable or unwilling to provide effective legislative oversight over municipal functions and municipal services, City residents, property owners and business owners suffer at the hands of a rogue Mayor who increasingly seems to be using Washington DC as his “bad governance” model.

    To date, Hayward eagerly hires his own legal counsel on a whim and at the drop of a hat but denies that same authority to the Council and the Council in its independent role as the Community Redevelopment Agency on which he does not serve, once even threatening legal action against CRA Chairwoman Megan Pratt for having hired a CRA attorney as authorized by Section §163.356(3)(c) of Florida Statues and as directed by the City Council in its role as the CRA. Although it was December, Pratt melted like a political popsicle on a hot summer day. That provided an opening for Hayward’s right-hand man and reach-around artist Councilman Brian Spencer to get elected CRA Chairperson making the CRA even more ineffective. Hayward and Spencer must have many fascinating private moments together behind closed doors in and out of City Hall, with or without Councilman Larry Johnson in the room or car, as they plot their schemes shaping future Council and CRA actions and inactions.

    Hayward has routinely claimed that his self-described “supreme” executive powers are so vast and so unchecked that they extend over the City Council and the City’s two dependent districts the Pensacola Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) and the Pensacola Downtown Improvement Board as well as the private Community Maritime Park Associates, Inc. In addition to exceeding the executive powers of the City, often at great expense to taxpayers, Hayward has violated or nullified many provisions in the voter-approved Charter and the Municipal Code adopted for the benefit of the people of Pensacola by the Council that now passively and meekly serves at its pleasure.

    Shamefully, my District 1 Councilman P.C. Wu has been the biggest enabler of Hayward saying that voters want a Weak City Council and a government with no balance of powers and no checks and balances. Wu has said that he feels made “powerless” by the Charter, i.e. even more powerless than he felt under the prior Council-Manager form of government. The one common thread is that both Hayward and Wu hold undergraduates in political science from FSU. They both act as if they think we live in a city run like a Banana Republic.

    Yet, if the Council had the guts to retain an independent legal counsel, it could and should charge that person to assess objectively Hayward’s position and the position held by Seville Harbour, Inc; Merrill Land, LLC; and Great Southern Restaurant Group of Pensacola, Inc. More importantly, “if” an independent analysis of the documents provides clear and convincing evidence that Hayward has overreached backing himself into a corner and undermining the good name of the City, that attorney could advise the Council on its options that might include adopting a resolution directing Hayward to “Stand Down.” If I were on the Council and proposing such legislation, I might name the legislative bill the – “Save the Fish House/Atlas Oyster House Bill.” Although a “Machiavellian” Hayward claims otherwise, it is the City Council not the Mayor that determines the authorities constituting “the executive powers of the City” now badly exercised by the Mayor who replaced a competent and honest City Manager.

  • Scapegoat Lover December 11, 2013 at 9:44 am

    I agree with Rick and just sent my question should a press conference occur.

  • skip vogelsang December 11, 2013 at 9:33 am

    Yikes I had already forgotten about the new and innovative forward thinking “mornings with the mayor” intended to make the mayors office more transparent, improve communication and show off new shoes. But since it only happened once or twice obviously the mayor has forgotten as well — or the handlers forgot to put it on his schedule.

    But I agree this would be a great time to schedule one. Hopefully he knows that the longer this thing drags out the worse it looks for the city and his office. This is not what many of us envisioned from a “strong mayor”.

    • Rick Outzen December 11, 2013 at 9:37 am

      The mayor has made this an important issue. I think the public needs to hear directly from him and the media should be allowed to ask him questions.