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Friday August 1st 2014

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Meeting Meltdown

Officials from the city of Pensacola, Escambia County and Gulf Breeze stepped into a room yesterday to discuss natural gas franchise rights. It did not go well.

Towards the end of the meeting, City Attorney Jim Messer started throwing verbal punches.

“Mr. Asmar, did I promise you to be conciliatory and not use the term ‘unbridled arrogance,’” Messer called to his boss’s chief of staff, before telling the Gulf Breeze representatives that the issue was destined for a courtroom.

Last year, Gulf Breeze officials made plans to provide natural gas to Pensacola Beach. They laid the pipe. Started pumping gas last week.

Pensacola officials, meanwhile, have been crying foul because the city has the natural gas franchise rights for the entirety of Escambia County. The entities are now in a process meant to keep the matter from reaching legal proportions.

After the opening formalities of yesterday’s meeting, Gulf Breeze Attorney Matt Dannheisser said that the statutory requirements of the mediation process had not been fulfilled because Messer had not attended a prior meeting.

“It is not discretionary on our part to ignore this,” Dannheisser said.

Messer balked, assuring everyone that he had met all mediation obligations. The previous day, the attorney had asked Pensacola City Council to allow him to scrap the mediation and head straight into a lawsuit.

Escambia County has consistently preferred to let the two cities hash out their natural gas differences between themselves. They have deferred a limited franchise to Gulf Breeze until the city of Pensacola chooses to service the beach itself. After the mediation meltdown, county officials seemed confused.

“There’s no point in us still being here,” Escambia County Commission Chairman Wilson Robertson said.

“I want to ask our attorney,” said Commissioner Kevin White. “Which one of these attorney’s does she agree with?”

The county’s attorney said that she agreed with the Gulf Breeze attorney’s view that the provisions of state law regarding conflicts between governments were mandatory, but was cut off before she rendered any opinion on the disagreement.

“Then why are you all here?” Messer snapped. “Why did you show up?”

“We’ve just been confused all day, but we’re here,” Wilson replied, saying that he had thought the meeting was to be called off.

“We’ll we’re used to that,” Pensacola City Council President Sam Hall said.

Gulf Breeze Attorney Dannheisser said that he had attempted to call off the meeting— “Frankly sir, we had suggested that this meeting be postponed, but the Pensacola staff insisted on holding it.”

President Hall said that he agreed with Messer, and quickly brought the meeting to a close—“Adjourned!”—with several officials laughing at the hasty wrap.

The collective gathering of local officials began to pack up their belongings. The matter would next be taken up in a legal venue. Messer preferred not to talk.

“Aw, I’m too hot to comment,” the city attorney said, leaving the meeting room.

Council President Hall said that he was sure Messer was in the right. He stressed the importance of protecting the city’s franchise rights.

“I’m confident that our attorney is right on every point,” Hall said afterwards. “I just hope Gulf Breeze will be reasonable.”

The council president also said that Messer no longer intended to request the council allow him to forgo mediation in favor of a lawsuit.

“When I spoke to him this afternoon,” Hall said, “he said, ‘no, no, I’m going to pull that because I don’t want it to be seen as not doing things in a conciliatory manner.”