Pensacola Politics

Runaway CRA spending

November 21, 2011

The chairman of Community Redevelopment Agency for the City of Pensacola has run up legal bills with the help of the former CRA administrator without a board vote approving the expenditure or contract and despite an interlocal agreement between CRA and the City that states the City will provide its legal counsel.

The result is yet another conflict between the Pensacola City Council, which makes up the CRA board, and Mayor Ashton Hayward over a new agreement to replace the one that expired two months ago.

The dispute may have cost Becky Bray, CRA administrator, her job. Bray was dismissed on Friday, Nov. 18. Through a public record request, the IN received a series of emails on the interlocal agreement which appear to show that Bray was helping to draft an agreement in conflict with the one proposed by her boss. Bray was a city employee, worked for and reported to the mayor.

Since June 1, 2011, the CRA has incurred $16,563.53 in legal fees with the Panama City firm Harrison Sale McCloy. Most of it was for contract with Hixardt on the sale of the Government St. property, but $5791.69 of the total was on drafting an alternative interlocal agreement, including 4.25 hours of telephone conferences and emails with CRA chair Megan Pratt (@ $250/hour). The invoice for November has not been sent to the City yet.

June – INV DATED 7-7-2011
July – INV DATED 8-22-2011
August – INV DATED 9-8-2011
September – INV DATED 10-7-2011
October – INV DATED 11-04-2011

How did the CRA come to use outside counsel? Bray sent an email to Chief of Staff John Asmar on Nov. 16 to explain how Sale became the CRA attorney:

From: Becky Bray
To: John Asmar
CC: Megan Pratt; ‘Megan Pratt’ ; Bill Reynolds; Ashton Hayward
Sent: Wed Nov 16 16:53:51 2011
Subject: RE: Revised Interlocal for CRA agenda

Ordinance 13-84 provides the Trust Fund for the Agency/Board to use for such expenses. The CRA has, by reference, adopted (June 2011) the City’s policies and procedures unless in conflict with other law.

Because this scenario is not specifically referenced in the policies (or may not have been at that time before current revisions), I briefly consulted with the purchasing manager and I investigated 2 recommended attorneys for assistance in this area of specialty.

I provided the fee and background information to the former City Attorney (Rusty Wells – who was no longer city employee) and he recommended Mr. Sale for services (email attached). I then discussed this engagement with you, and with your recommendation and concurrence I met with the current City Attorney to discuss engaging Mr. Sale vs another attorney/inside counsel.

Mr. Messer concurred, but indicated that with further development of his recommendations on all legal services, the terms and/or necessity of outside services would be revisited. He asked for and was provided a copy once executed.

At the time it was not know to what extent services would be needed; and the engagement letter did not obligate any fees unless services were rendered. The attached engagement letter was executed by the Chair per the CRA rules of procedure. She also informed the Board at the 6-20-11 CRA meeting. Once fees were incurred, the invoices were processed for payment by the community development purchasing clerk.

Important points – The CRA board never voted on the contract with Sale. It was merely informed of the contract. Mayor Ashton Hayward never approved the contract. Bray’s initial consultation was not with the City Attorney, but with Wells. It appears by never voting on the contract that the CRA chair voided a possible veto from Hayward. The CRA board never challenged Pratt on her announcement. The minutes (6.20.11 CRA min) show the announcement of a contract with Sale was almost an aside to the conversations at the end of the CRA meeting. Clearly no one intended for the CRA chair and its administrator to rack up $16K+ in fees.

CRA Chair Pratt did send the IN a Sept. 29 email that provided more background on Sale’s contract:

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Megan Pratt
Date: Thu, Sep 29, 2011 at 8:46 AM
Subject: Re: CRA attorney contact
To: Ashton Hayward , John Asmar
Cc: Becky Bray

I spoke with Bill Reynolds and Becky about the CRA agreement discussion at the CRA meeting. Jim Messer’s comments about the oddness of him serving as the attorney to both parts of the agreement highlighted the strangeness of the entire process for the drafting of the agreement. Taking direction from the CRA, I will work directly with Mr. Sale to incorporate the changes recommended by the board and then will present a draft to you. That will reduce the potential of any conflict of interest. As Becky has hinted that Mr. Sale’s hourly rate is pretty high, I will try to limit the amount I pester him. I think it shouldn’t take much effort to incorporate the concerns of the board and create an agreement that this and future CRA boards and city administrations will find clear and workable.

Let me know if you need any further clarification.

Megan

What’s odd is I can’t find any CRA minutes that show more than a very general and vague discussion of the interlocal agreement. I see no recommendations by the board. It did not come up in the August 15 CRA meeting. The Committee of the Whole on Sept. 19 extended the CRA interlocal agreement an additional 60 days. There are no minutes showing a series of recommendations voted on by the council.

Pratt followed this email with another saying she didn’t want to pursue an alternative agreement without the mayor’s support. She didn’t get his support but went ahead anyway. It’s an odd email since Mayor Hayward had already made his recommendation to the CRA board and City Council.

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Megan Pratt
Date: Thu, Sep 29, 2011 at 9:39 AM
Subject: Re: CRA attorney contact
To: Ashton Hayward , John Asmar
Cc: Becky Bray

I meant to add…. If there are any suggestions you have regarding the requests by the board, please let me know. No point in me working with the attorney to perfect language that you won’t support. My phone number is 434-6138 if you want to talk to me about your thoughts.

I believe it’s a dangerous precedent for council members to hire outside contractors and incur expenses without a council vote and a review by the mayor. If the mayor vetoes the action, then the council can override it.

These independent acts without council approval completely circumvent the new charter. The fact that Bray was acting at the instructions of Pratt brings into question that part of the charter that forbids council members interfering with the administration:

4.04(b) Interference with Administration. Except for the purpose of inquiries and investigations made in good faith, the City Council or Council Members shall deal with the City officers and employees, who are subject to the direction and supervision of the Mayor, solely through the Mayor. Neither the City Council nor Council Members shall give orders to any such officer or employee, either publicly or privately. It is the express intent of this Charter that recommendations for improvement of municipal governmental operations by individual Council Members be made solely to and through the Mayor.

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