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Wednesday August 27th 2014

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The Big Slim Down

johnson pratt bare wingateSeveral members of Pensacola’s African-American community expressed concerns Thursday night as the Pensacola City Council considered cutting its two at-large seats.

“In the African-American community, we have angst about decreasing representation,” said Dr. Marion WIlliams, of Movement for Change.

This was the council’s first public hearing on the downsizing concept, reducing its size from nine to seven members. During Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting the council voted to begin the process, with the intent of placing the matter on the ballot for the June special election scheduled to fill the District 2 House seat left vacant by the late Rep. Clay Ford.

“Dr. Williams, how long have we known each other?” asked Council President P.C. Wu.

“At least 40 years,” Williams replied.

“Keep that in mind when I speak,” Wu told him.

Later—just before the council voted 5-4 to move ahead to the second public hearing—Wu would elaborate. He would explain why he had temporarily returned from the Southern Municipal Leadership Conference in Savannah, Ga. to make the vote.

“I felt this was important enough to be here. Why?” Wu asked. “Ladies and gentleman, I would not have traveled a thousand miles if I thought it was going to hurt minorities.”

The council president said there was “a lot of scare being thrown out there.” He disputed the position that doing away with the body’s at-large seats would decrease minority representation, pointing to the fact that the city has three districted seats rooted in minority-heavy areas of the city, two of which are held by African-Americans.

“Two out of seven is a heck of a lot better than two out of nine, or three out of nine no matter how you slice the pie,” Wu said.

Most of the African-Americans in the room—the two on council and those in the gallery—didn’t seem convinced. They questioned the timing and rationale and said the move would effectively cut two seats viewed as responsive to the black community, as those council members are meant to serve the entire city as opposed to focusing on one district.

“I just want to say, I don’t approve of what we’re trying to do here,” said Councilman Gerald Wingate. “—and I told the mayor earlier this morning, ‘even Jesus had 12 disciples.”

Vice President Jewel Cannada-Wynn contended that the June election would not allow enough time for “adequate citizen input.” She also said that the special election—with its reliably low turnout at the polls—would mean a limited number of voters would be ultimately deciding the matter.

“This issue is too important to allow so few voters to decide what the future of our government looks like,” Cannada-Wynn said.

The council’s two at-large members, who would finish out their terms before the seats were dropped, were also opposed.Councilwoman Megan Pratt didn’t understand why the recent push to drop the seats— “I keep asking myself, what problem are we trying to address?”—and Councilman Charles Bare said he thought the at-large seats “serve a valuable purpose” in the community.

Both council members and the public were interested in a previous federal lawsuit that had resulted in mandated changes to address the minority representation concerns. City Attorney Jim Messer said that the city was no longer under “pre clearance obligations.”

The remainder of city council—Sherri Myers, Andy Terhaar, Brian Spencer, Larry B. Johnson, and Wu—were on board with proceeding to a second public hearing and bringing the issue before the voters.

“The ultimate public input is at the ballot box,” said Johnson, who originally placed the issue on council’s table. “That’s the ultimate.”

If the public comment made during the meeting—consisting of only a handful of people—was any indication of the public sentiment, it was decidedly against. While one person spoke in favor of putting the cuts on the ballot, six spoke in opposition.

Wu ended the discussion by asking council to take personality out of the equation. It was immaterial that he valued Bare’s work ethic and considered Pratt “one of the keenest minds on council.”

“It’s not my decision, all we’re deciding is if it goes on the ballot,” Wu said, before the vote. “I thought this was important enough to come 500 miles, walk in this building, vote and get in the car and drive 500 miles back.”