The couple of dozen people that showed up at the Escambia County Commission’s public forum Thursday afternoon to voice their dissatisfaction at the hiring of George Touart as interim county administrator had a clear message for commissioners—get rid of him.
“Mr. Touart is an at-will employee,” said Jacqueline Rogers. “Release him.”
Touart previously resigned as county administrator in 2007 after a number of ethical questions were raised. The commission brought him back—on a 3-2 vote—recently following the firing of former administrator Randy Oliver in October.
Rogers is among those against Touart’s return. She launched a Facebook page called Citizens Against Touart as Administrator and was pivotal in rallying people to the public forum.
“This is about your constituents standing up to you and saying, ‘no, you’re wrong,’” Rogers told the commissioners.
The woman brought up past Touart-issues—including a “catfish pond” near her house “that looked strangely like a borrow-pit”—and scolded Commission Chairman Gene Valentino and former chairman Commissioner Wilson Robertson for “rewriting history.” She noted that Robertson had seemed “indignant” at the public outcry and told him that “the public is indignant that you crammed Mr. Touart back down our throats.”
“We do not seem to want to move forward into the light,” added Patricia Stevens a few minutes later, “we seem to want to move backwards into the dark.”
There were also people in attendance who spoke in favor of bringing Touart back. One man referred to the interim administrator as “honorable” and “a hard worker.”
“And now he needs some time to get his full pension,” said another supporter, “I can respect that.”
Pensacola City Councilwoman Sherri Myers also spoke at the commission meeting. She recalled listening to Touart’s voice on the radio after Hurricane Ivan had knocked out the power and damaged her house, and also said he had been instrumental in removing irritants from the chemicals used in the county’s mosquito-control efforts.
“We now have the best mosquito control program in the state of Florida,” Myers said.
The commissioners themselves ranged from helpless to annoyed. The two newly seated commissioners—Steven Barry and Lumon May—found themselves grappling with a decision they had no part in.
Commissioner Grover Robinson, the only sitting commissioner to have opposed Touart’s hiring, told the disgruntled citizens in attendance that he wanted to focus on finding a permanent administrator as quickly as possible. He floated a date-certain in early April, but the new commissioners opted for further discussing the issue at Tuesday’s Committee of the Whole meeting.
Commissioner May suggested that a blue-ribbon committee be formed to aid in the selection of a new administrator.
“There’s very few people that we hire, Mr. May,” Valentino told him. “—the position is sensitive.”
The chairman went on to stress the importance of the commission being able to hire a candidate “trusted on all levels.” The comment drew laughter from the gallery.
“Is there some comment out there?” Valentino said. “Any disturbances and I’ll ask the officer to have you leave.”
Commissioner Robinson told the board that he had spoken to a room full of county administrators during a recent gathering of the Florida Association of Counties. After relaying Escambia’s scenario to them the feedback wasn’t entirely optimistic.
“I think it’s a question of who’s going to sign up here,” Robinson said, suggesting the county might not attract the best in the field. “We’re probably not going to get a head coach, we’re probably going to look at someone up and coming, or someone on the downhill.”
Commissioner Robertson took issue with that sentiment and said that Robinson shouldn’t be “hunting us a county administrator.” He then set his sites on the gallery, noted he wouldn’t be running for reelection again—“so I can speak my mind”—and told the public that it was not their place to weigh in on the administrator position.
“You elect us to do this sort of thing,” Robertson said. “If you don’t like it, fire us.”
After a few more minutes of back-and-forth between the commissioners, Valentino brought the issue to a close. It will apparently be picked back up Tuesday.
“This was a very healthy conversation,” Valentino said.