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Thursday July 24th 2014

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Treading Uncharted Waters

Members of the Pensacola City Council have some questions following the local police union’s request to investigate Mayor Ashton Hayward following an incident in which he allegedly misused his position and intimidated officers as they reopened streets to traffic during the Oct. 19 Gallery Night.

“Never experienced this part of the charter,” said Councilman Larry B. Johnson. “We have investigative powers, we have never exercised those investigative powers.”

The Fraternal Order of Police, Lodge 71, requested last week that city council subpoena and investigate the mayor. The council ultimately decided to review relevant information and address the issue of an investigation at its Nov. 13 Committee of the Whole meeting.

“This kind of blindsided us Thursday night,” Johnson said this week. “Where we go from here, I’m just not sure.”

Johnson referred to this new ground as “uncharted territory, uncharted water, if you will.” Councilman P.C. Wu said the same.

“We’re in uncharted water,” Wu said Tuesday night. “We’re in a place we’ve never been before.”

“I don’t know where it’s going to go,” Councilwoman Sherri Myers said Monday.

Flipping through a copy of the city charter, Johnson said he would need to consult with City Attorney Jim Messer to determine the specifics of the investigative process. Myers said she was also seeking outside advice—“I don’t want to say who”—as did Councilman Brian Spencer.

“I didn’t ask Messer,” Spencer said, describing the sources of his advice as “two individuals who I believe are credible” and clarifying that he had not consulted with his wife, Crystal Spencer, who was instrumental in writing the new city charter—“if I get her opinion, it will add to the people I have asked.”

Messer has not weighed in publicly on how the charter defines the council’s investigative process, or what the outcome of such a process would entail. The city attorney has also not yet returned calls to the IN requesting clarification on this matter.

Until yesterday, nearly a week since the police union approached the council, the mayor’s office had not addressed the issue except to say that it was an internal matter. On Tuesday, Hayward put out a statement that focused on Gallery Night logistics and police behavior. The mayor reiterated the “internal” nature of the issue.

“I am currently working with the chief of police and the DIB to refine our protocol on how best to manage large events,” Hayward said in the statement.

Following the release of the statement, City Spokesman Derek Cosson said that the mayor would also be meeting with individual council members regarding the issue.

After the union’s appearance before council, members requested that all the relevant material—accounts from police officers, the Downtown Improvement Board and the mayor—be gathered and reviewed prior to making a decision on an investigation.

“The way that we left it Thursday night, I believe we requested a statement from the mayor’s office,” Johnson said.

After a police union member read an account provided by officers who encountered Hayward and DIB member John Peacock at Gallery Night—where they allegedly compared police tactics to “terrorists” and “Beirut”—council requested to “hear both sides of the story” before making any decisions.

“Basically, we’ve heard the police side of the story, we haven’t heard the other,” Wu said this week.

Myers said she had already scheduled a meeting with Hayward to discuss “promoting uptown Pensacola.” She’s planning to stick on topic.

“I do have a meeting with the mayor, but it’s not about that and I’m not going to bring it up unless he does,” the councilwoman said. “—if he wants to give us his version he knows where to find us.”

Spencer, the lone dissenting vote on gathering information, said that he didn’t feel it necessary to formally request that Hayward provide his version of events. 
“I felt that evening that information would be forthcoming about that interchange,” Spencer said, adding that he still felt that would be the case. “I anticipate that we will hear from the mayor at the COW meeting.”

The councilman also said that he had “heard versions that contradict that accusation.” He did not offer who had provided the contrary accounts, though he did say that he had received calls from people during Gallery Night who relayed that “it was not running smoothly.”

“No, not from the mayor, but I would say from reliable sources,” Spencer said. “There’s a range in what some people describe as overly assertive, it’s subjective.”

Before council took its 8-1 vote Thursday, Spencer had framed the issue as concerning Gallery Night logistics. He told his fellow council members that scheduling inconsistencies needed to be addressed.

“I felt the like the focus was inappropriately centered on the mayor’s conversation with police and that the long-term challenge was in the background,” Spencer reiterated Tuesday.

In his statement this week, Hayward also framed the issue in such a way. It’s a move that didn’t play well with the police union.

“I saw his response. Disappointing,” said Lodge President Erik Goss. “The issue is not gallery night. The issue is being called a ‘terrorist.’”

Councilwoman Myers also sees the union’s concerns as a separate issue.

“The issue is how certain individuals communicate with police,” she said.

Police Chief Chip Simmons—who has conferred with the mayor on the matter—said that he also views Gallery Night logistics and the concerns of the FOP as different issues. He said that the accusations of misuse of power and intimidation were “internal” issues best handled “inside the family.”

“I think they’re two different issues,” Simmons said after mayor released his statement. “The issue that was brought up, from my perspective, is an internal issue.”

When members of the police union addressed council regarding the Gallery Night incident, Councilman Wu seemed particularly taken aback. He apologized to officers for any possible disrespect. This week, he said he also took issue with Peacock—who Hayward recently appointed to the DIB—approaching officers and identifying himself as a friend of the mayor’s.

“My reaction to that is what a policeman does and does not do should not be based on who you know,” Wu said. “For me, for someone to say ‘I’m a friend of the mayor,’ i.e. whatever, is inappropriate. It really has a chilling effect on police, you know, if people are going to say ‘I’m a friend of the mayor.’”

As for a council investigation, council members seem to agree that they are treading into the unknown. What an investigation entails, or what might come next, remains to be seen.

“I’m just keeping an open mind,” Myers said.

The police union has a grievance system in place for lodging complaints against superiors. Goss said that, in this case, the union—which is citing a “pattern” of disrespect—has chosen to take the issue to council.

“We’re going to let city council handle it,” Goss said. “Council has subpoena powers, which would offer the officers protection.”