Viewpoint: City structure and charter issues linger six years after passage

September 14, 2015

GameCouncilThe Pensacola City Council will be debating changes to the city charter that was passed by city residents in 2009.

Councilwoman Jewel Cannada-Wynn wants the council to schedule a workshop for February 2016 for the legislative body to discuss possible amendments that could be placed on the ballot during the 2016 election cycle. At that workshop, she wants the council to consider an amendment to give the council the power to approve the city administrator. Currently, the mayor has that power and the council has no say in the administrator’s hiring or firing.

Councilman Charles Bare wants the council to approve a special election for the citizens to vote on an amendment that would give to the city council the power of organizing city government and establishing the departments and their duties. Currently, the mayor has that power, too.

The “strong mayor” charter was passed with the understanding that the mayor and the council would have a cooperative nature towards governing the city.

Mayor Ashton Hayward has had three city administrators over the past five years: Bill Reynolds, Colleen Castille and now Eric Olson. None of them had Florida municipal experience, which has impacted the effectiveness of city operations. Reynolds inexplicably self-destructed and barely lasted two years. Castille had state government experience, but didn’t stay on past her one-year contract. For six months, the triumvirate of Olson, CFO Dick Barker and COO Tamara Fountain ran the city, with Olson taking the reins at the end of March 2015. Olson has the least experience of any of his predecessors.

It could be argued that public scrutiny of the mayor’s hires might lead to better selections, but not necessarily.

The mayor has also tinkered with the charter to his advantage.

The charter assumed the mayor would appoint department heads on a timely basis. There is no mention of interim appointments or how long the interim status is permitted. Matt Schmitt has been the interim fire chief since 2010. Mayor Hayward has made no recommendation for that position.

The Airport has an interim director – Dan Flynn, who has held the position since August 2014.

When Castille left, the mayor did not conduct a search or post the position being open.

Also, the charter states the mayor has the power: “To appoint the head of each department, with the consent of the City Council by an affirmative vote of a majority of City Council Members.”

To get around presenting his department heads to the council, the mayor has called the positions “directors.” The city has issues in its human resources and planning departments. A council review of the leadership for those areas might have helped avoid those missteps.

The charter makes the City Clerk the custodian of city records: “Although an appointee of the Mayor, the Clerk shall serve the entire City government. The Clerk shall keep and have the care and custody of the books, records, papers, legal documents and journals of proceedings of the City Council and shall carry out such additional duties as may be required by the Council or the Mayor.”

At considerable expense, Mayor Hayward moved public records out from under the clerk, created the “Sunshine Center,” and hired an attorney to run it. The public records function now falls under the city attorney.

Yes, the state attorney’s office found issues with the city’s handling of public records back in July 2013. However, the problem was interference from Reynolds and the City Public Information Officer causing delays in releasing information. Prior to 2011, the city clerk had no trouble handling public record requests professionally and on a timely basis.

The City Clerk and City Attorney are the two named officials in the charter that can only be hired or fired with council approval.

However, the mayor unilaterally made the decision to not renew the contract of City Attorney Jim Messer. The decision should have been approved by the city council, according to the charter.

Messer’s replacement has been placed under the control of the city administrator, which hampers the city attorney’s independence.

The charter states: “The City Attorney shall represent the City in legal proceedings and shall perform any other duties prescribed by State law, by this Charter, or by ordinance or resolution.” Outside attorneys are being hired without the consent and, at times, without the knowledge of the city attorney.

Are amendments the only way to resolve these charter conflicts? No.

The council could seek rulings from a judge or seek remedies through stricter ordinances.

However, the quickest venue in the past has been the ballot box. The charter amendments that were placed on ballots in 2013 and 2014 passed.

So until the mayor’s office and council can resolve the disputes over the charter peacefully, we can expect more charter amendments.

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