2010 Top Political Stories: Demise of Consolidation

Consolidation ended with a big loud thud in early 2010. Twenty or thirty years ago, the heavy-handed, backroom politics used by some of the proponents for consolidating the governments of Escambia County, Century and Pensacola into one entity might have worked, but not in 2010.

Consolidation was much better as a concept than a reality. For two years, a small band of local leaders had worked on it. They traveled to Jacksonville, which had consolidated in 1960s when it was nearly the same size as Pensacola, and later brought those leaders here to hold a series of open forums on the concept. Young guns, Jason Crawford and Scott Remington, co-chaired the political action committee, Escambia All for One, which was formed to push the effort. Though they worked tirelessly for the cause, Crawford and Remington were fighting an uphill battle.

Few people in the unincorporated parts of the county wanted to part of a bigger Pensacola. Fewer even come downtown. The county residents didn’t want to inherit the pension liabilities and other debt of the city.

Pensacola residents saw that they owned and controlled many of the county’s most important economic assets–port, airport, waterfront and gas utility. Why give them freely to the county?

Making consolidation a reality was nearly an impossible task. The Florida Legislature established in 2009 the Escambia County Consolidation Study Commission Consolidation and gave it a little over six months to produce a plan that could be sent back to legislature for its 2010 regular session. If approved, the consolidation plan would be placed on the ballot for Escambia County voters.

What gave the initiative a chance, and also led to its demise, was the basic plan had already been drafted. The consolidation supporters only needed the commission and its various advisory committees to approve it. The meetings were window dressing, but not all the participants understood it. They thought they had a say, but they and the public didn’t.

In fact, a complete draft was never presented to the public for input. The Escambia County Commission, Pensacola City Council and Century Town Council were never shown final drafts. The final details were hashed out in a series of “workshops” between former County Attorney Janet Lander, attorney Ed Fleming and retired Judge Ken Bell, commission chairman.

When the Consolidation Commission had the final vote on its plan on the eve of its Jan. 15, 2010 deadline, Bell dissolved the commission so it could no longer hold public meetings and have to listen to the public.

Consolidation supporters with the help of the News Journal’s editorial board put a full-court press on the legislative delegation to bring forth the commission plan to the legislature so that it could eventually be placed on the ballot. However, without the support of any of the local governments, lawmakers weren’t going to do it.

To gain a groundswell of support, the Consolidation Commission needed to show a tax savings to the voters, which was why many originally said they liked the concept of consolidation. Smaller government should result in less taxes. No such financial analysis was presented. If it had been, maybe the lawmakers would have seen sufficient public support to ignore the opposition from local officials.

Sheriff David Morgan, County Commissioner Wilson Robertson and other officials offered up functional consolidation–combining services such as HR, vehicle maintenance and IT–as a more practical solution. To date, no functional consolidation has take place, but it sounded good at the time.

Another factor in the failure of the consolidation effort was the new city charter. For consolidation to pass, it needed overwhelming support from city voters. After city voters approved in November 2009 the new charter with its strong-mayor form of government, few wanted to scrap it a year later for a consolidated system. Residents wanted to see what a strong mayor could do.

Also the open, deliberate process used by the Pensacola Charter Review Commission over an 18-month period was very different from the Consolidation Commission’s rush to completion. The public never felt a part of the consolidation plan, never took ownership of it.

A last minute effort to resurrect the Escambia County Consolidation Study Commission and give it more time for public input and modification failed with Bell and his fellow commission members refused to continue working on consolidation.

In the end, everyone took their toys home and refused to play any more.