Pensacola City Council President Sam Hall opened up Thursday night’s council meeting by requesting that things stay “upbeat.”
“I want Kumbayah tonight,” he said.
The president knew the weight of the room’s contentious subtext. Councilwoman Sheri Myers’ recent threat to sue Mayor Ashton Hayward over a memo he issued barring council members from directly contacting city staff was the newest layer to a post-charter growing-pain marathon. Later on, Hall would try once again to dodge the drama by requesting a “big, huge favor.”
“Let’s just let the dust settle and not discuss this,” the council president pleaded, telling the board he had met with the mayor over the issue. “You’re going to see a different posture. I’m asking you to give it two or three weeks to see how it turns out.”
But the council—as well as members of the public—had an appetite for discussion. While some argued that Hayward was exercising longstanding power granted in the charter—and in previous charters dating back to the 1930s—others contended that the mayor had overstepped his authority by cutting communications between council members and city staff.
Debbie Kirby asked the council why she continued to “sense this animosity and this power struggle” between the legislative and administrative bodies of government. She said that the public’s perception was that council was holding the mayor back.
“Perception is reality,” Kirby told them. “I know that you can argue with me that that’s not what you’re doing, but as a citizen that is my perception.”
Councilwoman Myers explained that she felt the charter permitted council members to contact city staff in order to get information on various aspects of city business, and only forbid them from directing staff. She said her lawsuit would determine the extent of the mayor’s authority.
“This has to do with separation of powers,” Myers said. “It’s that simple. It’s a constitutional issue.”
The councilwoman said she had requested an opinion on the matter from City Attorney Jim Messer, but that he had declined to give one. At that point she sought personal legal counsel.
“Based on talking to private counsel, I believe I made the right decision,” Myers said.
When the council president saw that several more board members wished to speak, he again called for a time-out.
“Again, I ask that you give it two or three weeks to see how it progresses,” Hall said.
Councilwoman Megan Pratt said that efforts to determine questions regarding the charter shouldn’t be viewed negatively. She contended that issues needed resolving, and decisions now would be setting precedents for the future.
“I don’t think there’s been any problem in advancing this community because of our questions—questions should always be welcome,” Pratt said, noting that the courts may ultimately need to weigh in.
President Hall again interjected, this time telling his board that the city was “optimistic” about the mayor and requesting that council “examine ourselves.”
“People in this town love Ashton Hayward,” Hall said, cautioning against challenging the mayor—“In every one of those fights, right or wrong, we have come out the bloodier for it.”
The president noted how Hayward had defeated his opponent in the mayoral election by a comfortable margin. He ventured that Hayward could do it again.
A few minutes later, a member of the public offered Hall what he termed a “reality check.” Germain Williams, a black man, said he had voted for Hayward due to the attention he showed the area’s African-American community during his campaign, but he no longer supported the mayor. The man said that Hayward had ignored the black community since taking office—“We’re dying over there.”
“He’s gonna have to do more than show up at the Martin Luther King breakfast, and he didn’t even do that,” said Williams.
Ignoring Hall’s pleas, Councilwoman Maren DeWeese continued the conversation about the mayor’s scope of authority. She said that in the past, council members could communicate with city staff via email, with the mayor’s office copied in the correspondence.
“And I thought that was working quite well,” DeWeese said. “But to limit access is unconscionable.”
City Administrator Bill Reynolds asked the council to try to see it from a city employee’s perspective. He said that staff could feel pressured and distracted by visits or communications from staff.
“When you walk into a staff member’s office, immediately it’s a big deal,” Reynolds told them. “It can be intimidating to staff.”
After Councilman Brian Spencer, as well as his wife Crystal Spencer—who was instrumental in drawing up the city’s new charter—each voiced their support for the mayor’s position, Hall requested that council members still wishing to speak on the matter reconsider.
“I can’t make you any assurances, myself,” Hall said, “but the conversation I had with the mayor the other day was a very positive meeting.”
After a couple of more comments from council members—Councilman Ronald Townsend distinguishing himself from Myers, and Councilwoman Myers saying she was experiencing problems getting information from staff in the wake of Hayward’s memo—the president was ready to wrap the evening up. He ended by repeating the chorus he’d sung throughout the lengthy meeting.
“Give it a month,” Hall said, hoping for an improved relationship between council and the administration. “Again, I’m not going to reveal the particulars of the conversation, but today is a new day. Right now I have his assurance that it is a new day.”