It looks like Thursday is shaping up as the main event, but last night’s Pensacola City Council meeting was nothing to sleep through. The stage was set, new storylines were pitched. One man in attendance supplied the gallery with popcorn for the show.
During its Committee of the Whole meeting yesterday, the council scheduled its veto-discussion for Thursday, refocused its sights on vendor employees and discussed what possible conflicts of interests Mayor Ashton Hayward may have with current city projects. The council also rejected a mayoral committee appointee, discussed limiting the mayor’s purchasing authority and inquired as to the impacts of a recent legal opinion offered to the city by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.
Mayor Hayward recently issued his first veto, rejecting city council’s amendment to his proposed 2013 budget that moved funds from a marketing budget to the council’s own budget. The council has until midnight Thursday—the day of its next regular meeting—to override the mayor veto, a move that requires six votes.
“This is going to be one of the most important votes you will ever take on this city council,” Councilwoman Sherri Myers said. “I just want to stress, in my opinion, this is the most important issue you will ever be asked to vote on.”
Earlier in the meeting, Myers had made a point of verifying the appropriate time for council to discuss the mayor’s veto. The city charter specifies that the council must respond within five days or by midnight on the day of its next regular meeting.
“I don’t want anyone to say this is the council meeting where the veto comes up,” Myers said. “I think we need to be clear about this. This is critical.”
City Attorney Jim Messer confirmed that the issue should be slated for Thursday.
“I just wanted that on record,” Myers said.
“Record it,” Messer replied.
“It is being recorded,” the councilwoman said. “That’s why I brought it up.”
Later in the meeting Myers requested that the veto discussion be the first item on the council’s Thursday night agenda.
“Can we say a prayer first?” joked Council Vice President Ronald Townsend.
“And the Pledge of Allegiance,” said Messer.
Councilwoman Myers jumped into the ring swinging from the get-go last night. Fresh from her morning court hearing—regarding her lawsuit against Hayward—she led last night’s charge against John Peacock, the mayor’s proposed appointee to the Downtown Improvement Board.
“You know, we placed an ordinance that encourages us to put minorities and women on boards, commissions and authorities,” Myers said, later noting that all of Hayward’s appointment had been “white and male.”
Councilman John Jerralds initially agreed, but later said he would be willing to approve Peacock if the mayor would concentrate on women and minorities when considering other appointments. Townsend said he would “prefer not to deal with that conversation” and Councilwoman Maren DeWeese said that she hoped Peacock wasn’t taking it personally, but that the council needed to follow its ordinance.
“This is simply the first appointment for a board since we’ve had our ordinance,” DeWeese said.
Councilman P.C. Wu noted that he and Peacock had enjoyed some “very, very vigorous debates” concerning some “very, very large issues,” but said he was still inclined to support the mayor’s appointment.
By the time a vote was taken, Wu, Jerralds and Councilman Brian Spencer found themselves on the losing side of a 4-3 appointment rejection. Councilman Larry B. Johnson was absent for the vote, and Council President Sam Hall didn’t make the COW meeting.
THE CONFLICT-OF-INTEREST QUESTION
A few items on yesterday’s agenda pertained to various city projects. Councilwoman DeWeese expressed concerns about two of the projects—a street reconstruction job and work being preformed at the port—arguing that they could pose conflict-of-interests issues because the mayor had business relations with the companies that were awarded the city contracts.
“Obviously, we cannot enter into contract if this is the case,” DeWeese said, requesting that the city attorney determine if Hayward was violating state statute.
This is familiar territory on DeWeese’s blog, where she has raised such concerns in the past. Today on her blog, the councilwoman reiterated the concerns she raised with council over the street reconstruction and port job.
“Yesterday, City Council passed two contracts with Roads Inc. and Hewes and Company, companies owned by the Mayor’s business partners Cody Rawson and Allen Bell, subject to City Attorney Messer’s written opinion that the contracts do not violate State Statute 112.313 which detail conflicts of interest,” she posted.
Laying out her argument on the blog, DeWeese contends that Hayward may have conflicts of interest because “the Mayor is an owner in Redfish Harbor, LLC along with three other owners. (Pair, Bell and Rawson)” and “the members have joint contractual debts of AMFI Insurance for a mortgage of over $4,100,000.” and “Rawson is an owner of Roads, Inc. Bell is an owner of Hewes and Company” and “funds from City work approved by the Mayor may be used to meet debt requirements to Redfish Harbor creditors to the Mayor’s benefit.”
FURNISHING THE HOUSE, CONTRACT EMPLOYEES & THE AG OPINION
Councilwoman Megan Pratt also brought up her concerns last night regarding the mayor’s authority to move funds around in the city budget. In a memo included in council’s agenda packet, she stated that “the administration’s interpretation of our ordinances does not provide the transparency and oversight that the charter promised.” During the meeting, she compared the charter to an unfurnished house, and instructed the city attorney to draft an ordinance which would require council to sign off on expenditures over $25,000 and limit the mayor’s ability to reallocate funds within the budget.
“It’s a framework,” Pratt said of the city charter. “We need to start furnishing our house.”
As last night’s meeting drew to a close, Councilwoman Myers brought up the issue of contract, or ‘vendor,’ employees. The subject has come up on previous occasions, usually pertaining to the mayor’s chief of staff, John Asmar, who is such an employee.
Myers told her fellow council members that she would like to see an ordinance which stated that the positions of city administrator, city attorney, chief of staff and department heads could not be vendor employees. She expressed concerns that contract employees were not held to the same ethical standards as regular city employees.
“High level positions, I think, require a greater degree of transparency, fiduciary and accountability,” Myers said. “And these positions should not be contracted.”
DeWeese suggested council instruct the city attorney to draft such an ordinance.
“Otherwise, we’re just talking about what we’d like to do,” she said.
The city attorney reported that drafting such an ordinance might present a conflict of interest for him. He said he’d be contracting that job to outside counsel.
“For those of you who don’t know, I’m a contract employee,” Messer told the council. “I don’t think you want me writing an opinion on whether or not I should lose my job today.”
The council also scheduled a discussion for its next COW meeting on the recent attorney general decision. Last week, the AG issued an opinion regarding Messer’s determination that an audit selection committee could retroactively approve an RFQ drafted by City Financial Officer Dick Barker.
“I think we need to have a discussion at some point as soon as possible as to the ramifications of the attorney general opinion and whether we should start this process all over again—I don’t know,” Myers said.
The city council will meet for its regular meeting Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at Pensacola City Hall.