Council’s Revenge

If summer was the hunt, last night’s second public budget hearing was the kill. After a season of foreplay, the Pensacola City Council was ready to get down to business—the main event, the money-shot, the red meat.

Council President Sam Hall laid it out pretty plainly for Chief Financial Officer Dick Barker.

“A lot of people just look at the budget as being about dollars and cents,” Hall told him. “It’s a political document.”

Firing a political shot across Mayor Ashton Hayward’s bow, the council decided to pull mounds of marketing cash from his proposed budget and also effectively defund his chief of staff’s position.

“I think it puts the mayor on notice,” said Councilwoman Maren DeWeese.

Following a contentious stretch of budget sessions, the city council zeroed in on two targets. First, it siphoned $220,000 away from the city’s new marketing effort with the Zimmerman Agency and transferred it into the council’s budget. Secondly, the council drained $120,000 from the mayor’s professional services budget—out of which he pays for his Chief of Staff John Asmar—and moved that money into a police officer’s training fund.

“It sends the signal that we want to have a conversation about how this city moves forward,” said Councilwoman Megan Pratt.

For months, the council has tailed both targets. Members have bemoaned the Zimmerman contract—costing $1.2 million for the first year—as bloated and redundant. Some have also painted the mayor’s chief of staff as city hall’s seventh-floor bully.

Councilwoman Sherri Myers began last night’s conversation by pointing out the increases in marketing dollars for the mayor and also the MIS department. She suggested the council hit both stashes—$50,000 in the mayor’s budget and $170,000 in the public information office—and place the funds within the board’s budget.

City Administrator Bill Reynolds offered up a defense of the marketing efforts. He said pitching the city to the outside world was a chance for Pensacola to boost its population numbers and grow the tax base. The administrator painted the marketing campaign—aimed at luring businesses to the area—as the city’s best chance of moving forward.

“The one area we can actually do something about is trying to bring businesses in,” Reynolds told them. “The only way it is going to happen is through a concerted effort, a professional effort to go out and market this place.”

The city administrator also addressed council criticism over the marketing’s focus on the mayor, what the Zimmerman Agency referred to as “CEO branding.” Reynolds said Hayward was a natural choice to represent the city.

“That’s why this man was elected,” he said. “And, frankly, he’s an asset in that regard.”

Reynolds told council that the marketing effort was particularly important because the city needed to avoid dropping below 50,000 in population numbers. Such a decrease—which is a concern for the city—would bring with it the loss of federal grant money.

“I truly am sorry that members of council were offended that the city—not they mayor’s office—was trying something new,” he said.

Council showed little sympathy for the marketing campaign.

“If you think of the old slogan—“where thousands live the way millions wish they could”—maybe if we did that we wouldn’t have to try so hard to get people to move here,” said Councilwoman Megan Pratt.

The move to move the funds from the mayor’s and MIS’s marketing budget and into the council’s pot passed on a 5-3 vote, with council members P.C. Wu, Brian Spencer and President Sam Hall dissenting. Councilman Ronald Townsend was absent for the hearing.

Later, Deweese motioned to defund the Zimmerman campaign in its entirety. The notion received a good amount of debate, but was withdrawn after Barker made a plea on the behalf of the Pensacola Energy and airport’s marketing budgets.

“But we needed to have this conversation,” DeWeese said after withdrawing the motion.

The mayor’s chief of staff was not mentioned by name during the budget hearing. Hall briefly mentioned “a particular target on the seventh floor” and Councilman Larry B. Johnson quietly took the shot.

Following a comment on low moral by the head of the local police union—which took a “no confidence” vote on Asmar earlier this year during contract negotiations—Johnson suggested the council move $120,000 from Hayward’s professional services fund and to the police. Hall made a friendly amendment that the money be placed in a training fund.

That motion—which can only be read as being aimed at Asmar—passed on a 7-1 vote, with Wu dissenting.

After making these adjustments to the mayor’s proposed 2013 budget, the council passed the budget. The board will meet again at 5:30 p.m. for its regular meeting.