E. Government St. Marathon

After drawing fire from the East Government Street crowd in July, Pensacola City Councilman Brian Spencer came prepared last night. Slipping on a blue hardhat, he noted the “passionate champions” engaged in an “intense, spirited discussion.”

Since the issue was breached in the spring, there has been vocal opposition to reconnecting East Government Street with Ninth Avenue. Monday was no different, as the public and city council waded into an hours-long debate on the subject.

“It’s been an intense lesson for me about the love affair between people and their street,” Spencer told his fellow council members.

In March, Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward proposed opening up the end of East Government, providing another way to access the city’s historic district. After city council requested public input on the project, Hayward brought aboard the West Florida Regional Planning Council—for more than $18,000—to conduct a series of workshops entitled ‘Restoring the Grid,’ which explored the Complete Streets philosophy.

Alan Gray, a planner with WFRPC, described to the council last night a “fantastic” process through which citizens were able to “hone in” their input and have it “distilled” into “common opinions.”

“I think the residents felt good that they had a platform to be heard,” Gray said.

While the public workshops were broad—dealing with bike lanes and crosswalks and roundabouts—one consistent theme prevailed: people did not want East Government Street opened. Gray reported as much to the council, but also showed them a rendering of an opened Government Street that he’d muscled out of the public input sessions.

“This is not a highly popular rendition, I’ll let you know that,” Gray told the city council. “But the design group had a couple of members that thought this might be a possible solution, so we rendered it.”

Earlier this month, a man representing a group of East Government Street residents requested that the council allow him to present a report on the public workshops.

“Just in case we had some disagreement with the report presented by Mr. Gray,” explained Ed Muller last night.

There was a sentiment among some of the workshop participants that the opening of East Government Street was a forgone conclusion, and the public sessions a charade. Monday afternoon, the city added a brief report from the ‘Citizens in the East Government Street Neighborhood’ to the meeting agenda.

Towards the end of the WFRPC presentation, Gray told the council that there were a few residents who would like to speak. He handed Muller a sheet of paper.

“You can read these six, here,” Gray told the man.

Muller proceeded to relay to the council that the neighborhood was interested in various Complete Streets aspects, but wanted to stress its opposition to the reconnect. When the man had finished, Gray scanned the public gallery before turning back to the council.

“We actually had another presenter,” Gray started, not seeing the next speaker in line.

The council pointed to Ann Regan, who was now standing behind the planner.

“Oh, good,” Gray said.

“No, not good,” the woman replied. “This is not a report as part of Mr. Gray’s report.”

Regan told the council she would speak after Gray had completed his presentation. Muller said he would like to speak again at that point, as well.

Later, out in the hall, Regan elaborated.

“I took it personally,” she said. “I took it as part of a manipulation to steer our report, to limit it to what he wanted it to say.”

Regan said that during the last meeting, Gray had told participants—who had been split up into three different ‘task forces’—that they could make the WFRPC presentation. Each task force leader would speak to the city council.

“He even said, ‘I see no reason for me to do the report,’” Regan said, adding that the planner changed his mind after speaking with the city administrator. “He said, ‘I’ve spoken to Bill Reynolds, I’m going to give the report.’”

Back inside the meeting room, city council continued to debate the East Government Street issue. Council President Sam Hall suggested tabling the issue for a special meeting. Councilwoman Megan Pratt asked for a “compelling reason” to open the street. Councilman P.C. Wu called the board’s predicament “the worst position in the world for government.” Spencer put on his blue hardhat and Councilwoman Sherri Myers quoted, respectively, Paul Harvey and the Spice Girls.

“Do y’all remember Paul Harvey?” Myers asked, requesting to hear “the rest of the story” and using a 1990s pop song to illustrate what she saw as the WFRPC’s leanings. “Do you remember the Spice Girls? Y’all know that song: ‘you know what I want, what I really, really want …’ I think that’s what Mr. Gray is singing in his head, ‘I know what I want, what I really, really want.’”

The “rest of the story” that Myers referred to was the neighborhood report. The council would later hear from Regan and Muller, but not before taking comments from the public.

A citizen opposed to the reconnect presented the council a petition with 141 signatures and asked them not to “take a knife and stab the historic district right in the heart.” Another woman, a realtor on the street, pleaded for the reconnect and said she would be proud if Gray, the WFRPC planner, were her son because he “conducted those meetings beautifully.”

Because most people attending last night’s council meeting were decidedly opposed to the reconnect, President Hall attempted to “balance” the public comment by inviting Seville Quarter owner Wilmer Mitchell to speak. The business owner and attorney, who owns multiple properties in the district, has been a noted proponent of the reconnect. He was miffed at Councilwoman Pratt’s earlier remarks concerning the necessity of the opening.

“I’m prepared to show her the seriousness of it. I’m prepared to go into an extensive history of it,” Mitchell told the council. “I can explain in full detail, and I’m prepared to do it if I fall dead on the spot.”

Mitchell proceeded to take a seat at the council’s table and relayed the history of the East Government Street issue. The longtime business owner took the room back to the 1960s when he “was a young lawyer with no money” and “people in Crestview came over to eat the gazpacho I served right in front of the Dorr House.”

The council president allowed that the historic perspective was “interesting” but would periodically steer the conversation back on point.

“Mr. Mitchell,” Hall said, “we really need to focus on the issue of East Government Street.”

Seville Quarter’s owner reviewed the various plans through the years which suggested opening the street. He said that he had felt “a little bit uncomfortable” at the public workshops and that “when I went to the third one, I found that the meeting now belonged to the people with the opposition.”

“I have never been heckled until then in my life,” Mitchell told the council. “I’m a lawyer. I can take it. Maybe I deserve it, but I had never had it happen.”

The council then heard from Muller and Regan, who relayed their report that had been included in the agenda and expressed a loss of faith in the process.

“This turn of events means you are being provided two reports,” Regan said. “Their’s and ours.”

Gray responded that there was “nothing misrepresented” to the group.

“The fact that it’s being called into question is what it is,” he said.

The planner had earlier presented the council with a few different options going forward, ranging from doing nothing to opening the street. He had also suggested casting a wider net and surveying a larger area of residents and business owners—a “cross section”—on the issue.

“I think you’ll find a little more variety in your answer, which might equip you to do one thing more, or another thing more,” Gray said.

In the end, the council decided to wait for the mayor’s office to weigh back in on the matter.

“I’d like to see a recommendation from the mayor’s office we can debate,” said Councilman Larry Johnson. “Maybe the mayor will come down himself and let us know what he’d like to do.”

In the meantime, council members will explore the issue on their own. Myers was tapped to discuss the matter with city administration, and Spencer will be getting a feel for how the University of West Florida—a major property owner and player in the historic district—views the issue.