Interlocal Disagreement, or How to Cook Thanksgiving Leftovers

The Community Redevelopment Agency of Pensacola will have more than leftover turkey waiting for it after Thanksgiving. There’s a whole can of worms on the other side of its holiday weekend.

“I have no idea where this board is going to go on Monday,” said CRA Chairperson Megan Pratt, settling into a front row gallery seat following a Pensacola City Council meeting Tuesday morning.

During the next CRA meeting, Nov. 28, board members will get a chance to review an alternate interlocal agreement that Pratt has been working on with an attorney.

Currently, the CRA has extended its existing relationship with the City of Pensacola, but the board will be looking at an alternate agreement which gives it a bit more muscle.

Mayor Ashton Hayward and his team would prefer to stick with the current arrangement. The surface seems clear enough: a cut-and-dry power struggle. But there’s enough mud in this water to make for a disorienting swim.

The CRA is a dedicated tax-district and its board consists of the same members as the Pensacola City Council. The CRA has been run by the City since its inception in the 1980s. It has an administrator designated at one-time by the city manager and now by the mayor. The CRA administrator, Becky Bray, is hired—and as of last week, fired—by the Mayor.

Under the current interlocal agreement, the City provides services at the CRA’s behest. One such service would be legal counsel. But in May, Chairperson Pratt contracted with an outside attorney.

“That is something that the CRA has had since its inception,” Pratt said.

According to Pratt, when the CRA’s former attorney passed away the board found itself in need of legal counsel. She said the city’s attorney could conceivably encounter conflicts of interests if representing both the city and the CRA.

(The attorney to which Pratt is referring is David Cardwell, who died in November 2009…something Pratt fails to mention.)

Towards the end of May, Panama City attorney Douglas Sale accepted the invite of Pratt and CRA Administrator Becky Bray. Pratt signed an engagement letter on May 29 and the contract June 7, and she and Bray proceeded to conduct business to the tune of more than $16,000. Less than $7,000 was for working on an alternate interlocal and the rest was for the sale of some Government Street property.

No vote was taken by the CRA board on this matter.

“We don’t usually vote on it,” Pratt said, explaining that she took her cue from a general board discussion.

“I believe I remember general discussions in that regard,” said board member Larry B. Johnson, who described himself as being mostly “in the dark” on the issue.

Board member Sherri Myers said she didn’t realize that the CRA had separate legal counsel until September, when Pratt said there would soon be a draft of an alternate interlocal.

“That was the first time that I became aware that the CRA had it’s own attorney,” Myers said. “Now, maybe I was asleep at the wheel … but, given the little bit of business that comes up at CRA meetings I think I’d remember that.”

Pratt said having separate counsel, one which specialized in CRA matters, was standard. She also said Jim Messer, the city’s attorney, advised the CRA get someone else for the job insofar as the interlocal agreement was concerned.

“Councilwoman Pratt tried to drag me into it, I said, ‘no, none of my business,” said Messer, latter adding that he had “never advised Councilwoman Pratt on anything about the CRA.”

In a Sept. 29 email to the Mayor’s office, Pratt references comments made by Messer regarding the “oddness” and “strangeness” of him serving both the city and the CRA. She later said that Messer advised her to work with Sale on the draft agreement during a Sept. 19 board meeting.

Since that time, the Chairwoman has been working with the Panama City attorney to draft a new agreement. CRA Administrator Bray was also active in that process. She put the word out Friday that her contact information would be changing—the city had fired her.

Messer called Bray’s termination a “garden-variety personnel matter.” But, more likely, it was confusion about who exactly Bray worked for that led to her firing. The Mayor has the right to hire and fire city employees. Bray was such an employee. But Pratt believes that the administrator serves at the direction of the CRA, not the Mayor.

“Her salary comes from the CRA,” Pratt said.

Does the Mayor’s office have the same read?

“Your question is dead-on,” said City Administrator Bill Reynolds. “The charter is clear that the Mayor has the sole ability to direct city employees.”

Messer said he thinks that the current friction between the Mayor’s office and the CRA over the interlocal agreement stems from the broader power-struggle context.

“I’m guessing, but I’m a pretty good guesser,” he said, “that this current controversy is about who gets to hire the employees at the CRA.”

That issue is one of the bones of contention dealt with in the new alternate agreement. Myers was surprised to find the agreement listed on the board’s next agenda—members have yet to see the proposed agreement.

“I really would have liked to have had more input,” she said. “I haven’t seen a draft, I haven’t seen anything.”

Myers said she had “a lot of questions I want answers to.” Johnson agreed. The Mayor’s office, however, was consulted during the draft process—Hayward doesn’t want a new agreement, but if the CRA approves one he wants the board to consider allowing the Mayor to pick who comprises the agency’s body.

“I’d like to hear this discussion on Monday,” Johnson said.

Sale, the CRA’s attorney, will be making the trip over for the meeting. He said he would answer board member’s questions at that time.

“…from what I read, there is a bit of misunderstanding and confusion in several quarters over the legal status of the CRA and its primary responsibilities to its trust fund,” Sale said in a statement. “I hope next Monday to be able to publicly discuss that with the governing body of the Agency in connection with their pending business and try my best to answer, or find answers, to any questions they may have.”

Some questions Sale may be asked: did Pratt have the authority to enter into a contract with him without a board vote? was he under the impression the entire CRA board was plugged into the draft process? who does he think Bray was suppose to be answering to?

Some of these questions have common themes that have popped up in various venues since Pensacola changed to a strong-mayor form of government. Wu calls them “growth issues,” and they have surfaced vividly within the realm of the CRA.

“It will cost more than $6,000 in legal fees to figure that out,” Pratt said.

That may be when Messer decides to enter the picture. Thus far, he has adopted the guise of a casual observer watching a foreign movie with subtitles he doesn’t care to read.

“If you look at a cooking analogy: the pot hasn’t gotten hot enough for me to be involved in the process,” Messer said, adding that the stew may be ready by Monday. “I’m sure by then whatever’s simmering will have come to the top of the pot.”