Kumbaya Through Clinched Jaws

Mayor Ashton Hayward arrived at last night’s meeting just in time for the Pensacola City Council’s discussion regarding his veto of its budget amendment. He slipped into the seat behind the plate bearing his name and smiled at the gallery.

“My motion is that the council override the mayor’s veto,” Councilwoman Sherri Myers said as the mayor took his seat.

In a press conference held the previous day, Hayward had alluded to the council’s “concerns,” and said he would start attending “important” city council meetings. Thursday night’s engagement certainly qualified, as the stage had been dramatically set for a showdown centering on the question of mayoral-authority and, more specifically, the fate of $220,000 in marketing funds the council had scrubbed from his proposed 2013 budget.

During the final public budget hearing, the city council removed the funds from marketing budgets and deposited them into its own budget, to be used for hiring staff. Hayward vetoed that move, thus volleying the ball into council’s court, where they needed to come up with six votes for an override.

It was a surreal scene, the mayor sitting with council in its chambers. While it had become obvious that Hayward’s veto was safe, the air still managed a sense of electrified anticipation.

Sitting two seats away from the mayor was Councilwoman Maren DeWeese, who has dished out daily criticisms of Hayward for months on her blog. Next to DeWeese was Councilwoman Sherri Myers, who is currently engaged in a legal battle challenging the scope of the mayor’s authority.

Council President Sam Hall laid out council meeting rules for the mayor. Hayward would be allowed two speakings turns, otherwise he could only respond to council’s questions.

“Would you like to speak right now?” Hall asked.

The mayor said that he would and proceeded to address council and those in attendance sitting in the gallery.

“First, it’s fabulous to see everybody tonight,” Hayward said.

The mayor spoke about Pensacola’s switch to a strong-mayor form of government and its accompanying “culture shock.” He explained how he was “doing all these things that I’m suppose to do as the executive of the government.” Hayward also attempted to cushion the friction that exists between he and some members of council.

“Mrs. Myers and I always have fabulous conversations,” Hayward said. “Maren Deweese—fabulous council president, friend of mine—haven’t spoken to Maren in a while.”

Prior to council’s discussion on the veto-override option, the public had an opportunity to  weigh in. Some people expressed concern about a “dictatorship,” while others said Hayward was leading the city in the “right direction.” At opposite ends of the spectrum, members of Occupy Pensacola vented their frustration and members of Pensacola Young Professionals fawned with admiration.

Councilwoman Megan Pratt attempted to take the edge off the drama, explaining that the city government was simply traversing the normal course towards an eventual resolution.

“It’s democracy. Our charter gives us that structure,” Pratt said. “If every disagreement is war, democracy doesn’t work.”

The councilwoman also urged her fellow officials to support a veto override. She said council’s move to slash the marketing funds was deliberate and correct.

“I’ve heard more from citizens in this city about this branding effort than just about any issue that’s come before us,” Pratt said.

Councilman Brian Spencer said the mayor should be allowed the latitude to explore his vision. He said it was “premature” to ditch the marketing efforts.

“I hope it is understood to be clear evidence of my support of the mayor’s strategy,” Spencer summed up his remarks.

Noting that the media had pegged him as the crucial swing vote, Councilman Ronald Townsend said he would not be voting to override the veto.

“I am significantly pleased about where I see Pensacola going,” Townsend said. “I am not going to be a barrier to that.”

Councilwoman Myers, who crafted the budget amendment that stripped the marketing budgets, returned Hayward’s complement—“I’m always delighted when I’m in his presence”—but said the mayor still had 80 percent of his marketing budget to work with. She said the mayor could do without the added $220,000 in marketing funds, but that council would need the money for hiring a staff and legal counsel.

“It’s a drop in the bucket when you consider we approved almost 100 percent of the mayor’s budget,” Myers said.

Staying true to his philosophical form, Council P.C. Wu said he may not entirely agree with the mayor’s marketing plans or the associated expense, but was resolved to support it. He said that council members faced a tough decision and asked the public for “compassion.”

“All of us sit here and we do a very difficult job. We have to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no,’” Wu said. “There’s some items you feel 100 percent about. There are some items you feel 50 percent about. But you still gotta press the button.”

Councilman Larry B. Johnson spoke in favor of the process. He said the spirited debate between council and the mayor’s office—painted by some as unnecessary—was part of a healthy democratic system.

“That’s what America is about, to be able to speak your mind and not be shot in the back of the head for what you said,” Johnson said.

DeWeese said she expected the mayor’s veto, and asked her fellow council members to override it. She also took issue with the exact impact of Hayward’s veto.

While the administration maintained that the mayor’s veto returned the budget to its original state, thus returning the marketing funds, some members of council contended that the veto simply struck the line item but did not return the funds.

“There’s no reversal,” said DeWeese. “I looked it up, there’s no case law that supports this miraculous action.”

Earlier in the meeting, attorney Alistair McKenzie—who is also representing Myers in her lawsuit—said that he thought the veto only zeroed out a specific line item in the budget and left the relevant funds in virtual limbo.

“There are no ifs, ands or buts about this,” McKenzie said, suggesting the situation could be “catastrophic” because it would freeze up the funds. “This is the way it is.”

President Hall pointed out that the council could make a supplemental budget resolution and place the funds where it choose, thus taking them out of limbo.

“Well, it’s catastrophic then until you make a supplemental budget resolution,” McKenzie said. “But, it is pretty serious.”

Prior to the council vote, DeWeese clarified that the marketing funds would not be returning to their original home even with the veto standing. She said it would be illegal for the mayor to do so.
“They are not approved in this budget,” DeWeese said.

Myers also noted the need for a supplemental budget resolution to move the funds back into marketing budgets. She said she would be open to that conversation.

“I may be able to meet the mayor somewhere in the middle,” Myers said.

When the vote was taken, Myers, DeWeese and Pratt were unsuccessful in overriding the mayor’s veto. The final count was 6-3.

While some council members maintain that the mayor’s veto cannot return money to the marketing budget (but only remove it from the council’s budget), the administration disagrees. City Attorney Jim Messer issued an opinion earlier in the week that said the veto returned the budget to its original form insofar as the marketing money is concerned.

Following the council vote last night, Messer said he stood by his opinion.
“It’s the same budget now as when they started,” the city attorney said.