Myers, Hayward Tell It to the Judge

Pensacola City Councilwoman Sherri Myers and Mayor Ashton Hayward will have to wait until the end of the week to find out which will prevail in their legal battle.

“This obviously is an important case, it’s important to the citizens of Pensacola,” said Circuit Judge J. Scott Duncan after hearing either side’s position. “I want to take some time in making my decision.”

Hayward and Myers were in court this morning for a hearing regarding a lawsuit the councilwoman filed in June. The suit challenges a May 15 memorandum issued by the mayor in which he requested that communications between city staff and council members be channeled through his office.

“It does not make logical sense that city staff cannot communicate with council members and vice-versa,” argued Myers’ attorney Alistair McKenzie, contending that the communication was essential for council to fulfill its legislative duties.

The mayor’s attorney maintained that the mayor’s request did not impact council’s ability to get information.

“This is not about access to information, but about the means to the access to information,” said attorney J. Nixon Daniel.

In his May memo, Hayward cited the city charter in his request that council members go through his office when communicating with city staff. During today’s hearing, both Daniel and McKenzie referred to the charter to backup their respective arguments.

There was considerable attention given this morning to the relevant definitions of words found in the charter such as ‘inquiry’ and ‘deal with’ and ‘conduct.’

“It really is the interpretation of the word ‘inquiry’ that turns this whole issue that is before us today,” Daniel told the judge.

The attorney contended that ‘inquiry’ referred to a council member inquiring about an employee’s ‘conduct.’ He said most other communiques, such as ones addressing daily operations, would fall under a provision in the charter that states that it is the responsibility of the mayor to ‘deal with’ city employees.

“What is it that the city council member would ‘inquire’ about?” asked Daniel. “Because if it’s the day-to-day operations, the phrase ‘deal with’ means nothing.”

McKenzie said the word ‘inquiry’ should be dealt with as plain language, and also said the  word ‘conduct’ should not necessarily be read in the negative. He offered as an example, council’s approval of the city budget, saying that council members needed access to city staff when considering to either approve or amend the budget and that the mayor’s memorandum interjected the executive branch into the process.

“It would directly require that they mayor’s office have direct supervision over the legislative process,” McKenzie said.

Judge Duncan questioned aspects of each attorney’s position. He wondered if the mayor’s request deprived citizens of the representation offered by their elected council persons. He also asked about the ability of the mayor to place parameters on access, such as specifying that council members could communicate with department heads but not their subordinates.

Also at issue in Myers’ suit against Hayward, is the nature of the May 15 memorandum. While the mayor’s defense clarifies that the memo was a “request” that council members not speak directly with staff, Myers has said that the memo had the effect of a prohibition.

Following this morning’s session, both attorneys said the hearing “went well.” Judge Duncan said he would have a written response to the lawsuit by Friday.