At least that’s what both sides are claiming after a judge issued a ruling this morning regarding the lawsuit filed by Pensacola City Councilwoman Sherri Myers against Mayor Ashton Hayward.
Myers filed suit against the mayor in June, charging that he had overstepped his authority when issuing a May 15 memorandum requesting that all communications between council members and city staff be channeled through his office. Hayward maintained that his actions were allowed by the city charter.
Circuit Judge J. Scott Duncan ruled today that city council members could make “good faith inquiries” or conduct “investigations” of staff. He also concluded that the mayor has the authority to have council communications with staff funneled through his office—except when it comes to “inquiries.”
“As far as I can tell we received all the relief we were requesting,” Alistair McKenzie, Myers’ attorney, said shortly after the ruling was issued.
The mayor’s office also seemed pleased with the ruling.
“I appreciate Judge Duncan’s wisdom and his ruling today in support of my policy,” Hayward said in a statement.
In his ruling, Duncan states that the mayor’s memorandum is consistent with his authority under the city charter, but then details “one exception.” The exception, he explained, is when council members make those “good faith inquiries.”
Duncan’s ruling continues: “What is problematic is that the mayor’s memorandum (even if the court were to accept the defendant’s definition of the words ‘inquiry’ and ‘investigation’) makes no exception for good faith inquiries and investigations by the city council. The mayor has no authority to direct that good faith inquiries and investigations, which would presumably fall within the ambit of the memorandum’s command that ‘requests’ be made by the city council members, be made solely to the mayor’s office. The mayor does not possess the power to control inquiries and investigations in such a manner. To the extent the mayor’s policy attempts to do so, he has acted without authority.”
McKenzie and Myers held a press conference today in front of Pensacola City Hall to discuss the ruling. The councilwoman and her attorney said the ruling confirmed their reading of the charter and validated concerns that the mayor had overstepped his bounds.
“This is exactly what the charter says,” Myers said, pointing to a portion of the ruling stating that council members were allowed to make “inquiries” of city staff.
The mayor, meanwhile, is also viewing the ruling as an affirmation.
“As I have said before, and Judge Duncan confirmed today,” Hayward’s statement said, “the charter is very clear on this point: communications by individual council members to city employees must be made solely through the mayor.”
McKenzie referred to the mayor’s reading of the ruling as “really bad spin” and “distinctly not what this opinion says.”
At their afternoon press conference, McKenzie and Myers referred to a copy of the ruling with portions highlighted in yellow neon. The attorney pointed out a paragraph that stated the mayor could enact such a policy, requiring council members to communicate with staff via his office, “unless such communications are good faith, bona fide inquiries or investigations.”
“As he has defined ‘inquiry,’ it is a request for information,” McKenzie said.
Councilwoman Myers said she would soon put the different readings of the judge’s ruling to a test.
“I’m going to start calling city employees when I want to make an inquiry about something and we’ll see what happens,” Myers said. “If he doesn’t like it he can take me to court.”
Also in today’s ruling, Judge Duncan denied a request by the plaintiff that legal expenses be paid by the defendant. During a court hearing Monday, the judge said he wasn’t sure if it were appropriate to have the city pick up the tab when it was not named as a defendant in the case.
“How can I award attorney fees from any entity if they’re not a party to the case,” Judge Duncan asked at the hearing.
McKenzie said the issue of attorney fees was “not a big deal.”
“I don’t care, not a big deal—civic duty,” the attorney said. “Chalk it off as community service.”