Presser Notes: Strong Mayor Fever, Summit’s Long Wait & Powerful Emotions

by Jeremy Morrison, Inweekly

Pensacola Mayor Grover Robinson has some concerns about where the city’s charter review commission might be heading, following discussions in last week’s Pensacola City Council meeting.

“If you thought they were simply going to tweak the charter, I’m not so sure,” Mayor Robinson said Monday morning during his weekly press conference. “It seemed like there were several people who want to redo the charter totally.”

Robinson expressed concerns about the charter review commission flirting with rethinking the city’s strong-mayor form of government during the previous charter review process. The mayor said that the current form of executive-leaning government, instead of a more council-centric form, is more efficient and helped the city with “attracting and retaining talent.”

Accompanying Mayor Robinson for the press conference this week were three city staffers — City Administrator Kerrith Fiddler, deputy administrators Amy Miller and David Forte — who were present to relay “why they think this function, or this form of government, works in advantage for them to think about wanting to work here at the city of Pensacola.”

Fiddler spoke about how Pensacola is the first strong-mayor city he has worked for. His other five positions were in council-city manager municipalities, and he described those environments as less efficient.

“Trying to get things done can be very challenging,” Fiddler said, explaining how he could go “right next door” to speak with the mayor at any time, whereas meetings with council members would require numerous appointments.

Forte, who came to the city from his position with Escambia County, also praised the efficiency of the executive, pointing out the value of a “clear line of communication from the top down.”

“I can clearly state that during the two years that I’ve been here, compared to the 13 years previously with Escambia County, the efficiency, with the strong mayor form of government, and the productivity is almost night and day difference,” Forte said. “Having one individual to report to is much cleaner than maybe having seven or eight individuals to report to; it just makes it definitely more efficient, more effective.”

It was this productivity that Miller, who oversees the city’s enterprise operations, focused on. Miller has been with the city during both its current strong-mayor form of government and its previous council-manager form and said the current system has proven a “tremendous advantage to the city of Pensacola” and also “one of the reasons that we’re experiencing the growth and the vitality and the successes that we’re experiencing right now.”

“I think the system of government works. Can it be tweaked? Can you do things differently? Sure,” Mayor Robinson summed up, pushing for the review commission to stick to minor tweaks and leave the strong-mayor form of government unaltered.

Long Line to Summit

Last week, the city council voted to conduct a feasibility study on implementing a road diet for Summit Boulevard. The road diet, which typically involves slimming or reducing vehicular lanes and adding spaces for pedestrians and cyclists, would reduce traffic speed in the area, which consists of residential streets, a community recreation center, and an elementary school.

“I temper the people at Summit with understanding how there are a lot of projects before that,” Mayor Robinson said Monday.

Though city council decided to spend $75,000 on the feasibility study, Robinson said the project would ultimately end up in line behind a growing list of other projects — “there are a lot of projects stacked up” — and while he agreed with points made during the city council meeting in favor of the project, he also wanted to be realistic about how fast a Summit Boulevard project could happen.

“I tried to temper at the meeting: I understand the idea, great idea, let’s look at it and let’s study it. Just understand, we have a lot of projects and a lot of roads that have been asking for things that are ahead of that,” Robinson said.

Some of the projects the city is working the Florida Department of Transportation on that would fall ahead of any Summit Boulevard project, Robinson said, include a $1.2 million road project for North Palafox, the two-waying of Davis and Martin Luther King.

Caution, Power

Again this week, Mayor Robinson cautioned city council members as they contemplate a feasibility study concerning starting a municipal utility, repeating that the city could not afford to run a utility and would be better off sticking with its current month-to-month-in-lieu-of-a-longterm-franchise-agreement arrangement.

“I still remain confused on what the ultimate goal of where the council is going to go,” Robinson said.

The mayor said he understood “frustration” with rising power bills since FP&L recently took over from Gulf Power but contended that a municipal power company was the answer to higher bills.

“No matter what our anger is, I think we’ve got to ask ourselves, ‘Are we making good decisions?’” Mayor Robinson said. “I think oftentimes this certainly is emotional, but emotion does not lead us to good decisions. I think we have to look at things and evaluate and ask ourselves critical questions.”

For three years, the city has been negotiating a contract with Gulf Power, and now FP&L. Robinson said that unless an offer that’s advantageous for the town — addressing items such as the undergrounding of power infrastructure — is laid on the table, there’s no reason to seek a long-term agreement over the month-to-month arrangement.

“I think continuing to keep flexibility is the best thing that we can do,” Robinson said.

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2 thoughts on “Presser Notes: Strong Mayor Fever, Summit’s Long Wait & Powerful Emotions

  1. This is actually perfect, because Grover standing up three high-level staff members to help hawk his strong mayor results is the epitome of how this form of government seems to inevitably run to autocracy.

    While I have zero doubt that things are far less frustrating in the City than they were during the Gilley-Joy Jones gulag that led many of the County’s best and brightest in engineering, traffic, and public works to fly the coop or get kicked out of it, that’s hardly an either/or justification for a City system of government that *clearly* puts one person in a position to run back doors on the Council and the public all day long. One need look no further than the disastrous handling of the Bridge eviction to understand that while a single executive line may be far more clear directive toward that executive’s intended results, it certainly doesn’t guarantee the best government choices or process.

    And really Grover? You asked staff to do this? And told them they didn’t have to if they didn’t want to, no doubt. Thank you for giving the public such a clear example of why this experiment has been a failure. All three of those talented and service-oriented people have better things to do with their time than to help bolster your cred during a press conference. How incredibly awkward, and what a waste of taxpayer money.

  2. I saw Kerrith Fiddler (who lives in Cantonment), Amy Miller (who lives in Milton) and David Forte (a city resident) on Channel 3 all making fools of themselves in front of their boss Grover Robinson. Of course, they prefer a Strong Mayor-Weak City Council form of government. Much to the relief of Ashton Hayward is now officially the worst mayor in the city’s history. That’s what people tell me in the Publix on 9th Avenue and at Sam’s Club. Under the prior Council-Manager form of government (like the well-run one in Gulf Breeze and the substantially less well-run one in Milton), City Manager Al Coby did the job by himself and did it better than Robinson, Fiddler, Miller and Forte. Four people now do the work of one so how is that “more efficient.” A Council-Manager government is organized like a modern business corporation. I think it helped to have someone like Mayor Mike Wiggins leading the council. The biggest mistake in 2009 was removing the mayor from the council. The old council made their decisions based on extensive public input. Even with more steps in the process, it was often more efficient and better decisions got made faster. When Wiggins was mayor, the council held specialized committee meetings to discuss issues in great detail. Then if ready to go forward the issue went before a committee of the whole where the fine point details were worked out. If an idea had merit and there was enough city and council support, the matter went before the full council for a vote. The public had an opportunity to provide its input at all three levels. If the people didn’t like something done, they could challenge it by referendum. Once a decision was made, the council would tell the city manager to “do it” and he did. Only two people worked for the council the City Manager and the City Attorney. Most of the city employees worked for the City Manager. They only had one boss not many as Forte claims. If the Charter Review Commission recommends a return to a Council-Manager form of government like Gulf Breeze and Milton – and Crestview made the change a few years ago and Century is thinking about it – voters will approve it because they are fed up with the high crime, higher city taxes and fees and a reduced level of services resulting from having a mayor with no prior executive leadership experience surrounded by “YES Mayor” types like Fiddler, Miller and Forte. The 2009 Charter Review Commission never reviewed the operations of the city government, never reviewed the existing charter, was openly focused on laying a foundation for getting rid of the city to be consumed by a new consolidated countywide “city” armed with both county and city taxing powers, never conducted an independent legal review of its final proposal, refused to draft and submit its mandatory final report and then refused to hold the town hall meetings it said it was going to hold. Of the 100% of charter referendum ballots mailed to voters (with pre-paid postage only because Councilwoman Megan Pratt demanded it be done), 63% were not returned, 20% came back YES and 17% came back NO. Some of my friends who voted YES were shocked when I explained that they had just voted to do the opposite of what they thought they were voting for. CRC Chairwoman Crystal Spencer very famously said – “The people want change!” But people want smart change not dumb change. I am very glad that this CRC is not hostage to prior bad decisions.

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