Presser Notes: Three Chiefs & the Double-edged Sword

by Jeremy Morrison, Inweekly

The city of Pensacola has narrowed its search for a police chief down to three candidates. Let the questions about the selections begin. Mayor Grover Robinson will ask the first one.

“Are you seriously gonna put somebody from the state of Minnesota on this group? Because so far, Minnesota is making Mississippi look like Mahatma Gandhi on civil rights,” Robinson said Monday during his weekly press conference, relaying his reaction to the city’s selection committee.

Mayor Robinson said Monday he’s been assured by members of the city’s selection committee that any of the eight finalists, and certainly the top three — even the one from Minnesota — could step into the job. Additionally, the selection committee was in agreement on their top three candidate choices.

“The team, the five of ’em, they said all three of these were consistent and in everybody’s top three,” Robinson said. “They felt like there was kind of a clear delineation between these individuals.”

The top three candidates are Booker Hodges, assistant commissioner of law enforcement for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety; John Ortolano, chief of police in Hobbs, NM; Eric Randall, assistant chief of police with the Newport News Police Department in Virginia.

Next, these candidates will enjoy final interviews and participate in a virtual public forum scheduled for April 28 at 5:30 p.m. Members of the public may submit questions for the candidates on the city’s website.

While much of the societal discussion concerning policing revolves around social justice issues and issues involving race, the city apparently did not consider race when selecting finalists. Of the top three, both Hodges and Randall are African American.

“There is a belief,” Mayor Robinson said, “that we need to find leadership that is committed to making sure that the ranks of the police look similar to the community that they serve.”

Also not considered, according to City Administrator Keith Wilkins, who sat on the selection committee, was any geographical connection to the region-though all three have a connection in some form.

“They all three have various connections to Florida and one to Pensacola,” said Wilkins. “One was Navy, you know, one graduated from Booker T., one’s wife, apparently, has family close by.”

One candidate with a direct geographical connection that did not make the top three is interim PPD Chief Kevin Christman, who stepped up from his position of assistant chief when former chief Tommi Lyter retired in December.

“We think that Deputy Chief Christman has a place with us as deputy chief,” said Mayor Robinson.

The mayor said that Christman’s interview with the selection committee didn’t go as well as it could have. Also, a bit ironically, his dedication to the PPD and being a “team player” in the organization may have worked against him in this instance.

“He’s very team-focused, so he really hasn’t sought out those opportunities that would promote him to that position on paper,” the mayor said, later adding: “He didn’t focus so much on himself; he focused on PPD. He’s always focused on PPD.”

Robinson also said that Christman has requested to act as a liaison between the city and the top three candidates: “He’s a team player, and he’s trying to work for the betterment of the team.”

And just as Christman will continue to have a place on the force, so will the rest of the PPD command staff. One of the top eight finalists told the city he was looking to empty the whole bench and repack it himself: “that person slid to the bottom.”

“We’re not looking to get rid of any of our command staff that is there,” Robinson said.

Parcels 4&5 Re-Do?

After the deal that would have realized a parking garage at Maritime Park fell apart recently, Mayor Robinson has decided the city needs to put the involved parcels back out on the market and try again. Or, forgoing any chance for a parking garage on those parcels, go back to the drawing board for the overall development plan at the park.

“Everything is dependent on those lots,” Robinson said Monday. “Those parcels are the most important. I’ve made that known for months how important they are to the whole puzzle because that’s where the structured parking is.”

The mayor’s position is the parking garage is necessary to make other projects planned for the park, like a hotel, work logistically. He suggested that the city return any funds thus far received from parties planning to develop other lots if the city council didn’t move on securing a parking garage for parcels four and five.

“If the issue is council decides they want to do something else, then we need to be honest with everything and scrap maybe the whole plan and start over,” Robinson said, calling it “bad faith” to continue collecting money from developers counting on the parking structure to make their projects work. “How can we build a hotel if we have nowhere for them to park?”

The mayor attributed the potential need to switch course at Maritime Park to a shake-up on the city council following the November election.

“There’s nothing wrong. Things change. Decisions change. Councils change,” Robinson said.

The mayor is placing an add-on item on the city council’s agenda this week for consideration of the re-do for parcels four and five.

Parking & Privacy

The city is standardizing downtown parking. After taking over the function of overseeing parking in the urban core from the Pensacola Downtown Improvement Board, the city is instituting a new rate plan — 50 cents per hour, with the first 30 minutes free for much of the public parking, including the Jefferson Street garage — and also employing an app for drivers to use to pay parking fees.

As municipalities around the country move to app-based pay methods for public parking, critics have raised inherent privacy concerns related to the rights to resell a user’s data. Mayor Robinson said Monday that he didn’t think that was an issue in this instance.

“I see Dick in the back — we’re not selling any information we have or collect on anybody’s information, are we?” Robinson asked Assistant Administrator Dick Barker.

“Not that I know of,” Barker replied.

Asked if the city was aware if its app operator resold data, the mayor said that the exclusion would be outlined when the city secured a new app provider sometime this summer.

“Oh, the company of the app?” Robinson said. “I mean, well, that’s why we’re — we’ll evaluate that at our newest, we’re putting it out for an RFP, so we’ll absolutely put it in there, I’m gonna call it, we’re calling it the ‘Jeremy clause,’ so we’re gonna ask about making sure that no information will be sold, Dick, and we’re gonna put that clause into the contract.”

While he was concerned about privacy concerns, Mayor Robinson said that the city needed to embrace newer technologies like parking payment apps. Additionally, the city plans to link license plate data collected via its parking operations downtown directly to the police department, alerting authorities to crimes including kidnappings and stolen vehicles.

“I mean, the technology’s there; we’ve gotta figure out how to use it. I am very concerned about information, if a company, if it’s sold, but I think we make that very clear in our contract, that it’s not a part of it, and I think that we take care of it,” the mayor said. “You know, it’s a double-edged sword: you need to use technology, but you need to make sure you do it in an appropriate way, and, I mean, that’s what we’ll try to do with our contract.”

Dick Eyes the Exit

In city staffing news, Barker will be retiring from his assistant administrator position this coming June.

“This was a significant loss to the city with Dick’s tremendous tenure and institutional knowledge,” Robinson said. “However, we are happy for Dick and his family that they will be able to enjoy more time together.”

Barker recently moved up to his current post from a long tenure as the city’s finance director. The city plans to open Barker’s assistant administrator position to internal candidates for 30 days, with a decision on a replacement to be made before his retirement.


1 thought on “Presser Notes: Three Chiefs & the Double-edged Sword

  1. Deputy Police Chief: That seems like a decision best left to the new Police Chief.

    Parking Garage: Build it using the $19.1 million the city is going to get as part of the American Rescue Plan.

    Parking System Spies: Who decided that the city is going to begin reporting the tag numbers of everyone who parks in a downtown city parking space or lot to law enforcement? That seems like a major policy decision the City Council should decide. And why only downtown? Why not citywide to include at the airport?

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