“Does the light mean it’s on?” Committee Chair Bentina Terry motioned to her microphone and began the session.
Still early in their journey—BP and the federal government have yet to even arrive at a number for the Clean Water Act penalty amount—the committee spent this week’s meeting laying a procedural foundation. Members discussed aspects such as scheduling, bylaws and who exactly determined the ranking system when it came time to assess potential projects in line for Escambia’s local pot of oil spill money.
One of the first issues the RESTORE committee discussed was how to handle the press. County staff said it was responding to concerns raised by committee members—the IN contacted members following their first meeting—and advised members against speaking with the media. Community and Environment Director Keith Wilkins said it was “a conversation the committee should have,” and a county lobbyist hired to navigate the RESTORE landscape told members to be mindful of Escambia’s “brand” and “imaging” and suggested the need to “speak with one unit.”
“Let me help y’all with this if you don’t mind,” said Interim County Administrator George Touart, telling members it was too early in the process to speak with the media—“we know nothing about money, we know nothing about projects, you’re actually getting to know each other”—and advising they defer to the Public Information Office. “It would actually save you a lot of phone calls from the press, and you don’t have anything to tell’em until we get going with this process.”
RESTORE committee member Christian Wagley questioned staff’s advice. He said he trusted his fellow committee members to handle the press responsibly.
“I’m reluctant to see our voices limited in any way,” Wagley said.
Committee member Greg Beck agreed.
“I do some of my best work unfiltered,” he said. “And I’d hate to be filtered.”
Member Al Coby said he felt it might be too early in the process for the press to be engaged. Fellow member Michelle Inere suggested establishing an official point of contact for those who did not wish to speak with the media.
“I think we all have the responsibility,” added member Donnie McMahon, “not to run your mouth about things you don’t know, but I don’t like the idea of being stifled either.”
Ultimately, most of the members shrugged off the notion of limiting each other’s communication with the press.
“We trust each other and we believe each other,” said Terry, adding that she didn’t feel members should be “filtered or fettered.” “I think if we rely on our good judgement as adults we’ll do very well. We’re all very bright.”
Also at this week’s meeting, the RESTORE committee dove into the framework set up by the Escambia County Commission when establishing the body. Specifically, they wondered if the committee would have input into how potential projects were ranked, and why projects needed to fit into only one of three predetermined categories (infrastructure, economic development or environmental).
“I’d hoped they might like to hear from us on that,” Terry said.
Wilkins said that committee members should approach county commissioners with any concerns about the guidelines governing the process. Touart told the committee it has “a lot of leeway, a lot of authority,” and that the process established by the commission consisted of “common sense criteria.”
The committee decided to pass a motion requesting that the county commissioners consider amending their previous resolution to allow the committee to establish the ranking criteria and also consider projects for all three categories.
The RESTORE committee also firmed up its meeting calendar Monday. With the exception of special meetings, or meetings held off-site, members agreed to meet on the first and third Monday of each month, from 4 to 6 p.m., at the county’s central office complex.
Members also discussed a concern raised by a member of the public during its initial meeting: Escambia County is not videoing or televising the RESTORE meetings. They talked about “backlash” and “perception.”
“That kind of bothers me a little bit,” said Beck, describing the local RESTORE process as important—“it’s more than a little bit important, it’s very important”—and as something that should be easily accessible to the public. “It would be absolutely boring right now if it were televised, but later on I think there will be some things that should be televised.”
Touart said that the meeting room was not equipped to broadcast the meetings— “certainly, we’re not trying to hide anything from the public”—and that televising the meetings would require relocating to the county commission chambers downtown or setting up a remote operation. County staff told the committee they would consider how best to accommodate televising future meetings.
The next RESTORE Advisory Committee meeting will be held April 22, before settling into its regular schedule in May.