In a long and often spirited Committee of the Whole meeting yesterday, the City Council gave initial approval for Jim Messer (or rather, the Messer Law Firm) to serve as the city’s full-time city attorney. Messer was hired as interim city attorney several months ago while the permanent position was considered. An RFQ received responses from three firms: Messer’s, Beggs & Lane, and Litvak, Beasley & Wilson. Messer’s proposal was the lowest bidder at $12,500/month (or $150,000/year) with litigation work billed at an additional $245/hour.
Objections to the contract were raised by council members Pratt, DeWeese and Myers. Dr. Pratt asked about the charter question of whom the city attorney would represent in conflicts between the mayor and council. Messer responded that if a lawsuit were ever filed by the council, for example, the city could hire an outside attorney to represent them before a judge.
Councilwoman DeWeese noted that the contract’s proposed five-year duration was potentially longer than the mayor’s term of office and that, as a courtesy to his possible successor, it should not exceed the current mayoral term. City administrator Bill Reynolds, who presented the recommendation in Mayor Hayward’s absence, said that the details of the contract was a separate consideration from whether or not to hire the Messer firm. However, Councilman Johnson motioned to change the terms of the contract to three years.
Councilwoman Myers said she didn’t believe the mayor had the right to privatize a charter-created position like the city attorney.
“If you can privatize the city attorney position, you could privatize the city administrator, the clerk, and every department head,” she said.
The mayor’s office has maintained that hiring a city attorney through a private contract is a cost-saving measure, because the city doesn’t have to make insurance or retirement contributions. One of Mayor Hayward’s campaign promises was that neither he nor any of his hires would receive city benefits. Similar private contracts have been created for the mayor’s chief of staff John Asmar and spokesman Travis Peterson.
In a May interview with Progressive Pensacola‘s Derek Cosson (who himself was since hired by the mayor as a city employee with benefits), Messer said that he viewed the interim city attorney contract as a “public service,” not a job, but that he “would certainly submit a proposal” if the mayor decided to privatize the office permanently.
The Committee of the Whole voted 6-3 to hire Messer, with DeWeese, Myers and Pratt opposing. It will proceed for a final vote at Thursday’s council meeting.
Council members Pratt, DeWeese and Myers also questioned whether Mayor Hayward had the authority to award $750 bonuses to each of the city’s 775 employees. As reported by the PNJ‘s Jamie Page, there is a possible conflict with section 215.425 of Florida statutes, which states that “[n]o extra compensation shall be made to any officer, agent, employee, or contractor after the service has been rendered.” There was also a question of whether the mayor had authority to make such a large unbudgeted expenditure (around $600,000) without council approval.
Dr. Pratt said she felt the employees deserved the raise and had no intention of trying to reverse it, but asked if the council should ratify the action to make it legal. Councilwoman DeWeese said if the mayor’s action was found to be unauthorized, it would probably be covered by the city’s insurance, but suggested there could be legal repercussions for the mayor. She motioned to request an opinion from the attorney general about the legality of the bonuses.
The motion failed to get enough votes to proceed to a vote at Thursday’s meeting, but Councilwoman Myers said she had already sent a letter to the attorney general requesting an opinion. I have obtained her letter and reprinted it below.
Dear Attorney General Pam Bondi,
I am requesting an opinion from the Attorney General’s Office in my capacity as a duly elected public official. Specifically, I am a member of the Pensacola City Council representing District 2 within the incorporated area of the city.
I am submitting two questions upon which I am requesting opinions from the Attorney General.
- The Mayor of Pensacola recently announced that he is giving $750.00 bonuses to 775 employees in recognition of their “hard work”. The bonus is not for future work and was not budgeted, or appropriated by the City Council. My question is simple: Do such bonuses violate Florida Statute 215.245, or any other Florida statute?
- The City Council has before it an agenda item that calls for the approval, or disapproval of a recently negotiated union contract with the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). Attached is page 31 of the contract that calls for a one-time payment of $750.00. Does such an agreement violate Florida Statute 215.245, or any other Florida law?
City Council member, District 2
Much of the afternoon’s discussion was spent on two proposed ordinances recommended by the mayor’s office that seemed designed to stop both homeless individuals and the Occupy movement from sleeping on city property or using city restrooms beyond their intended purpose. Many attendees gave impassioned speeches opposing the ordinances, as did council members Myers and Jerralds. When council members asked Jim Messer about the constitutionality of the ordinances, he admitted that he had neither drafted nor reviewed the ordinances. Surprised by this, the council voted unanimously to table them both until they could be reviewed. I plan to write more about the recent city and county efforts to curb homelessness.
Councilman Sam Hall, recently voted council president, is proving to be a strict parliamentarian. At several points in the meeting he cited Robert’s rules and told speakers they were “out of order,” even asking some to be removed. He also alluded to at least two previous interactions with citizens which he believed violated Florida law on cyberstalking, including an email sent to council members which, Hall believed, made an implicit threat against one council member’s elderly mother. (For what it’s worth, I was also copied on the email in question and did not interpret any threat.) He asked all citizens to tone down rhetoric and stick to rational arguments.
Other issues considered by the Committee of the Whole included a $5 million loan to convert the city’s fleet to compressed natural gas vehicles and a request to sub-lease a portion of the Long Hollow Community Center to the non-profit Open Books.