Saturday, December 02, 2006

Winds of Change on Pensacola Beach

This year's just-ended hurricane season may have been exceedingly quiet, thank goodness, but the winds of political change are still blowing on Pensacola Beach. We expect a hurricane next year, politically speaking.

As the Gulf Breeze News and Pensacola News Journal reported recently, only one of five sitting members of the Santa Rosa Island Authority is returning next year. Gone are McGuire Martin, Bill Griffith, Thom Blas, and Jimmie Perkins.

As the saying goes, elections have consequences. On democracy-impaired Pensacola Beach, however, those elections are for distant county commissioners. Five of the six SRIA board members who administer Pensacola Beach are unelected appointees of county commissioners.

Two veteran board members remain: the one member elected by beach residents , Dr. Thomas Campanella, and Vernon Prather, who will continue serving as the appointee of county commissioner Kevin White.

Out With the Old

Martin and Griffith each enjoyed reigns longer than Caesar Augustus. Both were at various times controversial. Martin's attendance record was abysmal, except when an issue of direct interest to his pocketbook was on the agenda. Griffith was a steadfast promoter of beach tourism. He also frequently voted for high rise developments, until even he seemed appalled at how thoroughly the beach was being walled off from the public or cast into permanent shadows.

Blas and Perkins served four years. They first were appointed to the SRIA board by newly named Escambia County commissioners after the Cooking Pot Scandal erupted in 2002, resulting in the indictment and later convictions of four former Escambia County commissioners on criminal charges ranging from Open Meetings violations to bribery and corruption.

Blas served as chairman of the SRIA board this past year. Although he started out as something of a free market radical, which on Pensacola Beach translates as pro-development, over time he appeared to moderate his views. In the last two years he became something of a centrist on the board -- or at least not a sure vote for higher buildings, greater densities, and more ruinous fees and taxes.

Jimmy Perkins never really manifested much interest in the job. Early in his tenure, he told beach residents in an informal conversation late one evening that he had no sympathy for those who strive to preserve Pensacola Beach or its environment. Waving a hand toward the bright neon lights of a hotel and two restaurants across Via DeLuna from the SRIA building, he said, "The beach was ruined years ago by stuff like that."

In With the New

The newly appointed commissioners, who serve at the pleasure of county commissioners, include John Peacock (appointed by Mike Whitehead); Fred Gant (appointed by Marie Young); Kelly Robinson (appointed by newly elected county commissioner Gene Valentino); and Tammy Bohannon (named by newly elected Grover Robinson).

Rick Outzen of the Independent News recently remarked on his blog that "Peacock has already made it known that he wants to abolish the SRIA." Whitehead told the Pensacola News Journal that he replaced Griffith with Peacock because, "I wanted someone who reflects my opinions and my beliefs about where this community is headed... ."

That would be, if Whitehead gets his way, to hell in a hand basket.

Whitehead is pushing to abolish the SRIA and have county commissioners manage the beach. His vision calls for unrestrained development and maximum taxes and fees on beach residents and businesses.

The other new SRIA board members, Gant and Robinson, are unknown commodities at the moment. Tammy Bohannon is a long-time beach resident and businesswoman who often has been a voice for preserving the best of Pensacola Beach against unreasonable development and higher taxes and fees that would make the beach unaffordable for the general public.

Future Storm Warning

The first test for the new commissioners is likely to come soon after the New Year when SRIA general manager Buck Lee's contract comes up for renewal. Lee is unpopular with long-time SRIA staff members, beach businesses, and residents. Many have questioned his spending priorities, beginning with his ostentatious leasing of a bright yellow Hummer early in his tenure as the agency's top executive.

The Hummer is gone, now, but not the grandiose impulse that inspired Lee to lease it. Many say he has done nothing since to show he knows or cares how to efficiently administer the $6 million agency in the public's interest.

Buck Lee is at bottom just an under-educated county politician with no real expertise in anything related to municipal administration, finance and budgeting, tourist promotion and marketing, building standards enforcement, environmental protection, or anything else relevant to Pensacola Beach. What skills he has are limited to preserving his own job, even if that means betraying the board to whom he supposedly answers and the agency that he heads.

Ordinarily, the learning curve for new board members is six months or longer. New board members don't have the luxury of that much time. They're stepping into the middle of a windstorm over the future of Pensacola Beach. And they can't trust SRIA general manager Buck Lee to give them a fair and balanced orientation.

They'll have to act quickly, and rely on truly independent resources, to learn the complex history, past policy choices, and alternative future directions facing the Santa Rosa Island Authority. They can turn to no better resource for that than local attorney M.J. Menge, who has lived through and worked on almost every major issue involving Pensacola Beach in the past nearly four decades.

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