As we reported last month, members of one Pensacola neighborhood are pushing back against a plan by the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority to build a pair of emergency sewage tanks at a long-abandoned site off North Palafox Street. In addition to filing suit against ECUA, neighborhood activists have launched their own effort to inform — and in some cases, misinform — the community.
ECUA officials have made a strong case for why these tanks are needed, and why the site they’ve chosen, next door to the utility’s existing Moreno Street Lift Station, is the most practical, logical, cost-effective place to put them.
But the drama over these tanks has also highlighted ECUA’s shortcomings in the transparency department.
The Moreno Street Lift Station and the site next door are just blocks from the boundaries of a neighborhood association entrenched in NIMBY-ism (NIMBY meaning “Not In My Back Yard”). In just the past few years, members of the neighborhood have spoken out against a radio tower, a cell tower, and a state probation and parole office — none of which are or would have even been located within the neighborhood’s boundaries.
North Hill activists have said that ECUA wasn’t fully transparent about its plans for the North Palafox Street site before board members voted to buy the property last year — and they’ve got a point. While the proposed purchase was publicly noticed, the publicly-available agenda for ECUA’s November 19 meeting didn’t detail the agency’s plans for the property, stating simply, “Authorization to close on purchase of real property- 1750 North Palafox Street, pg. 25.”
There was, however, no page 25 included in the three-page agenda available on ECUA’s website. The page number refers to the background information for each meeting agenda — information which ECUA should, but doesn’t, include in meeting agendas posted to its website. Nor did ECUA notify neighboring property owners or hold a community meeting to discuss their plans for the property — though it’s worth noting that there was no legal requirement that they do either.
In any case, the purchase of the property was quietly and unanimously approved.
Faced with a neighborhood known for its visceral impulse to oppose projects, it’s easy to understand why ECUA officials might have been tempted to try to move the project forward without tipping off the neighbors. But this is Florida — home of some of the nation’s strongest open meeting and public records laws. This is Pensacola — home of Reubin Askew, one of this state’s finest governors and a crusader for transparency in government. Stealthy government just isn’t an option.
ECUA should include its full packet of background information with each agenda posted to its website. It’s something that other local governments, including the City of Pensacola and Escambia County, have done for many years. While they’re at it, ECUA should also make videos of its past meetings available online. Currently, videos are only made available online for the board’s past two meetings, and that’s just not good enough. Data storage is cheap, and ECUA should again follow the example set by the city and county governments, each of which has video archives dating back several years.
These two trivial changes — each of which ECUA could make quickly and at minimal cost — would go a long way toward providing ratepayers with the open governance they expect and deserve.
Yes, doing so will probably make it easier for the NIMBY crowd to sabotage or delay projects, even projects like this one that provide much-needed infrastructure. But that’s the way it goes. In a democracy, we must debate our ideas in the light of day, with all the facts on the table. Sometimes good ideas will lose. Sometimes bad ideas will win. That’s the price we pay for government in the sunshine — the benefits of which, we hope, outweigh the risks.
Editor’s note: In the interest of full disclosure, ECUA is an advertiser with The Pulse.