The total cost of a three-month investigation into the top two Pensacola fire department officials exceeded $100,000, records show. The two officials, former fire chief Matt Schmitt and deputy chief Joseph Glover, were fired by Mayor Ashton Hayward last month.
Schmitt and Glover were on placed on paid administrative leave on February 2 and were paid $24,731.26 and $23,358.96 before being fired on May 10. Hayward tapped attorney Russell VanSickle of Pensacola law firm Beggs & Lane to conduct what he has called an “independent” investigation. Beggs & Lane billed the city a total of $65,412.50 in connection with the investigation, resulting in a total cost to taxpayers of $113,502.72.
The Beggs & Lane bill includes more than 192 hours of VanSickle’s time billed at a rate of $295 per hour.
Following the investigation, city officials released a 132-page report generated by VanSickle, which detailed a litany of mostly minor issues as well as ongoing interdepartmental strife between the fire chiefs and the city’s human resources office.
Hayward, however, took issue with the report’s conclusion that Schmitt and Glover had demoted a Fire Captain Edward Deas for “knowingly false reasons.” In a memorandum to city council members released Saturday, Hayward laid out for the first time his reasons for terminating the chiefs.
Schmitt and Glover “improperly retaliated against a lower-ranking firefighter merely for making a complaint about [Glover],” wrote Hayward. “The former chiefs’ unfair and severe retaliation toward the firefighter, their conflicting stories, and their lack of concern for one of their firefighters is behavior that will not be condoned by our administration.”
Hayward’s memo came in response to a special city council meeting called last week to discuss the mayor’s decision to terminate the chiefs, which Hayward called a “staged rally” that was “beneath the dignity of the Council.”
No action was taken at that two-hour meeting, as Pensacola’s 2010 city charter gives the mayor, not council members, the authority to make personnel decisions. However, several council members did use the opportunity to express their frustrations with Hayward and Pensacola’s mayor-council form of government.
Councilwoman Sherri Myers called for a return to Pensacola’s previous 1931 charter, in which a nine-member city council hired a professional city manager to run the city’s day-to-day operations. “I think that, in retrospect, it was working quite well,” said Myers. Like the current charter, however, the 1931 charter barred council members from interfering with personnel decisions, placing hiring and firing powers under the purview of the city manager.
City residents approved the new charter by a ten-point margin in a 2009 referendum, and data shows most city residents remain satisfied with the change. A 2015 Mason-Dixon survey conducted by Pensacola Young Professionals shows that 79% of city residents feel the city is headed in the right direction, compared to just 26% in 2008. Some 76 percent of city residents polled last year said Hayward was doing a “good” or “excellent” job as mayor.
It’s safe to say, though, that council president Charles Bare isn’t among them. “We have to get a handle on this charter, and if it takes going back to the old charter, that may be the case,” said Bare at last week’s meeting. “I have lost confidence in my mayor.”