A Friday story on the Pensacola News Journal‘s website falsely reported that Pensacola city staff had unilaterally “redrawn” the boundaries of a downtown historic district.
The story — with the sensational headline “City of Pensacola shocks developers by redrawing downtown districts” — was originally published by reporter Joseph Baucum early Friday morning and was updated and edited several times throughout the day.
Baucum incorrectly reported that “the city’s Planning Services Division surprised corporation Two Hundred Garden West Inc. by expanding the perimeter of the Palafox Historic Business District.”
The boundaries of the district were neither redrawn nor expanded, however, and the developer wasn’t surprised, having been informed of an error with the district’s boundaries earlier this week.
Despite the paper’s characterization, only the city council — not unelected staffers — has the power to change district boundaries, which are set by city ordinance. In reality, the boundaries for the district in question were erroneously depicted on an online map, which was corrected after staffers realized the error.
“No boundaries were altered or redrawn,” said city spokesman Vernon Stewart. “The district boundaries are described in the Land Development Code and can only be changed by City Council through an ordinance. Mr. Baucum created the impression in his reporting that a change to a city map placed a proposed development in a more restrictive district. That is simply not the case.”
While the News Journal report called it a “late-hour” change and an “unexpected twist,” city staff notified 200 Garden West of the mapping error on Tuesday, two days before their proposed project was set to be discussed by the city’s Architectural Review Board, Stewart said.
City planner Leslie Statler said she met with Baucum on Thursday afternoon and told him the district boundaries are codified and can’t be redrawn by staff. Statler even went so far as to have Baucum take a photograph of the applicable section of the City Code so that he would have it for his story, she said. Statler then followed up with an email to Baucum, telling him that she would have additional information for him on Friday morning.
But the News Journal apparently decided not to wait for the additional information, choosing instead to publish Baucum’s story around 6:00 a.m. on Friday morning.
“Instead of waiting to hear from Leslie, Mr. Baucum said in his article that she ‘declined to immediately explain why the city altered the map and the boundaries to the Palafox Historic District.’ That is a misrepresentation of what Leslie said and did,” Stewart said. “By omitting what Leslie said to the ARB members during the meeting, what she said to him after the meeting, and by failing to reference the document that he photographed, Mr. Baucum created an impression that city staff had made changes to an ordinance, had failed to notify anyone until the last minute, and then was unresponsive to his questions.”
Neither Baucum nor News Journal executive editor Lisa Nellesen-Savage responded to a request for comment. As of Friday evening, the paper had not corrected the errors.