Sometimes you have to go to an Escambia County Board of County Commissioner’s meetings to get the full effect of how our county operates. While I do watch many of the various county meetings, I pick and choose which ones I attend based on the topics at hand and my personal schedule. Based upon various conversations I had with me over the past week, I knew this was a meeting I wanted to attend.
Thinking this meeting may go longer than normal, I stopped by Graffiti Pizza for a late lunch/early dinner. I mean, it’s Graffiti Pizza. If you haven’t tried it, stop by. I promise it won’t be the worst pizza of your life. On a whim, I grabbed a 30A Beach Blonde, sat outside to take in the sights of Palafox in the late afternoon, waited for a friend, and killed time until the Public Forum started.
My friend arrived. We hadn’t seen each other in months, and it was nice to talk face to face for a change. He was one of my right hand guys during the 2020 campaign season. I’ve known him my whole life and we’ve been through many different seasons of life together. I told him I was so excited to have him going to the BOCC meeting because I knew we’d talk back and forth throughout the whole meeting, which we did.
As we walked in, I was surprised to see the foyer area primarily empty. I thought for sure with as much attention several agenda items had received for over a week, that surely there would be more citizens showing up to speak, but there was not. That is the biggest travesty, in my opinion; citizens are afraid to speak out. I walked into the BOCC chambers and was pleased to see my favorite spot was not occupied, so I sat down, and caught up on my texts. Only two friends knew I’d be there, besides the friend with me, and one texted asking how full it was. Sadly, I reported it was an extremely low crowd. The room was called to order and a public forum began.
The first several speakers had the same song and dance that normally occurs. Mike Lowery reporting to the commissioners the misdeeds of upper ECAT staff, Melissa Pino berating Commissioner Underhill, Alex Arduini and ECW, and Jacqueline Rogers reminding the commissioners of the dire straits of public safety. Then Karen Smith, a nurse at the jail, spoke and told the commissioners of the gross understaffing at the jail. Next up was Bryan Caro, a 20+ year career firefighter who recently separated from county employment, telling the commissioners that he’s not a union thug, not a county employee, but a former firefighter wanting to advocate for better conditions for firefighters. Tony McCray, Rev. Marcel Davis, and Ellison Bennet were the next three speakers inquiring on what is to come of the old Baptist Hospital grounds once the new hospital is completed and asking the commissioners for community stakeholders to invest in the community of what will be left of the old hospital and surrounding area. As these gentlemen completed their 3 minutes of allotted public forum time, I noticed a Channel 3 anchor and cameraman come in. This struck me as odd, as I had never personally seen an anchor at the meetings I’ve been at, just the cameraman typically. The final speaker was Jeremy Bosso. He was speaking on the issue of an anonymous public records request (PRR) that was raising red flags to many citizens across the county. Mr. Bosso stated that many citizens and employees don’t do PRR for fear of retaliation, this can not stand of revealing an anonymous requester, it’s an infringement on citizens first amendment rights, PRRs should be taken very seriously, and he encouraged each commissioner to take public accountability on this issue.
Soon, the public forum was over and a recess took place. During the recess, Interim Public Safety Director Gilmore passed me and I asked him if he had a few minutes to talk, which he did. I asked him my normal public safety questions and what was new going on. I was pleased to hear that just the day prior, Public Safety had gone off of their Covid response. He also told me that the fire department would not be dispatched to Alpha and Bravo (low priority) EMS calls, so as not to have fire units unnecessarily tied up.
After speaking with Mr. Gilmore, I stepped out into the foyer. As I came back in, the meeting was already in order and the prayer was being said. As we said the pledge, I stood in the back of the Board Chambers, and I surveyed the room. This. This is our local government. We the people have the right to hold our elected officials accountable. The fact that we pray and say the pledge as each BOCC meeting opens should be a constant reminder of the purpose of government and that our country was founded on God.
As the meeting got underway, each Commissioner gave their opening statements. Barry thanked the legislative leaders for their involvement in the Bluffs project, specifically mentioning Salzman, Andrade, and a Santa Rosa commissioner that I didn’t catch the name of. Underhill spoke about the privilege we have by having the National Flight Academy here. He further stated that he wanted to enable the children of Escambia County to be able to attend the National Flight Academy should they desire, and if they didn’t have a military person to sponsor them, to contact his office at 595-4920, and they would help in finding sponsors for any child that needed one. Bergosh thanked Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts for putting out flags for Memorial Day at Barrancas National Cemetery, thanked all veterans for their service, but especially those that didn’t make it back. Bergosh said good news of 31 million dollars from America Rescue Plan was in the bank and that he would be having a public comment meeting on Wednesday 6/23 530-730pm at Longleaf Elementary School to discuss the Longleaf Corridor Project. This project is estimated to cost 65 million dollars and be completed within two years. Commissioner Bender spoke of the bridge finally being open, he thanked FDOT for working to get the bridge opened by Memorial Day, discussed the bridge’s safety, and said there are independent inspectors outside of Skanska that are monitoring the progression. He then said he was at Escambia County Fire Rescue Station #3 for a heroes lunch, which duty called and they got interrupted twice for emergency calls, and he praised and named multiple fire companies (Engine, Squad, etc.) that responded to a single story residential structure fire and knocked it down quickly and efficiently.
The meeting moved along progressively and then we were at the three agenda items that were, in my opinion, the hot topics of the night. The first one was the request of Barry that the board discuss the County Administrator’s contract and vote to schedule the contract as an agenda item for the June 17th meeting. There was one speaker for this topic, Jacqueline Rogers, and she stated it seemed this was retaliatory being that it wasn’t on the agenda until after the County Administrator protected the anonymous public records requester’s anonymity. The board voted 5-0 for this to be on the agenda for the June 17th meeting. It should be noted, County Administrator Gilley was not present due to being on vacation, and she still has a year left of her 3 year contract with the county.
The next hot topic was an add on by Barry that was in regards to a public records request (PRR). Basically, an anonymous citizen placed a PRR, then an anonymous county employee filed a PRR to get the identity of the anonymous citizen or the IP address. The County Administrator and the IT Director pushed back in not allowing the anonymity of the citizen to be released, thus why it was an add on to the agenda. There was quite a bit of discussion on this. I got frustrated trying to follow along because assistant county administrator Deb Bowers would begin to answer a question, but then get cut off as she was answering, and it never circled back around for her to finish answering in entirety. Barry’s standpoint was that the commissioners needed to be aware of PRR for the BOCC offices or districts, then it should land at the county attorney’s office. Ms. Bowers was explaining that in May 2020 was when Escambia County went to MyGovernmentOnline for PRR. She was saying that in April 2019 there was a file of anonymous PRR that was given to HR Director Jane Still upon her hiring, but then she was cut off, and as previously stated, it never circled back around to her. There was much conversation among the commissioners in regards to this. Underhill stated that it’s not right for the citizens to have to pay for PRR, citizens should be able to access it all, they should be able to ask for it anonymously, and it’s a defacto barrier to have to pay for PRR, and that citizens are already paying the commissioners for their time with their salaries. Barry and Underhill both mentioned that they don’t charge for their time when they are completing a PRR. There was a 4-1 vote with Underhill opposed, along the lines that all PRR need to go through the county attorney before disseminating.
Finally, the Recommendation Concerning Escambia County’s 401a Annuity Program was up for discussion. There were 3 citizen speakers that spoke. This was at the request of Commissioner Barry, thus he started the discussion. There was much talk among the commissioners. I took 10 pages of notes. Amidst the discussion, Bergosh asks Bender why it took him 5 months to enroll.
Bender explained in detail that he is a full time commissioner and he was deciding between FRS or 401a to see what was best for him, that it shows on each page the employer and employee contribution, he took the FRS quiz and it said the 401a was better for him, he couldn’t get the elected official rate and would have to be at Senior Management rate of 24-26%, he received the financial disclosure paperwork, so he logged into to check his 401a, sees that it’s too much, he asks HR about it, and was told it was the same rate as FRS. At some point someone threw out that Bender is getting 49% while everyone else is getting 8.3%. Bergosh’s main concern was is it legal. May reminded everyone this was just a discussion, that they needed true transparency, and needed more legal advice in order to move forward. Barry withdrew his original motion and motioned for BOCC to get a more definitive answer legally in order to proceed forward. Then, Pam Childers, Clerk of Court, spoke. The room became silent. Childers told the commissioners she felt they were putting her in a difficult position, but she answers to the governor and the people, whether this was legal or not, it may not be moral or ethical, and she was uncomfortable with the amount the payout would be, and ultimately, she holds the check book for the county. The room seemed stunned or in awe, and there were whispered one word responses that drifted through the chamber such as “wow”. Once she spoke, the few remaining items went at warp speed and the meeting was adjourned.
As I walked to my car and perused social media, my Facebook feed was showing many of my friends and colleagues praising Ms. Childers. One person simply wrote “Pam Childers is my hero.” Yes, yes she is. Today, she is the majority of Escambia County citizens’ heroes.