When you don’t have a good defense, go on the offense.
Or, better yet, cue Scarlet O’Hara and play the victim.
That playbook worked well for Tamara Fountain in her first three years at City Hall.
And then it didn’t.
Fountain was the chief operations officer in Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward’s administration until Monday when she resigned. She found herself in the media crosshairs over her resume and reports that she had an undergraduate degree from Florida State University and a master’s degree from the University of West Florida.
Rather than quickly calling reporters to correct the record, she lashed out at their “disingenuous” reporting. And very quickly, things turned ugly for her and the mayor, but not because she didn’t have a degree from FSU.
A wave of negative stories fell upon Fountain because she didn’t respond immediately to the reports with eight simple words: “I do not have a degree from FSU.”
And to be honest, I hated to see Fountain caught in the crosshairs. She seemed to be growing into her job as the day-to-day manager of city hall, even admitting that early on she and the mayor had made mistakes and some bad hires. But then came the rookie decision a few weeks ago for city hall to host a transparency website, which was really a political move to embarrass the Community Maritime Park board and Quint Studer’s attorney Scott Remington.
Things went downhill for the city from that day forward.
Even a naive college freshman in a UWF communications class could see the announcement about a transparency website had nothing to do with lifting city hall’s veil.
Suddenly journalists were circling the mayor and his COO like sharks swimming toward blood.
Why? Because when politicians and bureaucrats start talking about transparency, journalists immediately sense something’s wrong. And to test a politician or bureaucrat’s commitment to transparency, the journalists will flood a place like city hall with questions and public records requests that ask for people’s resumes and travel records and pay raises, and so on.
Hayward should fire whoever came up with that brilliant idea. Any communications officer or political operative worth a dime knows that announcing a transparency website is asking for trouble.
And that’s what city hall got. Here’s a blow-by-blow timeline of the chaos that has rocked city hall the past few weeks and the drama that eventually led to Fountain’s resignation.
The mayor along with Quint Studer and UWF President Judy Bense and other university administrators met with the Pensacola News Journal editorial board to announce plans to create a Center for Entrepreneurship at Maritime Park. The $20 million project would include a 55,000-square-foot campus complex, a conference center and a day-care center. (Read PNJ story here, and Studer Community Institute story here.)
Citizens rejoiced. The Community Maritime Park board approved leases for the project. The PNJ wrote an editorial that predicted the center and the Maritime park project would become the epicenter of Pensacola’s renaissance.
With the mayor on board, all that was left was for City Council to approve. Studer went before the council and said, “Let’s get started.” But the council, although voting to endorse the project, wanted to be cautious and to get its lawyer to review the leases that the CMPA and Studer attorneys approved.
As my cousin in Kentucky used to say, “Ain’t nothing been right since that happened.”
The city began to drag its feet and Studer, after nine months of trying to get the Maritime Park leases approved, grew impatient. Maybe a little too impatient, but it was his $20 million he was willing to throw at the city and they suddenly didn’t seem that interested. So maybe impatient isn’t the right word. Let’s make that frustrated.
Fountain began phoning people to say that the mayor was listening to Bob Kerrigan and not her. Fountain said Kerrigan, who doesn’t work for the city but is an attorney and major supporter of the mayor, told her there were major problems with the leases the Maritime Park attorney and Remington worked on.
Oh, none of the stories about the Maritime Park leases mentioned Kerrigan, who according to Fountain, was the Oz behind the curtain pulling the mayor’s strings on the leases.
The city fired LuTimothy May, its community outreach administrator, who is the brother of Escambia County Commissioner Lumon May. The firing came in the wake of a video that showed an agitated Lumon May berating a Pensacola Police officer after she pulled him over for a traffic stop. But let’s not go there, even though the drama surrounding the May brothers added another layer of city-hall drama.
July 21 to July 25. This should have been a great week for Fountain.
July 21. The mayor announced that in addition to the HR, communications and IT departments, Fountain also would oversee the airport, Pensacola Energy and the port. The promotion put her on the same level as City Administrator Eric Olson.
July 23. The city announced its transparency page on its website and posted the proposed leases for Studer’s proposed $20 million project. Shortly afterward, the city emailed a news release that said the mayor and Council President Andy Terhaar were rejecting the leases that the Maritime Park board approved. Later that evening, Studer cried uncle and pulled his proposal to build a day-care center, conference center and a facility for UWF’s Center for Entrepreneurship.
July 24. WEAR-TV aired a report by Amber Southard on the mayor’s reorganization. In an interview Hayward gave Southard, the mayor said about Fountain, “She's very qualified having an undergrad at Florida State and an MBA at the University of West Florida, so she understands government.”
July 25 – Journalists start sending public records requests for Fountain’s resume.
After the WEAR story aired, Fountain sent Southard an email that read, “There is a bunch of stuff wrong in the story. I just watched the story. I am not a CFO. My salary is wrong. My time with responsibilities is wrong. Schools.” Southard picked up the phone as soon as she received the email and called Fountain. Here is how Independent Publisher and Editor Rick Outzen reported the exchange:“Inweekly contacted Southard the week after the Hayward interview aired. The reporter said that she called Fountain when she got the email. Southard told Fountain that she never said CFO in the interview. Fountain admitted that she personally hadn’t seen the interview but a friend had called her. Southard asked Fountain to tell her the corrections so that she could change the story. Fountain said she would email the reporter the corrections on Monday (July 28). No such email was received.”
A wave of media reports showed up on TV, radio, websites and newspapers as journalists wailed about the city running off the Studers and their $20 million proposal. Outzen published a story, “Why the Studers Walked Away.” A PNJ editorial shook its fist at city hall, “Give us true transparency.”
Fountain said in light of the fallout, the city needed to come up with a clear path forward for people who wanted to lease space at the Maritime Park.
Round Six PNJ reporter Will Isern ran a story that reported Fountain did not have a FSU degree. The story also pointed out that Fountain did not have a master’s from UWF, but an undergraduate degree from the university.
WEAR TV reporter Southard also followed with a report that FSU said Fountain did not have a degree from the university. The TV station posted the segment on its website, “Is Tamara Fountain actually qualified to run some of Pensacola's largest businesses?”
After the PNJ and WEAR TV stories, Fountain sent the PNJ a statement that read in part:
“I was contacted by Will Isern with the Pensacola News Journal who requested an opportunity to talk with me about my background and current position. At that time, there was no indication that this was in any way a pressing issue. Mr. Isern agreed at that time to meet after I returned from time off with my family this week. It seems somewhat disingenuous for Mr. Isern to agree to those arrangements and then proceed to print allegations and innuendo – even going so far as to insinuate that I was not responding to calls – when he was fully aware that I was scheduled to be unavailable this week.”
Fountain returned from her time off with her family and resigned.
And the winner is ...
Nobody. But there sure are lots of losers. At the top of the list? Pensacola citizens.
What is sad and strange is that if Fountain had called WEAR or the PNJ to talk to Southard or Isern and said, “I do not have a degree from FSU,” the COO might still have her $114,000 job at city hall.
Or she might not. She told numerous people that she was taking a week off to decide if she wanted to continue working at city hall. She complained that Kerrigan, the Pensacola attorney and Hayward supporter, was sabotaging her.
All this chaos at city hall has lots of people scratching their head. So in the spirit of transparency, here’s what I’d like to see on the transparency website:
What is the role of Bob Kerrigan in the mayor’s administration?
Why, after all these years, isn’t there a clear process for creating leases for Maritime Park? Why is it so complicated?
And why for heaven’s sake didn’t the city council president and the mayor pick up the phone and talk to Quint Studer rather than sending him and the whole wide world a press release rejecting his Maritime Park leases?
Citizens particularly deserve an answer to this last question. We’re talking about a project that had the potential to become the epicenter of downtown Pensacola’s renaissance.
If the city can jet off to Europe and Asia for economic development, why can’t the city walk across the street to Studer’s office to talk him about his $20 million proposal?
It just seems that games were being played here.