How ironic that city leadership that has been crying about being bullied recently, now faces allegations of intimidating one of its own citizens. It would almost be laughable if the scenario wasn’t so disturbing.
The PNJ’s Will Isern reported that a cease and desist letter sent to Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward alleges that City Administrator Eric Olson sought to intimidate a Pensacola Naval Air Station employee when he called her supervisor to complain about emails the employee sent to the city.
The employee is Pensacola resident Melanie Nichols. She is president of the North Hill Preservation Association and the secretary of the Council of Neighborhood Association Presidents of Pensacola. She had previously served on the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment. Isern added that “she routinely advocates for issues in her neighborhood and was a vocal opponent of a scrapped plan to relocate a probation office to the former Coca-Cola plant on Palafox Street.”
By all accounts, Nichols is an engaged citizen — exactly the type of civic-minded individual we’re supposed to value in our community. Apparently, the city administrator believes otherwise.
After refusing to comment to the News Journal about the allegations, Olson took to 1620 AM Thursday morning to unapologetically defend and rationalize his actions.
Olson asserted that he did not attempt to get Nichols fired, as her cease and desist letter alleges. Yet he confirmed that he did indeed call her boss to tell on her. It was a pathetically childish move from a grown man. From a government official, it was chilling.
Olson’s problem with Nichols? That she allegedly sent 350 emails to the city over a 3-year span. Even if that number is accurate, that’s roughly 2 emails per week — hardly excessive for a highly engaged citizen. A sampling of Nichols’ past correspondences with the city are entirely pleasant, polite and professional.
The News Journal is awaiting a public records request for all the emails. But under initial scrutiny, it appears that a single email that is addressed to 8 city employees, tallies 8 times in the city’s records accounting. In other words, the actual number of unique emails may be far less than what Olson claims.
But whatever the final number, it is not Olson’s job to critique what a citizen does at hers.
On the radio with Andrew McKay, Olson cited Navy rules and policies as an excuse for calling Nichols’ boss. He opined about what is “not permitted” at NAS Pensacola. All the while Olson blatantly ignored the most basic fact that what a taxpayer does at her job place — be that Nichols or any other citizen — is none of his business. It’s not Olson’s place to interpret or enforce Navy policies. He doesn’t work for the Navy. He works for the city.
Throughout the interview, Olson refused to concede that citizens could understandably be disturbed by his actions. He arrogantly justified his overreach as “doing the right thing.” How sad that his tone deafness is unsurprising. An inability to admit mistakes seems to be a recurring trend with the mayor’s top officials.
It is flatly wrong for a city official to interfere with a citizen’s attempt to communicate with the government. It is unacceptable that Olson – whose paycheck is funded by taxpayers like Nichols –doesn’t seem to realize that. This is not just our opinion. Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, said it’s not good government:
“Unless a requester is making physical threats against a city employee or official, It is entirely inappropriate for the city administrator to interfere In any way with the citizen’s public record requests. To call the requester’s employer is beyond the pale and could well be considered to have a chilling effect on the requester’s constitutional right of access to the public records of her city government.”
Mayor Hayward is obligated to take a stand against Olson’s actions. The mayor has weathered controversies lately, including the departure of his chief operations officer. Citizens are awaiting public explanations. This sound of silence is no longer tolerable, especially if a citizen has been targeted and intimidated by his most powerful official.
If Olson thinks it’s OK to interfere in a citizen’s life by calling her boss, then it’s time for city residents to return the favor: Call Olson’s boss and demand he stand up and speak out. Mayor Hayward represents Nichols. He should have the backbone to defend her.