Pensacola protest puts Scott on the spot

A day after Gov. Rick Scott was picketed by angry Pensacola residents and refused to talk to them, he abruptly canceled a controversial plan by his prisons chief to shift a probation and parole office to a residential neighborhood.

Scott’s action Friday followed a furor as he left a Thursday fund-raiser at The Fish House, a popular Pensacola waterfront restaurant.

About three dozen residents of the historic North Hill neighborhood, some carrying picket signs, had gathered on a public street outside the seafood restaurant, hoping to make a direct appeal to Scott to reconsider the decision to put a probation and parole office in a former Coca-Cola plant. They said they had public safety concerns about parolees and probationers walking in an area with many single-family homes.

According to a report in the Pensacola News Journal, Scott not only did not stop to listen to the residents, but the driver of his black sport-utility vehicle flashed its lights and blew its siren as his three-car caravan drove off, scaring the residents.

“Off the SUV went. We stood there, absolutely dumb-founded,” said Patti Salvaggio, a protester. “Would it have been that difficult for him to roll down the window and say, 'I’ll look into it’?”

The Department of Corrections said Friday it would cancel plans to relocate to the bottling plant by April 1.

“At the direction of Gov. Scott, the Department of Corrections will maintain its lease with its current probation and parole office provider,” the statement said. “We’re committed to not only keeping families safe, but being good community partners. We appreciate the many discussions we had with area families on this issue. We took their input seriously.”

The state did not say whether it faces legal problems for breaking a lease with a landlord. “We will be working with the real estate broker and property owner to find a solution for the North Hill location,” prison spokeswoman Misty Cash said.

Scott was well aware of the neighborhood opposition, Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward said Friday.

The mayor said he briefed Scott by phone last week and that Scott went to City Hall on Thursday for a follow-up meeting.

“As soon as he knew about our concerns, he was very proactive,” Hayward said of Scott. In a statement posted on the city’s website, the mayor added: “We had a frank conversation about this issue and the impact such a facility could have on our neighborhoods.”

Salvaggio said she appreciated Scott’s intervention, but that she was still aggrieved by the state’s lack of openness with residents, who learned of the project only recently. She said city officials declined to provide permitting documents for the project.

“We had no idea this was going on until three weeks ago,” she said.