Pensacola Chamber a Defendent in Two Lawsuits
Two former officials with the Greater Pensacola Chamber of Commerce have filed separate lawsuits – one state, one federal -- alleging they were unfairly terminated by the organization. WUWF’s Dave Dunwoody reports one plaintiff is the body’s former president and CEO.
Jim Hizer led the Chamber from 2010 until July of last year, when his contract was not renewed. He stepped down in August of 2013. In his lawsuit, Hizer claims he was forced out – which in turn violated his contract.
“This is a little bit of a continuing fallout from some change that took place over a year ago,” said Jerry Maygarden, who succeeded Hizer as president and CEO.
“Mr. Hizer’s contract was a three-year arrangement with the Chamber,” Maygarden said. “It had expired in August of last year. The Chamber fulfilled its obligation to him, in terms of payment for service, and he fulfilled his obligation to the Chamber.”
Hizer’s lawsuit – filed by attorney Bob Kerrigan -- seeks a jury trial and asks for unspecified punitive damages. Escambia County Circuit Judge Terry Terrell will hear the case. Pensacola attorney Jason Onacki will represent the Chamber.
In her lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Pensacola, Mia Hughes accuses the Chamber of age discrimination. Hughes – who’s 49 years old – was assistant vice president of administration before she was let go last March. Hughes was hired in 2011, originally as an executive assistant to Hizer, and says after he left she fell into disfavor with Maygarden.
The decision to make the changes was made shortly after a rather pointed opinion on Florida’s Sunshine Law, issued by State Attorney Bill Eddins last summer. In his letter, Eddins reminded the Chamber that if they accepted public funding, they would be one of the few private organizations to come under the state’s open records statute.
“Anytime a private entity receives money from a governmental entity, and does a governmental function,” said Eddins, “They are required to comply with the Sunshine Law. And the policy behind that’s real clear: the public has a right to know where public money is being spent.”
The Chamber decided to divest itself of about $850,000 dollars annually from Escambia County and the City of Pensacola. Maygarden says the loss of that revenue led to downsizing within the ranks – including Mia Hughes.
“In doing that, we have gone from about 38 down to roughly 13,” said Maygarden. “And she (Mia Hughes) was a casualty of that downsizing. (We) simply did not have a role for a person in a mid- to upper-level-management role that suited her skill set.”
Hughes’ legal counsel is Tallahassee-based attorney Gary Lee Printy. Calls to his office – as well as those to Bob Kerrigan in the Jim Hizer case -- had not been returned as of late Monday.
Chamber President Jerry Maygarden concedes that the two lawsuits are not a good image-builder for the organization. But he believes that while the lawsuits and the trouble they bring are not healthy for the Chamber of Commerce, they will serve a purpose in resolving the issues and moving on.