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Sunshine Law breach accusations infuse drama into uncontested Jacksonville City Council president’s race

As storm clouds loom over the Sunshine State, the same holds true (at least potentially) for Jacksonville’s Sunshine Law.

And a public notice meeting Tuesday morning called by Jacksonville City Councilman Garrett Dennis addressed how those clouds may be occluding the race for the presidency of the City Council.

The meeting was requested by Dennis to “discuss allegations made by Council Vice President Aaron Bowman on the topic of Sunshine Violations for the upcoming Council Leadership vote.”

However, clarity was not to be provided Tuesday, as Bowman was not at the meeting. And neither was the head of the city’s ethics office, Carla Miller, who had been expected.

Sunshine Law dictates that conversations between councilmembers on official business, including but not limited to leadership votes, happen in noticed meetings. Bowman and Dennis seemed to charge each other with violations of that sacrosanct credo.

Bowman, who has enough pledges secured to win the race outright (assuming they all come through), said Monday he was “told by multiple sources that Dennis has been talking about [Bowman’s] leadership endeavor.”

Bowman asked Dennis to stop talking about Bowman’s race for council presidency.

We reached out to Dennis for his version of events, and he noted some concerns with the way Bowman is doing business. Among them, the fact that four members were talking to Bowman about his candidacy outside the sunshine, and the fact that Bowman wanted to discuss the matter outside a noticed meeting.

Bowman sent Dennis an email chiding him, Dennis claimed.

“Sorry you doubled down,” Bowman wrote about Dennis insisting upon a noticed meeting. “It could have been easy.”

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Dennis wanted to know what Bowman meant by “double down,” he said, and how it was that Bowman talking to members about the leadership race outside of the sunshine wasn’t a sunshine violation.

And that set the stage for a riveting public notice meeting Tuesday, one that included current Council President Anna Brosche as the only other person at the table.

Dennis spotlighted “repeated phone calls and emails” from Council VP Bowman, calls that “disturbed” him.

“I wouldn’t characterize us as being friends,” Dennis said, outlining a series of missed calls between the two over the weekend.

Bowman signaled his intention to file a “formal ethics complaint,” Dennis said, before spotlighting an email exchange between the councilmen and Ethics Head Miller.

Dennis wanted a public meeting, and he got one — though Miller and Bowman were not present.

Dennis wanted to know who his “accusers” were, and if he had the “right to stand in front of [those] accusers.” He also wanted clarity on why Bowman wanted a private meeting, why he used the phrases “doubled down” and “could have been easy.”

“This has nothing to do with his presidency. This has to do with me being able to stand in front of my accusers,” Dennis said. “Today I wanted to stand in front of my accusers.”

But the accusers were nowhere to be found. Neither was the head of ethics.

In remarks to the media after the brief, inconclusive meeting, Dennis would not say directly that Bowman violated the Sunshine Law.

“I’ve been instructed by the General Counsel not to say that,” Dennis said.

Dennis, who chairs the Finance Committee, likely won’t have that prerogative next year. Bowman, per Dennis, is a “staunch supporter of the Mayor” — a political enemy of Dennis’.

As well, with re-election campaigns looming ahead of the March 2019 “first election,” Dennis may see his opponent backed by the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce — for which Bowman is a VP for the business recruitment arm, JAXUSA.

Dennis professes not to be worried about losing his re-election bid, saying that his “constituents” will decide in the end.

Though Dennis says there is no “bad blood” between himself and Bowman, what is clear is that there is very little in the way of constructive dialogue, and that the exchanges in recent days will cast a pall over next week’s leadership elections for the Jacksonville City Council, votes which will see Bowman elected president.

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a working journalist for over two decades, with bylines in national and local publications alike on subjects ranging from pop music to national and global politics. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014, and has held a column in Jacksonville, Florida's Folio Weekly for two decades. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." Gancarski is a frequent presence on Jacksonville television and radio, including fill-in slots on WJCT-FM's award-winning talk show "First Coast Connect." He can be reached at a.g.gancarski@gmail.com.

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