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’Blood money‘ reconsidered: UAE grant fight heads to Jacksonville City Council

Two new bills introduced to the Jacksonville City Council Tuesday evening could, at least in theory, lead to a grant to the city from the United Arab Emirates being returned.

Though if that happens, it’s over the heads of Mayor Lenny Curry and the Council President.

Ordinance 2018-813 would give back that $2.775 million grant.

And Ordinance 2018-790 would appropriate the same amount from the city’s general fund, to replace what some critics are calling “blood money” from the totalitarian Middle Eastern regime.

Back in October, the United Arab Emirates gave Jacksonville that money toward post-Hurricane Irma reconstruction.

City Council voted the appropriation through without a hitch in the summer, but second thoughts clouded members (and potential 2019 mayoral candidates) Anna Brosche and Garrett Dennis when they considered the UAE’s human rights record, deemed to be among the world’s worst.

City Council President Aaron Bowman, in a lengthy statement released Tuesday, thinks this attempted cure legislation is dead in the water.

Bowman charged Brosche and Dennis with “derogatory comments” at an August public notice meeting about the UAE.

“I also feel compelled to admonish the recent filing of legislation 2018-813. I see it as an attack on beliefs and religious freedoms. I want the residents of Jacksonville to understand that I do not support attacks on other faiths and ethnic populations. In my role as City Council President, there is no room for bias or prejudice. My expectation is that this legislation will quickly be defeated,” Bowman said.

“We are at a critical point in our world’s stability. We all must recognize diversity; respecting
differences in religion and culture. We must respect our friends and neighbors, locally and around the globe. I expect my fellow City Council members to research, inquire, and prepare when they vote on legislation. There is always an option to ask for a deferral if a City Council member feels he or she needs more time to evaluate or gather additional information,” Bowman added.

Noting that Brosche and Dennis voted for the legislation, Bowman added that to “come back after the fact and slander a highly respected ally of the United States is not acceptable.”

Neither Bowman nor Dennis mentioned the bill during agenda meeting. Councilwoman Brosche, involved in the recount, was excused from the meeting.

The UAE money is being used for various expenditures, including computer labs for Raines and Ribault High Schools, restoration of a local park, purchase of mobile medical units, with about $1.45 million going to projects in the Ken Knight Road area, which was among the slowest in the city to recover from Irma.

Money in the appropriations bill could go to the Duval County School Board.

Dennis, a roofing contractor who does business with the School Board, noted Tuesday that his company “has not and will not participate in any projects I have voted on as a council member.”

At last month’s meeting, Dennis noted potential national security impacts of taking the money. Brosche charged the Lenny Curry administration with a lack of transparency during the process, including punting on press conference questions about the posture of taking money from a country with a poor human rights record.

Recipients of the funding, including local non-profits, defended the move last month.

Cindy Funkhouser, whose Sulzbacher Center got grants for mobile medical units, said the UAE “is an ally of the United States. Has always been an ally of the United States.

“America gives aid all over the world, and nobody says they don’t have the right to give donations,” Funkhouser said, noting people could squawk all they want about American human rights issues.

Odds are long here for any movement: Brosche and Dennis are alone here, in terms of Council members, who are by and large yoked to the Mayor’s Office’s expansive policy agenda.

The Council President won’t do them any favors either.

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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