A.G. Gancarski – Page 7 – Florida Politics

A.G. Gancarski

Ron Littlepage slams Jacksonville’s city government for transparency failings

Jacksonville’s Task Force on Open Government is slated to wrap up this month and one member — former Florida Times-Union columnist Ron Littlepage — offered a statement this week saying that when it came to open government, the city’s practices left something to be desired.

“We’ve heard members of the [Lenny Curry] administration say they are following the law when it comes to releasing public records,” Littlepage wrote.

“The administration may be following the letter of the law,” Littlepage added, “but certainly not the spirit of the law.”

Littlepage took issue with a practice of the Mayor’s Office regarding public records requests it deems to be sensitive.

“Once a member of the public requests a public record that is deemed to be public,” Littlepage wrote, “there is no reason that the mayor’s chief administrative officer, chief of staff, and communications director should have to sign off before a record is released.”

Littlepage noted that the administration interprets such delays as being “reasonable,” per statute. However, “extra time to alert political appointees” to a document’s release is not reasonable or compliant, he asserts.

The issue of communication between city government and reporters has become a flashpoint in recent months with national media outlets even taking notice, saying the city was applying exemptions to disclosure “like a ball peen hammer.”

Meanwhile, local media (disclosure: including this reporter) described to the task force “delays and unexpected costs associated with public records requests, which according to Florida Statute should be provided at a ‘reasonable’ cost in a ‘reasonable’ amount of time … some readily available public records appear to go through political review before  being shared with the media, and the delays sometimes give the impression of being intentionally obstructive.”

Whether or not the task force recommendations lead to any legislative change remains to be seen, as Council President-designate Aaron Bowman aligns with Curry much more than the current Council President does; however, if legislators were inclined to expanding transparency, Littlepage’s statement offers even more guidance in that direction.

Jacksonville City Council winds down JEA committee

With just weeks to go in Anna Brosche‘s Jacksonville City Council presidency, the majority of special committees formed during her year are coming to an end.

That rule applies to what is now known as the special committee on the “future of JEA,” a change in name and scope from its original five-person iteration as a group of Councilors skeptical of a proposal to sell the public utility, to a committee of the whole involving members more influenced by the Mayor’s Office than then-Council president.

Discussion was exhausted early in Thursday afternoon’s meeting, and chairman John Crescimbeni noted that it likely would take the better part of two weeks to get a draft report of the committee’s findings into shape.

The panel adapted to what seemed to be a perpetually shifting debate, one spanning the tenure of one permanent CEO, a temporary CEO turned COO, and a board member ascending to the interim CEO position.

That debate spotlighted fissures in city government, though it remains to be seen how they will affect city elections in the next year.

The committee was a response to the push for privatization of the utility, one launched late last year when major Lenny Curry donor Tom Petway, as he exited the JEA board, urged an exploration of a “private sector marketplace” model for the city’s utility.

The push moved on a sub-rosa level for weeks, before it manifested in public view via a joint meeting of the JEA board and the City Council Feb. 14, in which the collective bodies were to hear a valuation report that suggested, optimistically, that the city could garner as much as $6 billion profit from a sale of the utility.

Brosche and Mayor Lenny Curry‘s staff disputed whether or not such a meeting was called at the behest of the Mayor’s Office, rather than being an independent motion by former JEA CEO Paul McElroy.

By the end of March, anecdotal evidence from McElroy supported Brosche’s claim, with McElroy saying in a meeting that Curry’s chief administrative officer Sam Mousa, in fact, reached out to Brosche to set up the meeting.

“We were starting to hear that the [JEA valuation] report would come out. In the last week of January,” Brosche said, a noticed meeting was scheduled by city councilors “to discuss the potential sale of JEA.”

“As soon as that happened,” Brosche continued, “I had gotten an urgent request to meet with Mr. Hughes.”

Hughes, Curry’s chief of staff who had moved over weeks before from the Mayor’s political operation, urged in and out legislation to move forward with exploring the utility’s valuation.

Per Brosche, the case was urgent.

Hughes told Brosche that there were “resources,” such as “investment bankers, other attorneys, and consultants,” being “pulled by others who are aware of this transaction and didn’t want to leave the city out of the necessary resources to make sure we were appropriately evaluating.”

Of course, the evaluation depended on the party making it.

The 2018 Council Auditor report was more bearish than the one JEA commissioned.

It contended “the net proceeds to the City from selling JEA could range from a low of $1,702,795,000 to a high of $5,202,795,000. However, these numbers alone do not answer the question of JEA’s value and numbers alone do not answer the question as to whether the City should sell JEA.”

Matters ranging from local control to the future of JEA employees animated those discussions, which went far beyond tangible value.

If there was a benefit to the committee on the Council side, it allowed Brosche to thwart what she saw as a fast-track to selling the utility.

Certainly, there was evidence that interested parties abounded, with utility lobbyists registered with the City of Jacksonville.

Florida Power and Light engaged Paul Harden, best known locally as the representative for the Jacksonville Jaguars and owner Shad Khan‘s interests.

Meanwhile, Emera, a Nova Scotia-based utility company that acquired TECO and otherwise has assets ranging from New Mexico to the Caribbean, also lobbied up.

Emera retained Southern Strategy Group’s Deno Hicks and Matt Brockelman, along with Marty Fiorentino and The Fiorentino Group colleagues Joe MobleyMark Pinto, and Jason Roth. Other lobbyists for the client include Wyman Duggan, a land use attorney running for the state House, and his Rogers Towers colleague T.R. Hainline, who served on Mayor Lenny Curry‘s transition team.

Fiorentino and Southern Strategy have held Jacksonville city lobbying contracts in Tallahassee since soon after Curry took office.

It is uncertain how the trajectory of this debate will go going forward, but at least for now, there is a stalemate between advocacy for privatization and defense of the status quo.

Mayor Curry has said “I will not submit any JEA privatization plan to the City Council,” seemingly closing the discussion.

Interim CEO Aaron Zahn has discussed changes to the business model, suggesting that restructuring is almost inevitable.

There will be a final report from the committee. And Thursday’s meeting will shed some light on next steps.

Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams widens cash lead in re-election bid

Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams, a first-term Republican up for re-election in 2019, widened in May his cash lead over his sole challenger.

The sheriff brought in $14,550 off 38 contributions last month. All of that money went into his campaign account, as he had no committee fundraising. All told, Williams has $192,000 in his political committee, and roughly $193,000 in his campaign account.

Williams’ donations were all local in May, with lawyers, police officers, and a towing company among the donors.

Democrat Tony Cummings, entirely self-financed, put $500 more into his campaign. He has given his own bid $1,025 total in six reporting periods, and he has just over $660 on hand.

This sheriff’s race lacks drama compared to the scrum just four years ago, in which Cummings was also a candidate, and millions of dollars were raised between the seven people in the field.

Jacksonville City Councilman Sam Newby underwhelms with May fundraising

Jacksonville City Councilman Sam Newby has yet to hit his fundraising stride in his re-election campaign to his at-large seat.

May saw Newby, a first-term Republican, bring in just $1,550, a number largely provided by one $1,000 check from Advanced Disposal.

Newby now has $7,150 banked — a slight sum for an at-large, citywide race.

He’s been here before, of course.

When Newby ran and won citywide in 2015, he did so with $9,000 raised.

Newby, an ally of Mayor Lenny Curry, is helped out by having an opponent who also hasn’t fundraised aggressively.

Democrat Chad McIntyre raised just $50 in May, and has just under $172 on hand.

Jacksonville Sheriff backs Doyle Carter for Duval tax collector

Jacksonville City Councilman Doyle Carter, one of three Republicans and four total candidates vying for the Duval County Tax Collector opening in August, rolled out an endorsement Thursday from Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams.

This is the first major endorsement in this race.

Carter is running against two other political veterans, Lake Ray and Jim Overton, in the GOP field. As well, Democrat Mia Jones is running, with the top two finishers moving on to the November ballot (regardless of party identification.

Ray is a former state Representative, Jacksonville City Councilman, and congressional candidate. Overton is a former Councilman, as well as a three-term Duval County Property Appraiser. Jones, like Ray, served on both the Jacksonville City Council and in the Florida House.

None of the four candidates announced May fundraising totals as of Thursday morning.

Ray and Overton both banked $50,000 in April; Carter and Jones have yet to report any fundraising.

Marcellus Holmes, Garrett Dennis’ likely Jacksonville City Council re-election opponent, raises nothing in May

Marcellus Holmes,  District 9 incumbent Garrett Dennis‘ likely Jacksonville City Council re-election opponent, raised no money in May, his third month as an active candidate.

Holmes hadn’t raised money in March or April either; however, a late May meeting with Mayor Lenny Curry, no fan of Dennis’ legislative style, was seen by some City Hall watchers as an audition for support from the Curry network.

Dennis, a first-term Councilman, is one of just five Democrats currently on what is, at least for now, a 17 person legislative body.

He has yet to file for re-election, but has told media he intends to run again.

With Curry ally Aaron Bowman set to take the Council Presidency in the next few weeks, reasonable expectations are that Dennis will be marginalized compared to the current year.

Dennis has maintained that Curry’s team is targeting him in his future re-election bid, and has also maintained that Curry won’t win his re-election bid.

Indicted Senate candidate Reggie Brown stays in race, reports no May fundraising

Suspended Jacksonville City Councilman Reggie Brown, currently facing 32 federal counts in a scheme to defraud with another suspended council colleague, is still an active primary opponent in Senate District 6 for Minority Leader-designate Audrey Gibson.

Brown told media he was not suspending his campaign at his indictment a week ago, and proof of that active candidacy could be found in his May campaign finance filing: the fourth straight month in which Brown reported no fundraising.

Given that he faces, if all maximum penalties prevail, 601 years and a $8.275 million fine, perhaps that explains the reluctance.

At the end of April, which was her most recent filing, Sen. Gibson had nearly $132,000 cash on hand.

“I have not made any comments about the opponent in the race and I have none today. I continue to do my legislative duties, work to get more Senate Dems elected as Leader-designate, and focus on my re-election campaign,” Gibson said last week after the indictment dropped.

The winner of the primary campaign will face nominal November opposition from a write-in candidate.

Northeast Florida ballot moves: Kim Daniels runs unopposed, Aaron Bean draws second challenger

As qualifying quickly approaches for state races, two Northeast Florida incumbents face changes that will affect their 2018 campaigns.

Rep. Kim Daniels, a Jacksonville Democrat, currently is running unopposed after perennial third-party candidate Darcy Richardson opted to run for Governor on the Reform Party line.

Richardson called Daniels a “disgrace” and worse, and said he was “running to win,” However, the call of a statewide campaign clearly proved impossible to ignore.

As of the end of April, Daniels had just over $15,000 cash on hand. But as things stand, she will waltz unopposed to re-election.

Sen. Aaron Bean, a Republican representing some of Duval and all of Nassau County, will face not one but two opponents on the November ballot.

Democratic activist Billie Bussard is the first and only Democrat filed, joining Libertarian Joanna Liberty Tavares on the ballot.

Bussard and Tavares face long odds. Bean is an incumbent in a deep red district and, as of the end of April, had $190,000 banked between his campaign account and that of his Florida Conservative Alliance political committee.

Strong metrics abound in Jacksonville debt affordability study

It’s rare that a Debt Affordabilty Study qualifies as a good-news story, but in the case of Jacksonville, most metrics are bullish.

Debt service costs and debt per capita are below targets, while reserve funds are trending toward their targets.

“Through recent strong financial management, as recognized by the ratings agencies, a strong economy, low interest rates, and a consistent trend in reducing our debt outstanding, these metrics have continued to improve,” the report from the city’s CFO, Mike Weinstein, asserts.

And they have needed to. As the report says a bit later on: “Jacksonville has a higher than average debt burden and a slightly below average level of reserves. As will be seen later on in this study, the City has been improving in both areas over the last five years. Continuing the trend of paying down debt and increasing reserves will be viewed favorably by the ratings agencies.”

Since Fiscal Year 2013 (during the Alvin Brown mayoralty, when the city dealt with the hardest hits of the recession), the city has paid off $354 million in outstanding debt, and has kept debt service at a consistent level. Though that debt service, a function of non-negotiable fixed costs, is described within the report as “tight,” with payments being 11 percent of each of the last two budgets, expectations are that it will become less of an impact as city revenues grow in the coming years.

“Jacksonville continues to enjoy strong budgetary flexibility to meet any future fiscal challenge,” the report maintains. “Jacksonville’s modest tax rates and average tax burden form the foundation for the City’s financial flexibility while maintaining its desired service levels. This revenue capacity and flexibility underpin the market’s positive view of the City’s debt.”

The city expects to retire $400 million of general fund debt between now and FY 2023, allowing for new borrowing, the report says.

Alas, there are caveats: “While the city’s debt burden is forecast to improve and otherwise create ability for new debt, it must be cautioned that other rising costs and demands on city resources may offset some or all of this benefit.”

The short term, however, holds promise. Reserve levels are expected to be above 14 percent (with emergency and operating combined) of the general fund in the next budget, boosted by $60 million from pension reform, per the report.

The Mayor’s Office had pushed to increase reserve levels a year ago, but there was little enthusiasm for the concept on the Finance Committee at the time.

The question going into FY 2018-19: Will this be an “election year” budget, or will the Mayor’s Office dole out the castor oil for incumbents and push for fiscal restraint as voters mull their fates?

Lenny Curry: Jacksonville City Council fill-ins are Rick Scott’s decision

Just days after Gov. Rick Scott suspended two Jacksonville City Council members who face 38 federal counts in a scheme to defraud local and federal taxpayers, Mayor Lenny Curry said Tuesday his office had no active role or insight into the selection process for their replacements.

The replacements for suspended Democrats Katrina Brown and Reggie Brown will be picked by Scott. They would serve until/unless the individual Council members are exonerated, or the installation of 2019 electeds on July 1 — whichever comes first.

Speaking after a City Hall ceremony commemorating U.S./French cooperation in World War II, Curry said “it’s the Governor’s choice.”

“The process that he put into place,” Curry said, “is an application process” similar to that for gubernatorial boards.

“We’ve had people reach out to us and we have directed them to the link [to apply via the Governor’s Office], told them to follow the process,” Curry said.

When asked if current 2019 candidates for the impacted seats have been in contact with the Mayor’s Office, Curry confirmed people have reached out, but “it’s the Governor’s decision.”

“When they get to the selection process, if the governor or his team solicit advice, we will certainly provide it at that time. But I’ve known Gov. Scott for many years, and he makes his own decisions,” Curry said.

Curry noted that Council President-elect Aaron Bowman, who takes over the gavel in July, is “anxious to see those seats filled so they can get on with their business.”

Bowman is in the process of filling Council committees for the post July 1 period.

In terms of Northwest Jacksonville, the region from which both indicted Council members hail, Curry vowed to make “continued commitments in the years ahead” despite the lapse in representation in those areas.

“We’ve got a lot to do in terms of the promises that were made long before we got here,” Curry said. “We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

Curry noted that when he got in office three years ago, he vowed to “invest” in those neglected neighborhoods, and he will continue to do just that.

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