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Jacksonville equal opportunity ordinance picks up momentum

An “equal opportunity” bill introduced to the Jacksonville City Council by Garrett Dennis picked up momentum Tuesday, with a half dozen councilmembers and stakeholders attending a public notice meeting to discuss it.

Dennis framed this bill as an attempt to ensure city agencies and independent authorities to “cast a broader net” in their hiring process.

“This is not a quota bill, not an affirmative action bill,” said Dennis, who maintained that “employees should reflect or mirror the demographics of the community.”

Dennis’ bill calls for the following: annual reporting to the Mayor and City Council on the progress and state of the Equal Opportunity/Equal Access Program; budgetary line-item for the position of Equal Opportunity/Equal Access Assistant Director; and an “annual review” of “adherence and commitment” to the ordinance by the CEO’s of the city’s independent authorities, as part of their evaluation of the CEO.

The annual reporting, said Dennis, requires agencies to discuss with council their diversity initiatives; Dennis would prefer that to be at budget time.

A representative of the general counsel office noted that Dennis’ asks are in ordinance code, but have gone unfunded for many years.

She also noted that, as a condition of federal grants from the Department of Justice, many of these agencies are actually doing the reporting; however, they are not being presented to the city.

These reports could be presented to the city council; however, agencies not getting federal money aren’t required to do these reports.

Thus, the legislation for them would be more of an “encouraging tool.”

Council VP John Crescimbeni urged mandating a separate report, and publishing it, as a “back door way of dealing with the issue” of demographic underrepresentation in the workplace.

Dennis has questioned minority recruitment in city employ, noting that “we have to do a better job of going after the talent that is here.”

“That’s a part of the [equal employment opportunity] plan,” Dennis said, “but we’re not doing it.”

There are still concerns.

Councilman Aaron Bowman cautioned that Jacksonville is near full employment already, which could impact the bill.

Councilwoman Joyce Morgan, meanwhile, called the bill a “good start,” but advised “something needs to be done on a wider scale.”


Jacksonville HRO expansion opponents preview talking points, malign city council president

At Tuesday night’s Jacksonville City Council meeting, expect opponents of LGBT rights to use the following talking points against HRO expansion.

While advocates of expanding the Human Rights Ordinance believe that they have the votes to pass the third version of the bill, opponents see it as more of the same … and intend to tell the council about it.

Blake Harper, a vocal opponent of the bill, made some points in an email circulating on Jacksonville’s religious right.

Harper calls the bill the “LGBT railroad express,” and compared the process behind it to “Obamacare.”

Council President “Lori Boyer‘s (Pro LGBT, voted for the first LGBT law in 2012) intention [is] to get this done by February 14th, 2017…… [with] the bare minimum number of subcommittee meetings, the least amount of public input and scrutiny,” Harper said, before betraying a misunderstanding of the committee process itself.

“Boyer has established a clear practice of using the sub-committees to do the work.  The Council has rarely overturned the decision of the committees…. even to the point that City Council voted to allow liquor to be sold within previously iron-clad distances from churches,” Harper notes.

Harper then goes on to suggest the committee process itself is intended to be secret: “The committees meet during the work day…when hard-working people most impacted by this bill are not available. Also, they have stacked the Committees in favor of the HRO amendment.”

“IN SHORT………….they are trying to accomplish with this law what Obama tried to accomplish with Obama-care,” Harper writes.

The letter also includes commentary from Roger Gannam of the Liberty Counsel, who was ubiquitous during previous debates on the HRO.

Gannam calls it a “bad bill,” a rehash of the previous efforts.

“There are new words, but no added meaningful exemptions for religious citizens. Business owners who do not want to participate in someone else’s same-sex wedding receive no protection in the new HRO. Women and girls who do not want to share a public bathroom with a man dressed as a woman receive no protection in the new HRO,” Gannam notes.

Jacksonville City Council to push local bills, notable board nominees Tuesday

The Jacksonville City Council starts off 2017 with an agenda light on controversial legislation, which presumably gives the body more time for HRO-related public comment.

That said, the agenda Tuesday evening in Council Chambers is highlighted by notable board nominees and local bills to be pushed in Tallahassee.


One interesting moment that likely will be passed up: an opportunity to discuss the council auditor’s reaction to the ethics director undercutting one of his audits of a lobbying group that Mayor Lenny Curry’s chief of staff once worked for.

There has been an interesting back and forth between the council auditor and the ethics director regarding this, with each of them casting aspersions on the other one’s investigative techniques.

Nestled amidst a series of reports at the top of the agenda, it’s a good example of how the most interesting game in town often is inside baseball.


The consent agenda features two interesting confirmations to city boards.

Tracy Grant, the leader of the Eureka Gardens tenant association, is headed to the Jacksonville Housing and Community Development Corporation.

Grant became nationally known when Sen. Marco Rubio turned a national spotlight on the dilapidation of the 400-unit Section 8 complex, by way of introducing meaningful HUD reforms in the Senate.

Grant also endorsed Rubio in a campaign ad seen in the Jacksonville market, which quite likely helped the senator dominate in this area.

Rev. Fred Newbill, who last dipped his toe into political waters by collaborating with Pastor Ken Adkins on a number of fiery press conferences, including one of opposition to the expansion of Jacksonville’s Human Rights Ordinance, is slated to be confirmed to the JEA Board.

JEA’s anti-discrimination policy, which protects LGBT workers, was deliberately not brought up during a Rules Committee hearing where council members fawned over Newbill like he was paying off their student loans.

Newbill apparently has reversed course on the HRO. Yet the fiery preacher was decorously mute when he and JEA Board Chair Tom Petway ducked out the back of city hall without taking reporters’ questions last week.


As well, the city council is expected to officially approve a series of local bills that the body wants to see move through Tallahassee this session.

Two of them involve drinking. And one involves the school board, which drives people to drink.

Resolution 2016-782, sponsored by Councilman Aaron Bowman, would express support for a J-Bill that would amend the Florida statute so that the vote of the Duval County School Board chair would not break a tie. In 2006, the Legislature adopted a measure for Orange County that dictated that, in counties with between 800,000 and 900,000 people, the school board chair’s vote breaks the tie.

The second local bill, “J-2”, asks for “special zones” in older neighborhoods, such as Murray Hill, Springfield, and San Marco, to lower the required seating for a restaurant serving liquor from 150 to 100.

The bill is similar to a resolution the council pushed last year, regarding the Riverside/Avondale Commercial Character areas.

As with that previous iteration, seating requirements for liquor-serving restaurants in affected parts of Springfield, San Marco, and Murray Hill (with more than half of their revenue derived from food sales) are requested to be cut from 150 seats to 100, and space reduced from 2,500 to 1,800 square feet.

Resolution 2016-828 (“J-3”), meanwhile, completes the local bill troika.

The bill summary asserts that the measure waives “open container restrictions on alcoholic beverage consumption within the A. Philip Randolph Entertainment District during 15 designated ‘special events’ and any other event designated as ‘special’ by the City Council.”

Legislative bill J-3 would amend the Florida Statute chapters regulating beer and wine sales and consumption to provide that for purposes of the application of the state law, the open container law exemption in Jacksonville’s special events district shall apply to “premises” licensed for “consumption on premises” that are either within or located contiguously to the A. Philip Randolph Entertainment District.

Lenny Curry previews 2017 agenda at Meninak meeting

The year 2017 has started off with people trying to pressure Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry into positions he thus far has resisted.

Social liberals want the mayor to offer the kind of full-throated support of expansion of the Human Rights Ordinance that thus far has proven elusive.

And the city’s unions, especially police and fire, want Curry to sign on to putting new hires into the Florida Retirement System — something the mayor has resisted thus far.

Those political forces were in the background as Curry kicked off the Meninak Club‘s slate of meetings at a Monday luncheon.

While Curry avoided making news in his statements, he gave a pretty clear rendering of where Jacksonville’s news might go in the weeks and months ahead.


Curry’s prepared remarks eschewed those hot button issues, focusing instead on topics ranging from the book he gave his senior staff for Christmas (“Relentless” by Tim Grover, which distills lessons about how to win consistently) to other governance issues.

Among them: the city’s response to Hurricane Matthew, which Curry said involved a lot of planning on the front end to push effective delivery of storm cleanup and other recovery functions.

Curry then pivoted to the discussion of the unfunded pension liability. He discussed the “bold” approach in Tallahassee and through the referendum, sold without “promising voters a chicken in every pot.”

“Straight talk and solutions” got the referendum through with 65 percent of the vote.

Curry then gave an optimistic spin to collective bargaining, which he framed as part of the process, and a means toward “putting [the issue] to bed so we don’t have to deal with it again.”

Curry then pivoted to public safety, and his administration’s moves to remedy “significant cuts” and a “lack of investment” from the previous mayor in police and the Jacksonville Journey, which “was almost cut to the bone.”

The mayor discussed adding more officers, replacing “archaic” equipment, and “investing in these at-risk youth” via the Jacksonville Journey.

Budgets came up next, with the mayor discussing the “very robust budget review process,” including meetings with senior staff and other safeguards.

Jobs: another talking point.

“Our international brand is real now,” Curry said, noting jobs gains ranging from the relocation of City Refrigeration’s international headquarters to Amazon expansion locally.

“Identifying a prospect and going after it,” Curry said, “gets results.”

The pivot from there to infrastructure, such as moves to fix neglected projects, such as the Liberty Street span — a fix started without a tax hike, Curry said.

Curry then closed his prepared remarks with quoting a song his wife and he love: “the best is yet to come.”

And for those interested in Q&A sessions that gave an insight into the mayor’s agenda for the rest of the term, it was.


Questions from the audience came next.

Among them: a question about sluggish downtown recovery.

“Let me go back and remind you how bad things got,” Curry said. “The police force [budget] was basically gutted.”

Curry noted that, with 160 new officers hired (80 of them community service officers), “we are digging our way out.”

Curry noted the RFP for riverfront development, and his desire to see construction begin.


Related: a discussion of the Jacksonville Landing.

“The place is a mess,” Curry said, vowing not to “get caught up in the arguments of the past.”

“I’m going to continue to try — to do something with it,” Curry said, but his focus is on “where development can happen.”

“The Landing is embarrassing,” Curry affirmed.



Regarding Hemming Park — a recurrent pressure — Curry noted that he asked to take back control of the plaza.

“I just want results, and somebody’s got to be accountable,” the mayor said, noting a final decision hasn’t been made on who will run the park.

“I’ve looked out my window before and I’ve seen drug use happening in the middle of that park,” Curry said.

“There has to be oversight and a clear statement of goals,” the mayor stated, related to park management.


Curry was asked then about how to deliver on his “ambitious” programs without a tax hike.

“We did infrastructure the first two years, we added to public safety and the Jacksonville Journey without raising taxes,” Curry said, before ruling out a tax hike even for unfunded pension liabilities.

“We’re going to solve it … and we’re going to do it without raising taxes,” Curry said.


Fixing “inner city crime” (to use the questioner’s memorable phrase) was on tap next.

Would Curry accept a federal solution?

“I will be reaching out both to Congressman Rutherford and the Trump Administration to ask for help. We have an opportunity here and I will take advantage of the opportunity.”

To that end, Curry seeks to “lock up the bad guys and get them off the street,” working both with State Attorney Melissa Nelson and Sheriff Mike Williams to “make this city safe.”

Curry noted that the city actively chases state and federal money, and a new Department of Justice grant applicable to the Jacksonville Journey exemplifies that.

“The shootings and the violence in this city is what keeps me up at night … if I could go out today and arrest a gang member,” Curry said, “I would do it.”


The HRO came up next.

Curry noted his extension of “protections to city employees,” before passing on a commitment.

“Council’s job is to legislate,” Curry said, noting that “the results speak for themselves in terms of job creation,” a statement that seemed related to his administration’s performance, rather than to the departmental directive that offered employment protections to LGBT employees of the city and its vendors.


Former police pension fund head John Keane came up next, with a questioner discussing stripping Keane’s pension altogether.

“The suit that he filed he filed against the pension fund board; he didn’t file it against me.”


Curry was asked about running for re-election.

“Love the job. Love what I’m doing. But if I started thinking about re-election, it wouldn’t be the right thing to do,” Curry said.

After the meeting, Curry stressed that he has had “zero conversations” about running for statewide office, addressing the speculation that might be in the cards for 2018.


Deepening the port came up also.

While the port hasn’t made an official ask of the city, Curry said, the governor is “bullish.”

“When it’s time to move, we’ll be able to move,” Curry vowed.

Jacksonville Bold for 1.7.17 — A time for choosing

Nearly five years have passed since the first attempt to expand Jacksonville’s Human Rights Ordinance.

This time, there is reason for optimism.

For starters, we hear that Shad Khan — owner of the Jaguars, as you may recall — has “made some calls.”

Khan is worried that the amphitheater may have a hard time drawing big league acts in light of Jacksonville’s small-ball approach to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.

After a couple of calls to Councilmembers, made before the end of the year, Khan exclaimed that he couldn’t believe LGBT rights in Jacksonville are even up for debate.

That’s what he told us, also, early in 2016 when we asked him about the HRO introduced earlier that year.

The goal is to get up to 13 votes — a magical supermajority that would render moot the verdict of Mayor Lenny Curry, as it would become veto-proof.

We understand that certain power brokers have been charged with making the sale to individual Councilmembers.

Mike Hightower, we are told, is impressing on Republican Sam Newby the importance of moving forward on legislation. Bob Shircliff, we hear, is making the pitch likewise to Matt Schellenberg (both are Catholic).

And Paul Harden? Who doesn’t he talk to when it’s time to move a bill?

After a well-publicized meeting Wednesday introducing the bill, Councilman Aaron Bowman — another Republican, and one who voted for the President-elect — noted that the City Council is about as nonpartisan as a political body can get.

Indeed, that’s the case. In part, that reflects the coalition-building needed in a city as big and diverse as Jacksonville. And, in part, that reflects a disconnect between Councilmembers of both parties and the local parties themselves.

With that in mind, the sales pitch — specifically, the personal touch from political mentors in some cases, patrons in others — is essential.

A big question going into the HRO process, which is expected to culminate at the council meeting on Valentine’s Day: was enough time allotted for the personal touch approach to work?

Councilmembers like bill co-sponsor Tommy Hazouri were fired up and ready to go. Those with less of a personal investment in the bill getting passed and becoming part of the ordinance code wanted a cooler, more calculating approach.

The gap there denotes a potential place where what momentum exists — a lot of it driven by the donor class — could be diffused.

Some councilmembers will say they support the measure — but won’t go on the record. This is in part because of the volume and the ferocity of the negative reaction they get from churches — specifically preachers.

The time to go on the record is nigh.

The committee process will compel that before the floor vote. And in that context, board meetings during the week of Feb. 6 will be must-see TV.

The HRO bill will be paralleled in committees by a measure from Councilman Garrett Dennis, who seeks to add some teeth to the city’s Equal Opportunity/Equal Access program.

The program, launched in 2004, hasn’t had to fund a director for many years.

Dennis’ proposal: To provide that funding and to give that director oversight over diversity initiatives, to ensure that the city and independent authorities work toward the goal of a discrimination-free workplace.

Dennis strikes some observers as enigmatic; they expect more bluster. But he’s a careful, smart politician who wins key battles while avoiding running into ambushes.

Already in his term, Dennis collaborated across party lines with Curry and Sen. Marco Rubio to remedy the horror show conditions at Eureka Gardens.

On this issue, Dennis — chair of the Rules Committee — will use some political capital, build some more political capital, and restore the intent of a program previously eviscerated by budget cuts.

Worth watching: if this bill links up with the HRO — as both are intended as remedies against the kind of institutionalized discrimination that simply doesn’t jibe with the way Jacksonville markets itself to the world.

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Downtown Friction: Before the television news had its first fragmentary reports of the once unthinkable gunshots fired at Jacksonville’s ArtWalk, social media was lit with tweets about the subject.

The fascinating thing about the tweets and Facebook posts, in aggregate: they were first-person accounts of what was going down, in real time, without the framing provided by reporters or the JSO investigation.

More than a few of the tweets — none of them from anyone famous, or even FFJ (famous for Jacksonville) — expressed dismay about the future of ArtWalk.

Some folks said they won’t be attending ArtWalk anymore. Others speculated that the monthly event might be canceled altogether.

And others pointed to changes in the composition of those attending the event.

More kids were in attendance — a function of school being out.

And those kids weren’t there for the art or the vendors, particularly; they were there to stunt, to see and be seen.

And one other tweeter noted, correctly, that not too far from ArtWalk’s nexus in Hemming Park, gunshots and sirens soundtracked many an evening.

ArtWalk has grown over the last decade, and become a draw for a downtown subject to perpetual Sisyphean attempts at gentrification. And with that increased draw of people outside Jacksonville’s perpetually underpaid community of artists and craftspeople, it follows that the event would draw more people with no interest in art, per se — much like shopping malls did during their heyday.

In other words, if ArtWalk weren’t a successful event, it wouldn’t have drawn the kind of crowd density that makes gunplay more likely.

But “success” doesn’t justify gunshots to most of those from the burbs who roll in to attend.

The city has to consider how to address security at these events.

More police? Probably a necessity.

An earlier shutdown in the winter months? May need to be considered also.

While these shots are an anomaly in the history of the event, the reality is that policy makers in council, the mayor’s office, and Downtown Vision can’t function as if they won’t happen again.

For better or worse, the era of innocence for this event is over.

“Jacksonville City Council panel backs three local bills in Tallahassee” via Florida Politics — One local bill, “J-2,” asks for “special zones” in older neighborhoods, such as Murray Hill, Springfield and San Marco, to lower the required seating for a restaurant serving liquor from 150 to 100. Legislative bill J-3 would amend the Florida Statute chapters regulating beer and wine sales and consumption to provide that for purposes of the application of the state law, the open container law exemption in Jacksonville’s special events district shall apply to “premises” licensed for “consumption on premises” that are either within or located contiguously to the A. Philip Randolph Entertainment District. “J-1” was presented also, affecting the school board. Resolution 2016-782, sponsored by Councilman Aaron Bowman, would express support for a J-Bill that would amend the Florida statute so that the vote of the Duval County School Board chair would not break a tie. In 2006, the Legislature adopted a measure for Orange County that dictated that, in counties with between 800,000 and 900,000 people, the school board chair’s vote breaks the tie. All of these bills were unanimously approved and will undoubtedly be approved next Tuesday by the full council.

“How to work the press” by Florida Politics — The Katrina Brown and Reggie Gaffney stories have some commonalities: Both are Democrats on the City Council, and both find themselves occasionally going against the grain of the rest of the body. Also a commonality is that neither of them gave real thought toward crafting a damage control narrative until the damage could no longer be controlled, thus hazarding unnecessary risk to political capital they otherwise might have had. Smart politicians avoid these pitfalls. They get ahead of narratives before they hit the front pages, cultivating members of the media to present them in sympathetic ways. Consider Jacksonville’s mayor, whose political operation is active and separate from the policy operation inside City Hall. Other smart politicians hire the best and the brightest from the local press corps to handle their messaging.

“Drug OD ‘epidemic’ worries Bill Gulliford” via Florida Politics — An email from Duval County’s Medical Examiner’s office laid it out: from the beginning of January until mid-November, Jacksonville experienced 345 drug overdose deaths. In terms of casualties, whites and males are the most vulnerable, dying in numbers outsized compared to their proportion of the population. Of the 345 deaths, 214 decedents were male. And 299 — or 86.67 percent — are white. Almost 30 percent of those who perished during the period of tabulation were in their thirties. People in their fifties comprised another 23 percent of those who passed on.

“Renee Hunter tapped as Jax real estate chief” via Florida Politics — Hunter, an alumna of the University of Wisconsin’s journalism school and of the Florida Coastal School of Law, will be “official” pending confirmation by the city council. Hunter is no stranger to work in the public sector. She served as an assistant state attorney from 2007 to 2013, with a tenure spanning the end of the Harry Shorstein era and the bulk of the Angela Corey epoch. Hunter’s specialty in that capacity: land use and zoning issues and property law. From there, Hunter moved into the private sector, where she continued her work with property law, including issues with deeds, titles and other real estate issues.

“Fred Newbill clears panel on way to JEA Board” via Florida Politics — A prominent Jacksonville pastor who teamed up with pastor Ken Adkins to oppose the 2016 version of the Jacksonville Human Rights Ordinance expansion was cleared by the Jacksonville City Council Rules Committee to serve on the JEA Board … Despite two of the HRO co-sponsors, Jim Love and Tommy Hazouri, serving on Rules, no questions were asked of Newbill about the inconsistency of his anti-HRO stance with the anti-discrimination guidelines under which JEA and the city’s other independent authorities operate. Multiple council members, including Love and Hazouri, lauded Newbill, with Hazouri saying that Newbill has “seen the light on the HRO.”

“Rob Bradley files bill earmarking Amendment 1 money for St. Johns, tributaries” via Florida Politics — Bradley introduced Senate Bill 234, which is intended to change the appropriations formula of 2014’s Water and Land Constitutional Amendment. Specifically, Bradley wants to ensure that the St. Johns River Water Management District gets its share. And as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Environment and Natural Resources, the Clay County Republican is well-positioned to get this bill through. The bill would annually earmark $35 million, minus money for debt service, for projects related to the St. Johns, its tributaries and the Keystone Lake region. Included among those projects: land management and acquisition, and recreational opportunity and public access improvements. For Bradley, this is personal.

“New PD to review contracts, including lobbyist deal” via Andrew Pantazi of The Florida Times-Union — On his second day in office, Public Defender Charlie Cofer said he’s doing what he can to bring the office’s budget and salaries under control. He’s already brought in seven new employees to replace 14 outgoing ones, saving about $26,346 a month due to the lower salary costs. And he said he is examining salaries in the office to determine whose pay may need to be cut and whose might need to be raised. Once he feels comfortable with the budget, he said, he hopes to hire more investigators or information technology staff. Former Public Defender Matt Shirk’s pay structure was the subject of a Times-Union story this week that examined how he had paid friends and political allies high salaries while attorneys had the lowest average salaries in the state. Cofer said he wants to look at all contracts the office has

“Florida Bar to review former PD’s conduct” via Andrew Pantazi of The Florida Times-Union — After eight scandal-plagued years, former public defender Matt Shirk has said he’s hoping for some quiet. He may be disappointed. Shirk has been protected from Florida Bar complaints by state rules that say the Bar doesn’t have jurisdiction over constitutional officers. Now that he’s left office, the Bar and the Florida Supreme Court may hear arguments that he violated attorneys’ code of conduct. “We do have information about Mr. Shirk’s conduct,” Florida Bar spokeswoman Francine Walker said … “We are reviewing it. We will take appropriate actions.”

“Two gunshot victims at first 2017 ArtWalk” via The Florida Times-Union — Two teenagers were shot at the First Wednesday Art Walk in downtown Jacksonville Wednesday night, police said. Witnesses said there were large crowds of young people loitering 15 deep along both sides of North Laura Street between The Jacksonville Landing and Hemming Park about 9:30 p.m. when gunfire erupted. Off-duty officers responding to a report of shots fired near Bay and Laura streets found one shooting victim at the scene and located a second victim at the Landing, according to the Sheriff’s Office. The victims were taken to UF Health Jacksonville with injuries to their lower bodies, but they are expected to survive, Sgt. C. Jones said.

Central Florida dispensary makes first medical marijuana delivery in Jacksonville” via Ryan Benk of WJCT — … the same day a constitutional amendment goes into effect that will make more types of medical cannabis available to Floridians. Knox Medical is one of a handful of Florida dispensaries that have been allowed to open under a 2014 law. The state awarded Knox the license for Central Florida, and it was finally given the go-ahead in December to sell its product after an extended court battle. Growers challenged the state as it made rules governing who can grow and sell non-smoked, non-high-inducing marijuana, starting in 2014. The state has decided on a maximum of six facilities, four including Knox are already doing business, while two more are awaiting licenses.

“Medicare slashes funding for unsafe Duval hospitals” via Andrew Pantazi and Tessa Duvall of The Florida Times-Union — The federal government cut payments to four Jacksonville hospitals because they are among the worst-performing hospitals when it comes to patient safety. The list includes the Baptist Medical Center hospitals downtown and at the Beaches, Memorial Hospital and UF Health Jacksonville. This is the third year the federal government has reduced pay to hospitals that have high rates of patient injury, also known as hospital-acquired conditions. Memorial and UF Health, along with Macclenny’s Ed Fraser Memorial Hospital, have been dinged by the federal government each of those years. In addition, Baptist Medical Center-Nassau, Flagler Hospital in St. Augustine and Putnam Community Medical Center in Palatka were each in the bottom quarter this year.

UF College of Medicine-Jacksonville welcomes new dean” — Dr. Leon L. Haley Jr., the new dean of the University of Florida College of Medicine, formally took the helm on Tuesday. “I am thrilled to be a part of one of Northeast Florida’s premier medical and academic organizations,” he said in a statement. “The University of Florida is regarded throughout the country as one of the leaders in educating physicians and providing cutting-edge research, and UF Health has become a symbol for providing the best, most compassionate health care to everyone who needs it. I am proud to now be a part of both organizations.” Before joining UF College of Medicine, Haley rose up the ranks as a professor of emergency medicine and an executive associate dean for the Emory University School of Medicine and as a key administrator at Grady Memorial Hospital, the city’s safety-net hospital. He received his medical degree from the University of Pittsburgh and a master’s degree in health services administration from the University of Michigan.

“Acosta Bridge ‘blue-light special’ won’t come cheap” via First Coast News — An effort is underway by city leaders to restore the Acosta Bridge’s neon lights that once illuminated the downtown structure. The lights, which were installed in 1999, were reportedly turned off by the Jacksonville Transportation Authority because of concerns about the malfunctioning system. The Acosta was one of 7 bridges that gained attention when the city skyline was highlighted in national coverage of Super Bowl XXXIX. Emails show city leaders are engaged in a potential proposal to restore the aesthetic blue lights on the bridge. An email sent to Mayor Lenny Curry’s chief administrative officer suggests that the city will consider upgrading the lighting system to LED technology. A 2015 estimate provided to First Coast News listed the potential fix costing between $1.6 to $2.1 million.

Workers at JAXPORT’s Talleyrand Marine Terminal move massive trucks bound for The Bahamas” — Stevedores at JAXPORT Talleyrand Marine Terminal recently moved four Caterpillar 770 specialty dump trucks onto a roll-on, roll-off cargo ship bound for a Morton Salt facility in the southern Bahamas. The trucks will be used to haul salt harvested for water softening and road de-icing. A100-ton multipurpose whirly crane was used to lift the vehicles — each weighing 35 tons, standing 14 feet tall and measuring 30 feet in length — onto the chartered vessel VI-NAIS. The four trucks were transported to Jacksonville via individual flatbed tractor trailers from a heavy equipment dealer in St. Augustine, Fla., where they had been refurbished.

All Aboard: Jacksonville Zoo hosts “Train Days” — Love a good train ride? The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens has you covered. Round-trip tickets on the zoo train will be $1 on Jan. 28 and Jan. 29. The trains, according to the zoo, will be operated by CSX employees.

LEGOs are coming to the Jacksonville Zoo — The award-winning Nature Connects: Art with Lego Bricks exhibition by artist Sean Kinney will be on display at the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens from Jan. 13 through May 7. The exhibition, which is free with Zoo admission, features 13 LEGO sculptures with over 300,000 bricks.

“PGA wants to move TPC back to March” via Matthew Head of First Coast News — If the PGA takes a swing on this proposal, some Ponte Vedra businesses say they fear it could alter their game. “I’m probably about 400 years as the crows fly to the 17th green,” says Wally Monnig, the owner of Down South Barbecue. “They go together.” And when Ponte Vedra’s busiest week of the year hits the greenway, Monnig says he knows the perfect order for his most famous customers. “Ribs through and through — the guys like home-cooked food,” he says. But Monnig is worried the PGA could be messing with his recipe. PGA Commissioner Jay Monahan wants to restructure the tournament schedule to avoid conflicting the more popular PGA tournaments with NFL games. The decision to move TPC to March would leave Monnig feeling bittersweet.

Obama to attend aide’s wedding Saturday in Florida

President Barack Obama plans a quick trip to Florida on Saturday to attend the wedding of a longtime aide who wears several hats.

Marvin Nicholson is the White House trip director and personal aide to the president. He’s also one of Obama’s most frequent golf partners.

Nicholson and his fiancee, Helen Pajcic, are tying the knot at an evening ceremony in Jacksonville, Florida.

Pajcic’s LinkedIn profile identifies her as a special assistant for vocational and adult education at the U.S. Department of Education.

Both worked on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign before they joined the administration.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest didn’t identify the soon-to-wed White House staffer when he announced the trip on Friday. Nicholson and Pajcic’s wedding website gave them away.

African-American golfers to be celebrated at Jacksonville black history event

Jacksonville will kick off Black History Month on February 1 with an event honoring African-American golfers at the Ritz Theater in Lavilla.

Sports and Entertainment head Dave Herrell noted in an internal email that his department is “working with the World Golf Hall of Fame, SMG and JAXSPORTS on a collaborative Black History Month event at the Ritz Theatre & Museum.”

The tentative start time for the “program and light luncheon” is 11 a.m.

The Ritz will host a display of African-American Hall of Fame golfers.

The speaker lineup is still being firmed up; a request is in for Mayor Lenny Curry to offer remarks.

Jacksonville stakeholders fret over lack of match money for central receiving facility

One of the major talking points of Jacksonville leaders and stakeholders: the need for a central receiving facility for those with mental issues.

However, thus far there has been more talk than action in terms of getting the $7.5 million needed as a match to the $15 million of state funds.

Stakeholders are worried that a golden opportunity is being squandered.

An email from Amy Crane, the program director of the Community Foundation of Northeast Florida, that found its way to mayoral chief of staff Kerri Stewart (via Gary Chartrand) tells the tale.

Crane notes that “there was, and continues to be, concern about [Mental Health Resource Center]’s ability to raise the funds necessary to match the grant. After the articles appeared, I followed up with Denise.  She indicated that she is going to work directly with MHRC to develop a strategy to try to raise the funding. In short. she believes that if Duval County were to be unsuccessful, MHA’s advocacy efforts in Tallahassee over the past two years would have been for nothing.”

Stakeholders will meet in the mayor’s office later this month to discuss a path forward.

President Obama in Jacksonville Saturday, but not for the public

President Barack Obama is taking time away from wrapping his term up to visit Jacksonville for a staffer’s wedding Saturday.

He has no public events slated, and no media availability … almost as if he’d exhausted his quota of such in the Sunshine State during the presidential campaign.

President Obama arrives at Jacksonville International Airport at 5:50 p.m., and will be “fired up and ready to go” 90 minutes later, according to an advisory from the White House.

The arrival and departure of Air Force One are closed to the public.

However, media will show up to film his arrival and departure.

Perhaps President Obama will wave and offer a bon mot so they have sound.

Jacksonville council auditor and ethics director clash over Kerri Stewart investigation

Kerri Stewart, the chief of staff for Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, spent much of 2016 under the cloud of an ethics investigation.

During a previous stint with the city, Stewart served as chief administrative officer for Mayor John Peyton. While serving in that role, a lobbying group – Infinity Global Solutions, known during the period in question as “Agency Approval and Development” – got a contract in 2007.

The agreement with what would eventually become the current IGS started as a purchase order in March, 2007 for $85,000, and over the years, expanded to a contract with amendments that grew to $953,000.

The deal was for consulting. It was a no-bid contract. And Stewart ended up working for IGS after leaving city employment, before coming back to the mayor’s office.

This raised questions for a private citizen, which spurred a report from the council auditor as part of what would become an ethics investigation.

Meanwhile, the ethics director, Carla Miller, cast some doubt as to the integrity of the council auditor process.

“I have been told that the Council Auditor’s report did not involve taking any statements from any of the interested parties,” Miller noted. “That is typically how they do it, though — paper audits. Whereas, the IG’s office takes sworn statements.”

As one might expect, Council Auditor Kirk Sherman defended his process, clarifying what he saw as misconceptions and misrepresentations in a December memo to council members.

“I feel a response is necessary, because some statements made by the ethics director and [Stewart’s] attorney were inaccurate and misleading. Ideally,” Sherman wrote, “the ethics director would have discussed the specifics of our audit with me to avoid issuing correspondence requiring my response.”

Sherman takes issue with a number of Ethics Director Carla Miller’s findings.

For starters, Sherman dinged Miller for not acknowledging that the original complaint came from a private citizen, rather than the council auditor’s office itself.

“Our audit report never alleged that any ethics code provisions were violated,” Sherman wrote.

In a conversation with FloridaPolitics.com Friday morning, Sherman said that he wished Miller had reached out to him before crafting a perfunctory memo that was “almost like two pages of notes in her file.”

“I would have had the courtesy of at least having copied me,” Sherman said, noting that the only reason he got a copy was because he was on the TRUE Commission email list.

Sherman also takes issue with Miller issuing sole “blame” to the procurement division for the ever-expanding consulting contract.

The contract and the amendments that led to ballooning costs, Sherman said, were authorized by the housing division, the mayor’s office, the general counsel’s office, and the finance office.

Sherman’s report provides documentation signed by Stewart, authorizing four $100,000 expenditure requests (the maximum allowed without legislation) on May 27, 2011. This date was after the election of Alvin Brown as mayor, with John Peyton closing out his term.

Wight Gregor, who was director of the Housing and Neighborhoods Department and who was also investigated in this matter, issued a memo in early June – with Peyton still mayor – to “increase the maximum indebtedness to the city by $400,000.”

What did the city get for that money?

Sherman told us he saw “nothing tangible delivered” in the “flawed … sole source” deal that ballooned almost tenfold from its original $85,000 scope in just a few years.

The projects in the Northwest Jacksonville district – which included community center renovations, bleachers for a park, building improvements at the Community Rehabilitation Center (which has its own interesting history), and renovation of a vacant medical building – were “not colossal projects,” said Sherman.

Whereas a big-ticket project such as the courthouse might merit investing several hundred thousand dollars into bringing in $5 to $10 million in grants, the work that IGS was doing wasn’t on that scale, Sherman said.

For the kind of investment the city made, “brick and mortar” or “drawing up plans” might be appropriate, but “$400,000 toward lobbying doesn’t make sense” – especially in context of these funds being for capital improvements.

Also concerning Sherman: the lack of transparency in the IGS reporting.

“I didn’t see any reports,” Sherman said.

IGS did provide timesheets in response to the investigation, and we reviewed them.

The going hourly rate from IGS: $110 an hour, which – month after month – seemed padded with extended meetings with city employees, staffers, and stakeholders to discuss what seemed to be big picture concerns.

On at least one project, IGS billed beyond the scope of the contract.

Multi-hour meetings with people like former Councilwoman Denise Lee and Paul Tutwiler, “research” of various components of the projects, and three-hour phone calls with employees of the Community Rehabilitation Center – all of these were billed at the $110 rate.

And even at that rate, IGS was able to pad its billing. The lobbying outfit assessed 85 percent of invoiced hours for “overhead and administration” and another 10 percent for “profit” – leaving aside the question as to how much “overhead” is involved in city hall meetings by lobbyists who are ensconced in the building.

Sherman notes that the city council and the mayor’s office, in 2016, approved an ordinance reimbursing the district account for “ineligible expenditures.”

The matter, at least in theory, is closed.

The news cycle on this story has come and gone. IGS is still lobbying the city of Jacksonville. Stewart is still serving as chief of staff.

However, there clearly is some room for improvement in communication between the office of the council auditor and the ethics director, as their disparate takes on what happened with these allocations and this process suggest.

For her part, Ethics Director Miller offered the following in an email responding to Sherman in December.

“Please read my  report to the Ethics Commission; I did not make any ‘findings.’ I just summarized the citizen Complaints and the letter from the attorney that I had received.

“The Ethics Commission did not have jurisdiction to make any findings as the statute of limitations had run. They dismissed the case for that reason and did not delve into the merits of the case.

“I stand by the recommendation in my report that the procurement processes noted in the audit, especially as to capital improvement projects, should be reviewed by the Office of the Inspector General for ‘better practices, safeguards and procedures’.”

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