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For Jacksonville, Donald Trump means White House access

President Donald Trump barely carried Duval County in 2016. Yet, for Jacksonville power brokers, the Trump era has meant access to the White House.

The most recent manifestation of that was just this week, as a JAX Chamber delegation was received by one of the more important people in Trump’s orbit: Omarosa Manigault.

Manigault has a Jacksonville connection. She recently married Pastor John Newman, and she is spending many weekends here in Duval County. (Newman was also at the White House event).

Manigault organized the event, also, which had a significant guest appearance: Kellyanne Conway, the omnipresent campaign spox for Candidate Trump who now helps with messaging from inside.

The event would have had more star power: VP Mike Pence, who came to Jacksonville this year selling health care reform, had planned on being there, but the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise saw an alteration in plans.

Conway knew her audience and spoke specifically to them, lauding the size and the visibility of the Chamber, and signalling a commitment to the long-awaited river dredging for JaxPort — with federal money, sought since 2003, finally reaching the project.

“Jacksonville is better positioned now with the White House than we’ve been in a long time,” said one source who was inside the room.

Receptions are nice. But reality is nicer.

Marty Fiorentino, of the Fiorentino Group, has done significant work already with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao — a relationship worth its weight in gold as Jacksonville’s crumbling infrastructure may get a restorative reprieve from the Trumpian infrastructure plan.

Susie Wiles, as campaign chair during the stretch run, arguably won Florida for Trump, rescuing a Sunshine State operation that couldn’t get out of its own way. The President and his staff won’t forget that.

Fiorentino, Wiles, Manigault: no one would have predicted that troika as having a direct line to the Executive Branch in 2016, when Trump’s political obituary was written daily as he battled Hillary Clinton.

And compared to last year’s White House reception, which our source saw as pro forma, Jacksonville representatives received a lot more enthusiasm from the Trump staff than the Barack Obama staff.

This comes just days after Jacksonville’s Mayor, Lenny Curry, made his own visit to D.C. for the White House Infrastructure Summit — accompanied by an ally of singular importance to Curry and Trump both, Florida Governor/Senator-in-waiting Rick Scott.

Curry met with staffers and Cabinet Secretaries, making the case for the JaxPort dredge, and taking the opportunity to talk about specifics with actual people in person, rather than through a proposal on paper.

Curry had been on conference calls with White House officials before, but this level of access to the White House is new.

“Relationships are evolving,” Curry said.

Two meaningful events in fewer than seven days equal one very big signal that Jacksonville has a unique opportunity on the federal level in the Trump/Pence Administration.

Divisions in House GOP ‘frustrating’ John Rutherford

Jacksonville Rep. John Rutherford, new to D.C., told Roll Call he was surprised by both ideological and strategic divisions in the GOP caucus itself this week.

The caucus, said Rutherford, could be more unified: “to come from the executive side, or at least what feels like the executive side, to the legislative branch, is a little frustrating because I’m used to, as a sheriff, I say, ‘Take the hill’ and my team would come together and take the hill.”

“Heck, they’d even take a bullet to take that hill because they believe in something bigger than themselves,” Rutherford added.

“Up here, the speaker says, ‘Take the hill,’ and somebody says, ‘We’ll take ‘that’ hill ‘,” Rutherford continued.

Speaker Paul Ryan, Rutherford noted, “said one time that being the speaker is like walking through a graveyard — you’re above a lot of people but they ain’t listening to you. That’s been an interesting situation.”

“I think what’s probably surprised me most is the differences within the Republican caucus. You think that everybody comes from the same experience and background. In some places, I’d be a staunch conservative and in other places of the country, I’d be a moderate. It’s interesting to see how that works in the family,” Rutherford said, regarding ideological divisions among the legislators.

Though new to the family, Rutherford has already done some chores.

Rutherford, in a safe seat with universal popularity among Northeast Florida Republicans, has rolled up his sleeves and gotten into the trenches — including rallying for the American Health Care Act with VP Mike Pence earlier this year.

A revised AHCA has passed the House, but whatever emerges from the Senate won’t resemble it.

Meanwhile, even President Donald Trump has reversed position on the bill House Republicans carried for him., calling it “mean” and urging the Senate to craft a health care reform bill that is “generous, kind (and) with heart.”

Is $44 million worth it to ANZ bank to draw the scrutiny of American regulators?

It’s Thursday afternoon in New South Wales, Australia, where just hours ago, the High Court there (Australia’s equivalent of a federal appeals court) just ruled against Jacksonville-based APR Energy, and in favor of the Australia-New Zealand Bank (ANZ), further solidifying a case of what one Australian parliamentarian referred to as “legalised theft.”

In a long-standing international dispute that FloridaPolitics.com has been following for some time, a Florida business, APR Energy appears to be on the precipice of a $44 million taking by a foreign bank, with the full complicity of the Australian system to do so.

In early 2014 APR leased tens of millions of dollars worth of U.S.-manufactured GE turbines and other equipment to Forge Group Power Pty Ltd, a private utility in Western Australia. Within roughly a month of receiving the equipment, Forge went bankrupt.

As with most leases, APR’s agreement with Forge maintained APR’s exclusive ownership of equipment and power generation facilities. The contract further stipulated that in the case of a breach, or bankruptcy filing by Forge, all leased facilities would be returned immediately to APR in Houston, Texas. ANZ Bank ignored APR’s ownership right, as well as Forge’s contractual obligations (more on that later), and seized APR’s property as their own under the then-recently enacted Personal Property and Securities Act (PPSA).

(In what must be a bitter irony for APR, Australian Parliament recent passed a law to reform the very provision of PPSA under which ANZ seized APR’s power facilities.)

In order to get their power generation facility back, APR was forced to post a $44 million letter of credit in favor of ANZ Bank to get its own property back. Five business days after today’s High Court ruling, ANZ can draw down on that letter of credit, in its entirety.

But new evidence obtained by FloridaPolitics.com clearly points to potential fraud on the part of ANZ Bank, prior to the execution of the original lease in question.

In August 2013 — nearly 6 months prior to Forge’s bankruptcy and ANZ’s subsequent seizure of APR’s equipment — ANZ issued a letter of credit to Forge on the basis of its collateral at the time, and in full knowledge of the lease it had signed with GE International (acquired shortly thereafter by APR); a lease which explicitly said Forge had no property or security rights over the leased equipment.

This smoking gun potentially proves the fraudulent nature of the entire process by which ANZ has held a Florida company financially hostage for more than three years.

And APR is no shrinking violet, fighting for what is rightfully theirs in both the Australian court system and the U.S. political process.

Numerous Senators and members of Congress from Florida and elsewhere — including both Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson — have weighed in on behalf of APR over the years. But they’ve done so simultaneous to APR’s case winding its way through the Australian civil justice system, and they’ve been respectful of that process.

Now that the Australian courts have spoken, expect that U.S. politicians, too, will speak up clearly, and strongly, on behalf of this U.S. company being robbed in plain daylight by a foreign bank, under a set of newly revealed circumstances that are highly suggestive, if not dispositive of, fraud.

Florida Congressman Dennis Ross recently sent a letter to ANZ’s U.S. executive, Truett Tate, asking for an “explanation of this taking of APR’s … property”, and asking if Tate was willing to meet with the House Committee on Financial Services to answer additional questions on the matter.

That letter, dated April 3 of this year, has yet to receive a response from Tate or ANZ.

Separately, another member of that same committee, Rep. Josh Gottheimer, sent a letter on April 7 to Thomas Curry, the U.S. Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) — the agency responsible for overseeing foreign banks in the United States — requesting his office’s attention to ANZ’s activities. Gottheimer’s letter calls ANZ’s taking a “fraudulent conveyance and transfer of title under U.S. law”, while also reminding Curry of ANZ’s previous sanctions by the U.S. Commodity Futures Trading Commission, and the U.S. Department of Treasury, in relation to ANZ’s business in hostile foreign dictatorships Myanmar, Sudan and Cuba.

Sources from within the House Committee on Financial Services tell us that proposed legislation is already in drafting, and soon to be filed, that would prohibit a financial institution, domestic or foreign, from receiving the proceeds of a fraudulent transfer, such as would occur if and when ANZ drew down on the $44 million credit line with APR. The legislation — modeled after similar laws on the books in 44 states — would also create a private cause of action against the beneficiary of a fraudulent transfer, including the potential for punitive damages. It would also expose the financial institute to disciplinary action by American regulators.

That an Australian court would ultimately rule in favor of an Australian bank in this dispute, was never much in question. Now the question is going to shift rapidly to ANZ Bank, as they consider whether $44 million is worth the ire and scrutiny of U.S. lawmakers, and their potential to make continuing to do business in the United States very, very difficult.

Corrine Brown’s motions will fail, says Ronnie Simmons’ lawyer

Less than a year ago, Corrine Brown and Ronnie Simmons were yoked at the hip, as Congresswoman and Chief of Staff.

Less than six months ago, both were off the federal payroll — yet yoked as co-defendants in the One Door for Education fraud case.

Much has changed since then.

Simmons struck a plea deal with the feds in February, pleading guilty on two counts, with his sentencing contingent on substantial cooperation with the feds.

As part of that cooperation, Simmons had to testify against his old boss — whose attorney, in an otherwise torpid defense, actually brought the fire in the cross-examination.

Now, as Simmons waits to find out his fate, Corrine Brown seeks to alter hers, with motions last week for a new trial and an acquittal.

The motion for a new trial was predicated on a claim that the juror who got bounced because he was compelled in decision-making by the Holy Spirit was removed erroneously. And the motion for acquittal was predicated on essentially re-litigating the trial, to again make the case that Brown was a dupe of her staffer and his girlfriend, and she was too old and enfeebled to do anything about it.

Simmons’ lawyer, Anthony Suarez, spoke with FloridaPolitics.com’s Terry Roen in Orlando Wednesday. He is skeptical of these motions.

“I’ve examined the motions and believe they’re not strong enough because they don’t cite a lot of case law,” said Suarez. “They’re not going to be successful.”

He also said he anticipated the defense attacking his client.

“I compare it to the Whac-A-Mole game,” said Suarez. “The prosecutor and Brown took turns whacking my client.”

Suarez, from the beginning of pre-trial proceedings, was frank in saying that he expected a plea deal for his client — a marked departure from Corrine Brown, who was adamant in taking the case to trial.

In the post-trial strategy discussions, there still seems to be a wide divergence between the pragmatic Suarez and Brown, whose defense seems predicated on a cult of personality that effectively expired when Brown lost her primary to Al Lawson in August 2016.

Jax Fire and Rescue wrestles with staffing, equipment shortfalls

Wednesday morning saw the Jacksonville Fire and Rescue Department discuss particulars of the upcoming budget with the Mayor’s Office.

JFRD faces a number of pressures: a staffing shortfall, challenges from the uptick in opioid overdoses, and equipment needs.

As was the case with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office on Tuesday, enhancements were certainly going to be requested from the department. And as has been the case through the Lenny Curry administration, needs were to be considered against a backdrop of fiscal prudence — if not austerity, as was the case before pension reform.

Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa urged “caution,” related to “controlling recurring expenses” to fund pay raises.

A total of 73 positions will need to be added, said Chief Kurtis Wilson, because of an additional station at Cecil Field that Mousa energetically disputed the existence of a contract for.

“They told us in 12 months, we’d have a station,” Wilson said.

Mousa retorted, “it ain’t gonna happen.” The timing of construction, he said, won’t work out.

“You have a new station, seven people, a new rescue [ambulance], and all of the personal supplies for employees,” Mousa added.

The new rescue costs $266,000, and there would be $600,000 of recurring costs yearly, Wilson noted.

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Also notable: Ambulance transports, including uncollectible charges of over $500,000, add up to a $1.1M uptick in charges — a measure of the opioid crisis, with 15,000 calls in the last year (of the 80,000 total).

Narcan purchases alone are $155,000 up, year over year. And engines now have advanced life support for overdose calls, which comes out to $400,000 total of new costs related to the opioid crisis.

Salaries: up $9.6M, with overtime and new collective bargaining agreements the drivers.

Overtime, it was agreed, went up considerably in FY 17. FY 18 anticipates $4.2M of new OT costs, unless additional positions and one-time costs are approved to provide relief.

Two classes of 24 officers each would be added in FY 18; the financial hit would be felt in 2019, with 48 FTEs online. This would allow full staffing of all three overtime units, and three rescue units as well, to defray impact on fleet vehicles.

Leaves of various types, and absences of other types, are driving the overtime uptick.

“Going forward with pension reform,” said Angela Moyer of the budget office, has provided a “golden opportunity” to restructure an operational structure that clearly had flaws.

Pension costs: down $23.7M in total. Defined contribution costs for next year, with new hires: $270,000.

This enhancement decision was not to be made at this meeting, alas.

“I’m not convinced your overtime’s going to come down. It just seems to always be that way … every time we try to adjust your overtime,” Mousa said.

Moyer noted that this was the first attempt to address overtime costs via adding positions, which would total 71.

“71 new slots is going to be hard,” CFO Mike Weinstein noted.

Chief Wilson pushed back, saying the new positions were necessary to avoid “cannibalizing from within.”

“I’m facing real challenges. Weekly we run out of rescues in various parts of town,” Wilson noted. “We’re just getting busier, and other departments across the country are facing the same issues as well.”

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“You come in with over 20 percent of your budget on the enhancement list,” Weinstein remarked.

Wilson’s response: this is after years of “trying to beg, borrow, and steal” to fill gaps.

Among the enhancement requests: nine new rescue units. The Beaches and Mayport are underserved, Wilson said.

Gear replacements for structure fires, of which there are 13-18 every week, are necessary.

“The gear we have now, they no longer make the fabric,” Wilson said. “It’s dated, it’s old.”

Wilson wants a one-time buy for new gear, with the old gear retained as backup.

Diesel exhaust systems: apparently a carcinogen, and in many stations, diesel pumps into the station’s kitchen and quarters.

JFRD wants money to mitigate this issue with retrofitting of older stations not slated for replacement.

Three ladder companies are also needed, with ISO ratings coming in 2019. And five of 15 tankers, said Wilson, are unstaffed.

This all could impact the city’s rating, which would have hidden costs for citizens and the city alike.

JFRD has also needed exercise equipment for seven years, and needs annual physicals — which were cut for those under the age of 50 by the previous Mayor.

Local legislators laud Rick Scott in Jax Beach

Florida Gov. Rick Scott found his way to Jacksonville Beach Tuesday — his fifth stop of the day — to take a victory lap after a session where he ended up getting what he wanted.

And by his side: Reps. Cord ByrdJason Fischer, and Travis Cummings — three State Reps. he pilloried as the State House panned his economic incentive programs during the Regular Session.

As the pre-release statement said: “This tour will highlight an all-time high of K-12 per-pupil spending, the establishment of the $85 million Florida Job Growth Grant Fund, full funding for VISIT FLORIDA, and $50 million to kick-start repairs to the Herbert Hoover Dike surrounding Lake Okeechobee. Governor Scott fought for these important priorities all year.”

At previous stops, Scott was extolled as a “passionate warrior” by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, the leader of the legislative body that stymied Gov. Scott’s priorities for months. He also said he was still mulling the controversial education bill HB 7069 — which held as true during his last stop of the day as it did during his first

In Jacksonville Beach, it was worth watching to see how many of those who bucked Gov. Scott on incentives came home.

Scott’s remarks were brief. “Jobs,” said Scott, allowed for “record funding” for K-12 spending per pupil.

Visit Florida and the Florida Job Growth Fund: likewise extolled, the latter as a “different program that’s going to work,” with both infrastructure building and training employees as outcomes.

And the Dike?

When there’s a “good economy,” said Scott, we can “take care of the environment.”

And with President Trump’s commitment, the “jumpstart” money is just an initial investment.

The real unique value-add: the State Reps who had to let go of the acrimony from the Governor’s Office from weeks and months past.

Cord Byrd discussed the transformational education bill.

Jason Fischer quipped that “the Governor signed most of the budget into law.”

And Travis Cummings?

“The Governor vetoed a project or two of mine, but that’s OK,” Cummings said, given the need for tourist funding via Visit Florida — a remarkable shift in position.

One of those projects was big for Jacksonville: $15M in money for septic tank removal that didn’t make the cut.

We asked Cummings about the anomaly of being feted by a Governor who just months back aimed robocalls at him.

“Politics is a strange business,” Cummings said.

John Rutherford lands on House Judiciary Committee

Former Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford, a freshman on Capitol Hill, was appointed to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee Tuesday.

Rutherford is “excited” about the appointment “to a strong committee focused on upholding the Constitution,” per a statement from his office.

“As a former Sheriff, I have committed my life to strengthening the justice system in Northeast Florida, and I am grateful for this opportunity to support the rule of law across our nation,” Rutherford said.

Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte spoke favorably of his fellow Republican also.

“As a former law enforcement officer and sheriff of Duval County, Florida, Congressman Rutherford brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the Committee.  His expertise on our criminal justice system makes him particularly well suited to serve on the Judiciary Committee.  I look forward to working with John to advance our pro-growth agenda, focused on growing the American economy and ensuring that our laws are efficient, fair, and enforced,” Goodlatte said.

This is Rutherford’s third committee: he also is on Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs.

Jax Sheriff seeks budget enhancements in next fiscal year

As the office of Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry gears up to release its third budget, an interesting area of inquiry is the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.

A real tension in Curry Administration planning in preceding years has been balancing an austerity-level city budget with the need to ramp up public safety.

In 2016, some items were crossed off the wish list. The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office got 40 new police officers and 40 new community service officers, which augments the 40 of each provided in the previous year’s budget.

Police and fire got a $2.7 million replacement of their end-of-life 911 system. The JSO got $1.9 million to upgrade its outdated fingerprinting system. And $21.5 million of new money was earmarked for police and fire vehicles.

This year, the challenge is a different one: “budget relief,” spawned by pension reform, expanded every department’s wish list. However, in a city where Public Safety is the code word, the JSO is expected — if history is any indication — to get first dibs on enhancement requests.

Tuesday morning saw Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa and CFO Mike Weinstein reviewing the budget with Sheriff Mike Williams and various high-level JSO staffers.

Mousa noted, at the start, that enhancements — including additional officers — are still subject to “ongoing discussions between the sheriff and the mayor.”

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More quotidian enhancements eventually came up, however.

Five replacement bicycles for downtown patrols ($10,000), X-Ray machines to replace the “ancient” ones at the Police Memorial Building ($80,000), and body armor replacements ($324,000) were the first three discussed.

The federal forfeiture trust fund is “way down,” and can’t accommodate these requests.

“These are normal operating things we have to have. We’ve leveraged grant dollars, forfeiture dollars … at the federal level last year, forfeitures stopped for eight or nine months,” Williams said, calling the aforementioned items that have to be replaced every five years.

Mousa noted that JSO can find $90,000 for the first two line items, given flexibility in other line items in the budget, demonstrated year after year. JSO went along with it.

The body armor will be considered, meanwhile.

Body camera operation costs include nine employees, phased in over the fiscal year. Help desk technicians will be new hires; six other officers will be moved over from other divisions.

“This will be the framework of the body camera unit moving forward,” Williams said.

As well, two civilian technicians will be used to operate the NIBIN machine, at $90,000, and a $220,000 modular shooting range.

JSO also would like five correctional officers to supervise inmate cleanup crews.

“We have plenty of inmates for five crews,” said Undersheriff Pat Ivey, “but the funding for one.”

COs rather than civilian supervisors are preferred, as civilians “don’t look at the dope man and say ‘hey, get away from my crew’,” Ivey said.

“Sexual conduct between one of the civilian supervisors and a female,” said Ivey, was alleged as recently as 18 months ago.

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Also of interest: a $55M “contingency” fund the Lenny Curry Administration is setting up for salaries across city government.

“It’s going to be one item in the general fund,” Weinstein said. “We’re going to put aside at least $55M, and spread it across government.”

This line will be part of the non-departmental review, broken down by department.

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Some JSO numbers worth tracking as the budget moves through the process.

Salaries: up $10.5M, with $4.8M of that overtime costs.

Pension costs: down $38.14M in total, with over $30M in police and fire, and $5.9M in corrections.

And the new defined contribution plan has an uptick of $1.4M,

Workers Comp: up $358K. Heart and hypertension: up almost $1M.

Radio internal services allocation: down $2M, a number eaten up by $2.2M in fleet replacement costs.

Other costs that will impact the budget: computer-aided dispatch updates, network refreshes, and server migrations off of older servers.

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Another point of discussion: overtime pay for SMG events, which are at city facilities.

“We assumed your revenue from SMG would go up,” Weinstein said.

The JSO budget would like to staff all SMG events, with payment handled via overtime — a group of over 100 events over the year, an issue made more prominent with a robust schedule at the new amphitheater and flex field adding 30 to 40 events in the next fiscal year.

The city, meanwhile, would like a firmer handle on per-event costs.

Jay Fant tops $79K raised for Attorney General bid

May was a pivotal fundraising month for Jacksonville Rep. Jay Fant, locked in a primary battle for the Republican Attorney General nomination.

Fant emerged with $79,575 of new money; of that sum, $8,000 came from Fant, and $3,000 came from his political committee, “Pledge This Day,” which raised $9,000 in May.

A number of familiar names in Northeast Florida showed up on the contributor list: Tom PetwayJohn RoodJ.B. Coxwell, and the Fiorentino Group were among them.

Fant also enjoyed PAC support, with the Beer Distributors Committee, PETROPAC, and the Florida Bankers Association contributing.

Contributions mostly came from Northeast Florida.

Fant’s opponent, Ashley Moody, filed at the beginning of June, so she has no activity to show until July’s report.

Diallo Sekou challenges embattled Katrina Brown in Jax Council District 8

Embattled Jacksonville City Councilwoman Katrina Brown has a challenger in her expected 2019 re-election bid: Diallo-Sekou Seabrooks.

Seabrooks (generally referred to, and referred to herein, as “Diallo Sekou“), is a legit community activist  who operates an urban farm, is pivotal in the activist group The Kemetic Empire, and who also operates summer camps for youth, presents an interesting challenge for Brown – as his declaration of a candidacy suggests a real grassroots disquiet with the scandal-plagued incumbent.

A big reason for his run: while elected officials may change in the district, material conditions do not.

“The people deserve better than what’s been ‘sitting and not sitting’ in that seat,” Sekou said.

“This district is in need of serious economic development and restructuring to help create a better situation than what’s been taking place for the last 50 years,” Sekou added.

Katrina Brown’s entropy, Sekou said, isn’t helping.

“There’s nothing being done that’s impactful or sustainable.  Her first 2 years are things the last counci person set in place, or the mayor has set forth.  District 8 cannot be seen as just ‘some area’. It is in serious need and requires a great deal of attention, and by missing half of the [City Council’s] meetings she’s showing the concern the council person has for her district.  Using personal excuses that everyone knows about in the public isn’t good enough,” Sekou added.

Sekou’s reference to missed meetings was based on a report by Action News Jax, in a tragicomic interview attempt that saw the Councilwoman dodging a reporter’s interview request by any means necessary.

Brown, a reliable vote for the city’s power structure on most issues, is expected to have backing from the police union, the fire union, the Chamber, and so on. Sekou, a community activist, knows the institutional backing of the incumbent will present challenges.

“Those unions are just a small portion of the population.  When I win it will be because the community I support, supports me back.  Not corporate sponsorships and talking heads. But the people and there is nothing stronger than them,” Sekou said.

“Let me be clear I would never look [for support from an] Fraternal Order of Police head who speaks negative against African American women and men, who attacks leadership in the press like a coward.  I stand with great cops in Jacksonville and if they are in my district I’ll seek their vote. As far as the Chamber, I would have to see what efforts they have actually put forth for District 8. I have some great friends over there but we just have to see,” Sekou said.

Sekou has offered institutional critiques of Jacksonville over the years, especially in the law enforcement forum. His call for body cameras for police was heard; his call for civilian review boards of police shootings may never be one that the police union will back.

What’s clear, however: Katrina Brown, who has maintained that adversarial questions from the press don’t need to be answered, will be compelled to answer questions from an activist on the trail that go beyond the well-reported terrain of corporate bankruptcies and city lawsuits.

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