Jax Archives - Page 6 of 331 - Florida Politics

Jax councilor’s family business, Jacksonville spar over eco dev default

The city of Jacksonville has thus far been frustrated by its dealings with CoWealth, LLC, the family business of Councilwoman Katrina Brown.

Frustrations continue this week, with a curious legal filing from CoWealth on Wednesday that led to a sharp response from the city on Thursday.

CoWealth LLC, one of the Brown family’s group of nebulously named companies, is being sued for $210,000 by the city of Jacksonville for failing to create jobs in a 2011 economic development agreement intended to help the Browns take their BBQ sauce business to the next level.

On Dec. 2, 2016, the city sent one in a series of certified letters to JoAnn Brown, the councilwoman’s mother, stipulating that CoWealth failed to create 56 jobs and maintain them for five years (a requirement of the economic development deal), and that the company failed to provide audited financial statements for the years 2014 and 2015.

CC’d on the letters: Councilwoman Brown, a manager of CoWealth and a member of the Finance Committee.

CoWealth offered an interesting response to the complaint this week, asserting that there was a “verbal agreement” with the city’s Office of Economic Development to “dismiss the requirement of submitting audited financial statements for the years 2014 and 2015.”

The Office of General Counsel, when asked about the assertion, said that “since this is in pending litigation status, we can’t comment on the evidence or merits of the case. Future filed pleadings will provide the City’s position.”

Indeed, a filed pleading on Thursday did just that, looking to strike the filing on the grounds that Mrs. Brown is not an attorney.

“Mrs. Brown is a managing member of each Defendant, as well as Defendants’ registered agent; however, according to Florida Bar records, she is not an attorney,” read the filing from Jacksonville’s OGC.

“Mrs. Brown’s representation of Defendants in this litigation isimpermissible because it is the unlicensed practice of law. Therefore,” the filing continues, “the Answer should be stricken and Defendants should be allowed an opportunity to retain counsel.”

Of course, the defendants actually have a lawyer related to another business facing the same issue.

In late February, “KJB Specialties” hired an attorney specializing in bankruptcy cases to handle a foreclosure action against the building housing “Jerome Brown BBQ.”

One might wonder why they didn’t use that attorney in the current case.

Charles McBurney files for 4th circuit judgeship

Former State Rep. Charles McBurney opened a campaign account Mar. 1 to start his race for a judgeship in Florida’s 4th Circuit.

Currently, McBurney is unopposed for the 2018 election.

Of course, last time the Jacksonville Republican was up for a judgeship (via gubernatorial appointment), by appointment in 2016, he faced an opponent more powerful than any on the ballot: the NRA’s Florida lobbyist Marion Hammer.

McBurney,  who chaired the House Judiciary Committee in 2016, tabled a bill that would have shifted the burden of proof from defendants to prosecutors under the state’s “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law.

“In order to gain favor with prosecutors, he refused to hold a hearing on the ‘Burden of Proof’ bill, SB-344 by Sen. Rob Bradley, which restores the presumption of innocence in self-defense cases,” Hammer wrote, saying that “McBurney, a former prosecutor himself, wants prosecutors to help him become a judge so he engaged in political pandering to prosecutors. McBurney traded your rights for personal gain.”

McBurney, in response to thousands of emails generated by the NRA’s “Action Alert,” attempted his own ill-fated campaign to enlist testimonials.

He was powerless against the Hammer, however, and Robert Dees got the judgeship.

It will be interesting to see who emerges to oppose McBurney in the upcoming weeks.

McBurney is well-regarded in Jacksonville, but a concerted statewide lobbying campaign with money behind it could make McBurney’s race one to watch.

Aaron Bowman takes lead in Jacksonville City Council VP race

On Wednesday, Jacksonville City Councilman Aaron Bowman continued his push for the vice-presidency of the 19-person legislative body with some success.

Bowman solicited pledges from Tommy HazouriGreg Anderson, and Sam Newby, in an attempt to break a 3-3 deadlock with his opponent, Scott Wilson.

Newby was sold without little prodding, noting that while he and Bowman were on opposite sides of the push to expand the city’s Human Rights Ordinance, he thought Bowman was the “right person” for leadership in the council.

“You’ve been in leadership your entire life,” Newby remarked.

Newby’s pledge gave Bowman a 4-3 lead, but Hazouri and Anderson proved to be tougher sells.

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Hazouri, who was Bowman’s only supporter a year before, was reluctant to sign on this time around.

In part, it was because Hazouri — an early supporter of current VP John Crescimbeni for the top job — expressed qualms that Bowman and Anna Brosche (Crescimbeni’s opponent) were a ticket of sorts.

“It’s there and I can’t erase it,” Hazouri said.

Bowman and Brosche pledged to support each other earlier this week.

“John made it easy for me not to vote for him because he signed on with Scott,” Bowman said, calling that a “vote of no confidence.”

Hazouri and Bowman continued to discuss similar issues, with Hazouri noting “perceptions” parties such as the Jacksonville Chamber and the police and fire unions have of Crescimbeni.

Bowman noted that Crescimbeni wasn’t exactly a resounding choice for the VP slot last year.

“It was 10-9,” Bowman said.

Hazouri’s response?

“A winner is a winner.”

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 As was the case with Hazouri, Anderson signed on with Crescimbeni’s presidential bid.

And as also was the case, Anderson didn’t sign on, saying he wanted to let the process develop.

However, the discussion was more of common ground and shared priorities than was the case in the Hazouri conversation.

Anderson noted that Bowman saw the president as “an enabler of success, a view I share with you.”

Anderson also pointed out the changing topography of law and order in Jacksonville, noting that Bowman would “have the opportunity to think about justice more holistically” than the old-school paradigms of bygone eras.

The importance of consistency in policy initiatives: also a discussion point. As were economic development, and a potential conflict between the Lenny Curry administration and the council on the pension deal.

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Bowman noted that, regarding the possible end to the Enterprise Florida incentives that have benefited the city of late, that “we compete with Georgia and South Carolina every day” and that “our neighbors are licking their chops right now.”

On pension, both Bowman and Anderson agreed that the lack of information from the mayor’s office on the new pension plans with the city’s unions has been “frustrating.”

“Is this financially sustainable? Is this the right plan? I’m a little fearful,” Bowman said, that “we’re going to see stuff we’re not comfortable with” in the actuarial projections.

Other council members have expressed similar qualms about the pension deal, about which the Curry administration has said very little about the actual numbers and costs to the city.

This tension could set up the first real confrontation in almost two years between the mayor’s office and council sooner than later.

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As of now, Bowman has a 4-3 lead in the pledge count in the VP race, while Crescimbeni leads Brosche 7-3 in the race for the top job.

The next scheduled council leadership meeting, as of this writing: a Monday morning meeting between Scott Wilson and Joyce Morgan.

To Russia with love: Jon Huntsman postpones Jacksonville speaking gig

The World Affairs Council’s loss is the world stage’s gain.

President Donald Trump appointed Jon Huntsman to be Ambassador to Russia on Wednesday. And for Jacksonville residents, there were hints that deal was struck hours before it went out to the media Wednesday evening.

An internal email to World Affairs Council members told the tale around midday:

“Jon Huntsman, Jr., our March 14 Global Issues Evening speaker, is unable to join us due to rapidly unfolding responsibilities in Washington, D.C. I am sure that you are as disappointed as I am, but know that he is keen to speak to the World Affairs Council of Jacksonville, and has even asked for a ‘rain check’ to do so. We will work to reschedule Ambassador Huntsman.”

Huntsman will be replaced on Mar. 14 by Gen. Philip Breedlove, a four-star Air Force general who helmed the U.S. European Command and NATO’s European Command.

With security anomalies in Europe becoming regularities, Breedlove will have plenty to talk about.

Jacksonville City Council support for Enterprise Florida builds

Even as Enterprise Florida faces the chopping block in the Florida House, Jacksonville politicians are seeking to save it while there is still time.

On Wednesday, Councilmen Jim Love and Aaron Bowman met to discuss a resolution of support for the beleaguered EFI, a concept they had discussed a week prior.

The salient numbers for Councilman Love: 5,000 jobs and $650M in private capital investment since July 2015.

Love notes that Jacksonville is the biggest city in Florida, and “should have some sway,” with EFI investment being a “small price to pay to bring jobs to Jacksonville.”

Love’s goal: to keep Enterprise Florida funded at its current level.

“If we stay even,” the councilman said, “we’ll win.”

Representing the city’s Office of Economic Development, Kirk Wendland noted that Jacksonville is “trying to stay in the game.”

“Without anything from the state,” Wendland said, “it will be difficult.”

It’s uncertain how much sway a council resolution will have, given divisions within the Duval Delegation on these incentives.

While Rep. Jay Fant believes that Enterprise Florida can be tweaked, Cord Byrd and Jason Fischer line up more closely with the Richard Corcoran/Paul Renner philosophy on incentives.

Nonetheless, Love hopes for a strong council majority supporting the resolution.

John Rutherford Homeland Security spending reform bill clears U.S. House committee

H.R. 1294, the Reducing Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Acquisition Cost Growth Act, seeks to stop wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars by agencies like the Transportation Security Administration, Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

On Wednesday, the bill — a priority of first-term Republican Rep. John Rutherford — was unanimously approved by the House Committee on Homeland Security.

Rutherford noted the bill “prevents wasteful spending of taxpayer dollars by holding DHS agencies more accountable in administering their major acquisitions programs and by giving Congress greater oversight of troubled programs.”

“Passing this bill will stop the waste of resources and help Congress implement solutions to quickly address any setbacks or cost overruns. I thank the members of the Committee for their bipartisan support of this bill and I look forward to it advancing to the full House,” Rutherford added.

According to the Governmental Accounting Office, DHS has been on a “high-risk” list since 2005, because waste and mismanagement are recurrent plagues for its $7 billion portfolio of programs.

John Stemberger’s Jacksonville HRO advocacy raised eyebrows in Jacksonville’s city hall

Though the legislative process for the expansion of Jacksonville Human Rights Ordinance is over, questions have been raised about the unique advocacy role of John Stemberger in the process.

Stemberger, an Orlando attorney and head of “Florida Family Action” who also was just appointed to the Constitutional Revision Commission, registered briefly as a lobbyist on the HRO issue in February 2016.

He let that registration lapse, but he and his political action committee continued in an advocacy role on the issue as it resurfaced in 2017 in Jacksonville, issuing “action alerts” to influence the city council and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry to vote against or veto the issue.

Having failed in the attempt to thwart the HRO, Stemberger’s group is now engaged in a campaign to ensure that Curry is not considered ultimately for the state’s CFO role after Jeff Atwater departs in a matter of months.

Some have raised the question as to whether Stemberger was or was not a lobbyist on the issue.

Jacksonville Ethics Director Carla Miller says that technically, he was within the rules.

“John Stemberger would have to be paid as a lobbyist by his organization to fit the definition.  He is president of his organization–and as such can “lobby” the City without registering,” Miller asserted.

“He can send out mass emails and urge people to contact their council members–this does not fit the definition of a ‘lobbyist’,” Miller added, citing the relevant section of city code (602.801), which holds that because Stemberger was not paid to lobby, and was an officer of his organization, he didn’t have to register.

“Our lobbying laws need to be revised,” Miller added.

General Counsel Jason Gabriel, deferring to Miller on this issue as code requires, noted that “it is interesting that this particular person had previously registered to cover their advocacy.”

We contacted Stemberger’s office Tuesday afternoon with questions on this and a $10,000 payment that Florida Family Action rendered to the Florida Elections Commission in 2014 to resolve a 2009 elections complaint.

As of Wednesday afternoon, we had not heard back.

Access to Capital, ex-offender jobs, travel budget bills cleared for full Jacksonville City Council

Wednesday saw the Jacksonville City Council’s Finance Committee pass bills related to small business microfinancing, city contractor jobs for ex-offenders, and the council travel budget for groups like the Florida League of Cities.

The full council will vote on these bills Tuesday night.

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Microfinance: 2016-486 revives the city’s Access to Capital program for Jacksonville’s Small and Emerging Business program, allowing microfinancing from $5,000 to $100,000 for Jacksonville’s small and emerging businesses.

Microfinancing is a tough sphere for commercial lenders, and Accion International will be charged with loaning businesses money at an 8.99 percent rate.

A sum of $932,032.65 will be provided for this program from the city. Of that money, $425,000 goes to administrative capital, with the balance going toward the JSEB capital pool.

OED head Kirk Wendland said there would be $829,000 in the capital pool after this appropriation.

Councilman Greg Anderson lauded OED for trying to “reinvigorate” the program.

Wendland noted that Accion will vet applicants, on the basis of credit scores, a lack of outstanding tax debts, and other red flags that would preclude lending.

Loans can extend up to 60 months, and they are intended to be “working capital loans,” said Wendland.

Previously, JSEB dispersed roughly 10 loans a year, Wendland added.

“If we market it well, we can get some more activity,” Wendland continued.

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Ex-offender jobs: 2017-35, a bill designed to ensure that city contractors make a good-faith effort to hire ex-offenders, emerged from the committee.

The substitute version of the bill allows contractors to hire ex-offenders who did not emerge from city-subsidized re-entry programs, while requiring “satisfactory evidence” of at least an attempt to hire an ex-offender.

“Once they hired an ex-offender,” bill sponsor (and contractor) Garrett Dennis said, “they would be a VIP contractor — exempt.”

Program providers would be responsible for providing a list of ex-offenders with skill sets, and contact contractors after they win the bid.

Those programs don’t have to be located in Duval County at present, which concerned Councilman Greg Anderson.

Another concern among many raised by Councilman Matt Schellenberg: a lack of hard training in these programs for the specific skill sets required.

Schellenberg noted that the Jacksonville Journey program likewise sought to integrate ex-offenders into the workforce.

Councilman Bill Gulliford raised concerns as to where the Jacksonville Journey funds are going in light of unsatisfactory answers from Journey staff about ex-offender job programs, noting that it may be time for the council to exert more oversight over Journey disbursements.

The Associated Builders and Contractors balked at the original version of the bill, asserting that it imposed an onerous burden on contractors — that argument proved more persuasive to council members as the bill worked through committees, leading to a deferral and the current substitute two weeks prior.

Councilman Dennis, meanwhile, is “very pleased” with the bill as it emerged from the process.

“As a contractor,” Dennis said, “we couldn’t ask for a better bill.”

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Safe Travels: One unintended consequence of a hard cap of $3,000 on travel budgets for council members has been an impediment to traveling to association events, such as those held by the Florida League of Cities and the Florida Association of Counties.

The issue has percolated for some time, and 2017-97 resolves that issue, with $16,408 appropriated from the current year’s budget for such travel.

Going forward, $20,000 or 10 percent of association membership fees will be appropriated for delegation travel.

Councilman Schellenberg and Councilwoman Joyce Morgan are currently delegated for such travel. Schellenberg has contended that other jurisdictions benefit from larger delegations at these events.

“This bill is essential to make sure we’re actively involved,” Schellenberg said.

Jacksonville police body camera discussion exposes old controversies, trust issues

Cameras will be on soon. And in Jacksonville, the police say they’re ready for their close up. However, at a no-holds-barred town hall on Tuesday night, they might have found the lighting to be a bit harsh.

As the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office prepares to implement a pilot program of body cameras for officers, the JSO kicked off the first of six town halls on the subject Tuesday evening at Edward Waters College — with a crowd that demanded answers to questions that went far beyond body cameras, to the relationship of law enforcement to the community itself.

The program is still in an exploratory phase, despite $2.7 million being allocated last week to the JSO to prepare its outmoded mainframes to store the data from cameras.

By early June, the JSO will begin a 90-day try out of equipment from TASER, Motorola, and V-View. However, the JSO is still considering other vendors, which are actively soliciting the department’s business.

“So many camera vendors … I lost count,” said Tony Davis, the director of police services. “We’re still talking to vendors … I talk to three a day. We’re going to continue to talk to vendors until we get it right.

Technology is improving on cameras, which is a concern — especially since the estimated startup costs are $3-$5 million, Davis said, with data storage and personnel costs recurring.

Five years of storage would be 1.7 petabytes — each petabyte is a million gigabytes.

With storage for murder cases required for 50 years after the incident, the storage costs will always be an issue, Davis said.

Additionally, there is an active PERC complaint from the Fraternal Order of Police. The police union maintains that body cameras should be subject to collective bargaining; the sheriff’s office disagrees.

The JSO is willing to go to court to protect what it sees as a management prerogative, Davis said.

Local politicians, including Council members John Crescimbeni and Katrina Brown, former Congressional candidate Glo Smith, and recent State House candidate Terrance Freeman, were on hand for the discussion, along with activists such as Ben Frazier and Diallo-Sekou who pushed for body cameras to become a reality years ago.

Policy, as of yet, has not been finalized after a year of work — yet the JSO has looked at policies from 70 jurisdictions and the Department of Justice, Davis said, calling the current scenario a “blank canvas.”

“You’ve got to have a policy. Some agencies tried to implement a program without a policy … some agencies had poorly-written policies. They failed. They didn’t have time to do due diligence,” Davis said.

The major issues to work out include privacy and the amount of officer discretion relative to camera activation. The expectation from the official side is that cameras eventually will be considered to be part of the officer’s uniform — a position supported of late by Sheriff Mike Williams, albeit not during the 2015 campaign, when he said that “there are just too many issues related to body cameras for JSO officers at this time.”

As Davis worked through his PowerPoint, audience members grew restless, especially relative to citizen review of the material.

Davis noted that citizens would be able to view some body camera footage pending a public records request, unless there was a privacy issue.

“Some cases won’t be released right away,” Davis said.

A recurrent question: whether or not officers would be allowed to review body camera footage.

The process, Davis said, is still in flux in Jacksonville for review and discipline both.

“I’m not sure which direction we’re going to go right now,” Davis added.

The discussion broke down around half an hour in, when Davis, an African-American, was upbraided for showing a video of a suspect in a sample body camera video who was African-American.

“You continue to perpetuate a stereotype that all of the criminals and all of the crime committed in the city is black,” said activist Denise Hunt.

“Where is Sheriff Williams? Is that not a good question,” Hunt added.

Many of the questions during the two hour program revolved around the issue of historic grievances between the African-American community and the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.

Cameras, said Davis, will help to resolve such issues.

But what was clear Tuesday: such resolution, and the building of trust, will take time.

“The issue isn’t about body cameras. The issue is about trust,” said Ben Frazier of the SCLC. “How can we trust a sheriff who has the first of his town hall meetings about body cameras and doesn’t show up?”

And perhaps cameras alone won’t do the job: a recurrent desire of activists, a citizens’ review board, was mentioned repeatedly on Tuesday night.

A CRB is, of course, a dealbreaker for the local Fraternal Order of Police.

‘Anti-Trump’ protesters blamed for impending Marco Rubio Jacksonville office move

President Donald Trump apparently is the gift that keeps on giving for Sen. Marco Rubio.

On Monday evening, the Florida Times-Union reported that for a second time in a week, protesters have forced Sen. Rubio from one of his regional offices.

Rubio’s team is working to find new space in Tampa, and now faces a similar challenge in Jacksonville, after a decision was made to terminate the Rubio office’s lease because of what the T-U calls “daily protests” outside.

Worth noting: Rubio’s Jacksonville office is located next to a children’s behavioral clinic, a location which apparently factored into the decision-making matrix.

Rubio spokesperson Christine Mandreucci, meanwhile, suggests that the protesters aren’t exactly protesting the senator after all.

“For the second time in another major region of the state, the unruly behavior of some anti-Trump protesters is making it more inconvenient for Floridians to come to our local office to seek assistance with federal issues,” Mandreucci asserted, in a statement she had earlier provided to the Florida Times-Union.

The statement goes on to assert (a few sentences later) that “those who disagree with President Trump and Senator Rubio certainly have a right to exercise their First Amendment rights…”

However, the construction of the statement is worth noting, in light of the gap some perceive between Rubio’s campaign-trail promises to act as a “check and balance” against the president.‎

When we asked for examples of meaningful daylight between the positions of Rubio and Trump on issues of concern to protesters, or examples of what the T-U story was missing in terms of context, they were not immediately forthcoming.

Rather, we were re-referred to the Tampa Bay Times article linked above, and told that “protesters are part of the Indivisible group, a liberal group that literally follows a guide that outlines ways to resist President Trump and his ideas.”

Are protesters objecting to Sen. Rubio? To the Trump agenda? Do they see Rubio as an effective “check and balance” on the president that beat him by 20 points in his homestate presidential primary? Or do they see him as an exponent of Trump’s agenda?

These, apparently, are open questions.

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