Jax – Page 7 – Florida Politics

For Lenny Curry’s team, privatization of public resources is not a new concept

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry took office in 2015, and even before he officially took over in July, there were discussions of reforms of government services.

His transition committees discussed some concepts, and by the time Curry’s team settled into office, explorations continued on a conceptual level of privatizing or otherwise reforming the way services were contracted to improve ROI.

By the end of 2015, there was a clear understanding that the Curry administration was thinking along these lines. (In fact, privatization was one of this writer’s predictions for what would happen in 2016).

Former New York City Deputy Mayor Steve Goldsmith, one of America’s foremost experts on and exponents of municipal privatization, began communicating with Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa.

Goldsmith-style strategies have been credited with driving the Chamber Republican-driven boom in Oklahoma City by City Journal. OKC was the locale for a Jax Chamber Leadership Trip in late 2015.

By December 2015, Mousa met with members of Jacksonville’s City Council, and privatization was discussed, via “scrutinizing” department budgets, looking at what services are required, and a comparison to the private sector providing some services.

Mousa also noted in that meeting, regarding outsourcing and privatization, that there was a bill years ago to privatize garbage services. It was quashed in council when they buckled under pressure from employees and families.

In the writing business, that’s what we call foreshadowing.

This month, Curry’s office has been under a political firestorm for exploring privatization, as conceptually discussed years ago, and as discussed relative to JEA by key Curry supporter Tom Petway as he left the board in 2017.

The sticking point had to do with explorations of JEA privatization: specifically, requests for proposals for, as Council auditor Kyle Billy put it, “Financial Advisory Services that would be needed to solicit bids to purchase JEA, evaluate those bids, assist city staff in negotiations, and assist in bringing the transaction to financial and commercial close.”

Some members of Council have been in high dudgeon over this.

Mousa, for his part, frames the exploration as nothing new, and nothing particular to JEA.

“For the last two years,” Mousa wrote in an email to Billy, “the Administration has been approached by private equity providers and affiliated operating companies interested in either monetizing our City public infrastructure or entering into public/private partnerships for new City infrastructures. Infrastructure such as parking garages, airport, seaport, bridges, roadways and various other City public infrastructure have been presented for consideration.”

In other words, the concepts explored with Goldsmith are coming closer to fruition. Though one misconception of privatization is a transfer of ownership: in many cases, leases and public-private partnerships on operation of facilities or functions are, at least conceptually, possible.

In a conversation Friday, Curry defended the exploration of valuations, as “exploratory, on the record, has been for a couple of years,” and as a potential “opportunity to maximize tax dollars.”

The most extreme and visible example, of course, the valuation of JEA, which some council members have equated to having put up for sale already.

Curry’s take: that “we don’t know the value until we ask it, and how do you know if you’re afraid to ask questions.”

Some council members have said that the exploration of JEA privatization was a way of spackling over a lack of revenue to cover pension costs down the road. Jacksonville, tax-averse compared to peer cities, also faces high fixed costs and reserve levels too low to allow further improvement in the municipal bond ratings.

Curry “rejects the premise that we don’t have what we need to invest in priorities,” citing the current capital improvement budget as an example of the city’s sound financial footing.

Rather, those familiar with the thinking of the administration see explorations of privatization of certain services as an acknowledgment of the evolution of business and infrastructural models.

For example, in the case of JEA, electrical grids in this region were a patchwork of public utilities 50 years ago; today, big private entities surround JEA’s service region, and those entities have shareholder incentives to work effectively and quickly in delivering product to consumers.

When asked if electricity would be delivered differently in this region if JEA were to be privatized substantially, Curry said “public or private, I don’t envision things looking different.”

That is, if discussions got to that point. The administration has been consistent all along in saying that the City Council ultimately ratifies contracts, not the mayor’s office.

And in that process, protections could be rendered.

Rate freezes, protecting ratepayers, could be a negotiation point. So could protecting employees, keeping them on city pension plans and leasing their contracts to private operators.

Another consideration regarding JEA specifically: the leveling off of demand. This has been a concern in board meetings, and will continue to accelerate, especially on the electrical side.

Anheuser-Busch, for example, has figured out how to recycle water for use in its bottling plant. Elon Musk and others are exploring ways to use solar to get off the grid. It follows that companies and other big-ticket users will follow suit as the technology price point becomes more attractive.

Decades away? Or years away? It’s happening, regardless, and that will affect the JEA Contribution ($116.1 million, at last count), as richer ratepayers leave the system, which will be funded more and more by people who can’t get off the grid.

A recent move to privatization in Puerto Rico was extolled by the conservative Manhattan Institute recently.

Though direct parallels between Jacksonville’s functional system and the tragicomic PREPA probably shouldn’t be drawn, the article distills the case for privatization neatly.

“International evidence shows that privatized energy companies are more efficient than their publicly-owned counterparts. Reasons for outperformance are relatively straightforward, and center on the different incentives of government versus private-sector owners. Management is considerably more disciplined in achieving efficient operation when facing oversight from shareholders that seek to maximize the value of the enterprise rather than achieving diffuse and potentially conflicting social goals,” the Insitute asserts.

As well, “commercial owners can bring with them superior technical and managerial prowess. The privatization process sees those companies best placed to operate the utility able to deliver the highest bid and secure ownership. The market for corporate control then maintains a constant discipline on management to meet industry best practices, through the threat of takeover and displacement of under-performing management.”

Is that a model that Jacksonville taxpayers feel comfortable with?

The discourse currently has sentimentalized the status quo, leaving aside annual salary boosts and bonuses for the CEO and top executives to put forth a binary discourse, one characterized by not just an unwillingness to explore change, but an unwillingness to explore change.

The task before Curry’s policy and political team is to move the discussion beyond one of political intrigue to one of a rigorous cost/benefit analysis. Time will tell if the mayor has the political juice to get that done in an election season.

‘Coward’ attacks state lawmaker’s female aide; gun control debate to blame?

Tensions are high this week, as the debate over gun control and rights rages statewide.

One legislative staffer, Sadie Haire, district aide for Jacksonville Republican Jason Fischer, a supporter of the Second Amendment, got more than words from a gun control proponent.

“On Wednesday, a man – a coward really – forced himself into my district office in Jacksonville demanding that the Legislature ban ‘assault weapons’ and other firearms,” Fischer asserted on Facebook. “He then attacked my district aide and said he was trying to prove a point about ‘gun control.’”


Fischer related that the man came in upset about the failed attempt to get a ban on assault weapons considered in the House. He said the man demonstrated his outrage by “slamming [Haire] into the door violently.”

“This coward was inspired to violence by the political stunt that one of my colleagues pulled on Tuesday,” Fischer said. “There is no justification, political or otherwise, for violently attacking an innocent person.”

Fischer’s office didn’t have the best security. There was no camera system so that the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office could be given a picture, Fischer said.

The office is now closed, while Fischer figures out what can be done, he said. He said he’s reached out to the House sergeant-at-arms. Relocation options could include a private building with stronger security or a government building.

Fischer said this isn’t the first time someone has come into the office to confront staff, but this incident is different.

“I’m so upset he took [his anger] out on a young female staffer,” Fischer said.

As Florida continues to process the aftermath of Parkland and policy going forward, it’s clear that tensions are running high, and legislators and their staff might need better security than previously thought.

Jacksonville Bold for 2.23.18 — The Steamroller

On Wednesday, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry held a media event in which he and City Councilman Al Ferraro filled potholes in roads in a Northside industrial park.

Curry wanted to focus on the hard work being done, day in and day out, by city employees to maintain public infrastructure.

A laudable goal. Especially given where things have been lately.

Politics in Northeast Florida has been particularly parlous since the beginning of the year, as you will read below.

The Texas Death Match between Al Lawson and Alvin Brown. The No DQ tag match between those close to the Mayor and those on the side of the Council Resistance. The “JEA on the pole” match.

The prevailing image of the Curry event was the mayor on a steamroller.

Lenny Curry mans the steamroller.

Some quipped that it was apropos — symbolic of a political machine that overwhelms opposition as a matter of course.

Curry, the kind of Jacksonville public official who tweets from “On War” by Clausewitz, often uses these public works events as a “back to basics” reset when time or events riddle smooth narratives.

They are a reprieve from the heated narrative of February, spats with Council members, and the like.

They are what the business of running a city comes down to.

No one argues about the mechanics of filling potholes; yet, Tallahassee hasn’t figured out how to take away home rule for that local function.

The takeaway from the event: sometimes it’s nice to just get on the steamroller and smooth out the rough road.

Even if it’s hard to steer sometimes.

Blood money

More drama in the Democratic primary in Florida’s 5th Congressional District.

On Monday, as has been the case for weeks, challenger Brown laid into Rep. Lawson.

Parkland cast a shadow on the congressional race this week.

The former Jacksonville Mayor noted, via a media release, that Lawson was the sole Florida Democrat to take money from the National Rifle Association.

“Despite Rep. Al Lawson’s statement last week decrying the ‘stranglehold of the gun lobby,’ Rep. Al Lawson is just another Washington politician who has taken campaign contributions from the NRA in return for inaction on gun violence. Late last year, Lawson proudly took $2,500 from the NRA — making Lawson the only member of Florida’s Democratic delegation to accept money from the gun lobby.”

However, Lawson said he had NOT taken any NRA money.

Lawson responded Monday, saying flat out that Brown was “lying” about his record.

“Once again, Alvin Brown and his campaign are lying. Not only have I not taken any money from the National Rifle Association or any of its affiliates, [but] I also have scored a zero on issues important to the NRA,” Lawson began.

“If Mr. Brown did some actual research, he would see that there are no contributions from the NRA on my campaign report, or any expenditures from the NRA, or their political action committees to my campaign,” Lawson added, saying that “Brown is trying to use this national tragedy to fundraise and revive his failed political career.”

Lawson has a history of being friendlier to the gun lobby than many Democrats.

Will that matter in the August primary?

Lawson pans Trump’s ‘heartless’ budget

Lawson, who Brown is doing his best to link with President Donald Trump, panned POTUS’ proposed budget this weekend in the Florida Times-Union.

Al Lawson bashed the Donald Trump budget, but will it help him shake DINO charge from Alvin Brown?

The “irresponsible and extreme budget that would slash spending on Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, transportation and other essential government services, all while increasing the deficit …  hits our most vulnerable citizens the hardest, reflects a terrible disdain for working families, as well as a disheartening lack of vision for a stronger society.”

This editorial includes recurrent Lawson themes, including noting the high rate of poverty in Florida’s 5th Congressional District, and decrying proposed changes in the food stamps program.

The president proposed sending boxes of food to people instead of the SNAP disbursements.

Save the Date

Nancy Soderberg, a Democrat running in Florida’s 6th Congressional District, opens her campaign HQ in Daytona Sunday afternoon.

Nancy Soderberg is ramping up an impressive structure early in her congressional bid.

Soderberg recently hired a campaign manager and field director, and she is testing the theory that the seat currently held by gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis can be flipped.

Soderberg, who served as Ambassador to the United Nations during Bill Clinton’s presidency, has shown momentum since entering the race in summer 2017. She raised $207,949 last quarter, putting her above the $544,000 mark. She has $376,000 cash on hand.

While this does not give Soderberg the total cash on hand lead (Republican John Ward has $644,216 on hand), Soderberg will have the resources to be competitive.

In a quest for more resources, Soderberg has a DC fundraiser lined up for March 8. On hand: James Carville and Rep. Darren Soto.

Levine makes the scene

Former Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, a candidate for Governor, was in Jacksonville Monday evening to address Duval County Democrats.

Philip Levine was in Duval as part of his ’67-county strategy.’

Levine, on his second trip to Jacksonville in recent weeks, had a “living room” conversation earlier in the day. Even as Gwen Graham has a strong foothold in the area, what is clear is that Levine thinks Northeast Florida is in play as part of his “67 county strategy.”

“The message has been resonating … I’ve been to towns you’ve never heard of … with a message many Democrats has never heard before.”

That message: deliberately “pro-business.” Levine notes that corporate HR policies tend to be progressive.

“The only way we’re going to win a general election is to make purple … mix red and blue,” Levine said.

Read more here.

Constitutional conclave

The Constitution Revision Commission came to Jacksonville Tuesday for a marathon public hearing on the 37 proposals that are still live.

And some that weren’t, such as Proposal 22, perceived as an affront on abortion rights, and Proposal 62, which would allow for people to vote in primaries regardless of party identification. The green cards of support outweighed the red cards by a factor of 20.

Florida’s Constitutional Revision Commission visits the University of North Florida for public input.

“There are 3.4 million Floridians whose right to vote is denied,” said Jackie Bowman of St. Augustine on Proposal 62.

“To me, this looks like taxation without representation.”

Jackie Rock, a mosquito control commissioner from St. Johns County, bridged from closed primaries to consequences, noting that the Legislature did not pass an assault weapon ban, eliciting a gasp from the crowd.

The same held true for a nonexistent proposal to ban assault weapons. Anytime a speaker sounded that theme, the green cards flapped.

If there was a leitmotif to the six-hour meeting, it was a distinct lack of enthusiasm for proposals. Read more here.

Brown makes it official, challenges Gibson

The paperwork was filed Friday: Jacksonville City Councilman Reggie Brown threw down the gauntlet for a primary challenge against state Sen. Audrey Gibson.

Councilman Reggie Brown denies Mayor Lenny Curry put him up to running for Senate.

But Florida Politics readers knew already.

“I am running,” Brown said in mid-January.

And contrary to what some in Gibson’s orbit are saying, it’s Brown’s decision and his move to make.

Gibson — the Senate Democratic Leader-designate — would seem like an unlikely primary target.

She has been in elected office since the 1990s and gets donations from national corporations and political committees. Gibson carried $121,000 in her campaign account at the end of January.

Brown thinks he can bring more money to the district, however.

Gibson doesn’t want to talk about the challenge, which sets the stage for the most compelling primary race in Northeast Florida this year outside of the Brown/Lawson demolition derby for Congress.

Boys Club?

WJXT, typically a friendly outlet to Curry, postulated this week that his office may be a “boys club.”

Where the boys are: WJXT story goes in on the Lenny Curry machine.

The article focused on the aftermath of a conversation between Chief of Staff Brian Hughes and Council President Anna Brosche’s assistant, Jeneen Sanders, which led to Sanders saying she felt threatened.

The Office of General Counsel backed Hughes’ version of events, saying no laws were broken.

WJXT asserted that “some people” said they felt uncomfortable around Hughes after the initial charges were made.

The money quote: “One prominent Republican in Jacksonville who works outside of City Hall said that he’s ‘very headstrong’ and ‘a classic bully’ who can ‘get in a person’s face and invade their personal space.’”

Council President Anna Brosche, meanwhile, offered her own thoughts on the City Hall dynamic and a Florida Times-Union article that essentially mansplained Brosche off the dais.

Brosche asserted that ”if my name was Allen Brosche, I would not be receiving the kind of feedback some are offering me: Take the high road, understand he is a competitive person, learn to bite your tongue, and (repeatedly) don’t take things so personally.”

“The questions to the community, the media and leaders who want me to be quiet, to be nice,” Brosche added, “are:  Is competition among community leaders the best thing for Jacksonville? As a man, is Mayor Curry getting the same advice I am?”

Meanwhile, a mysterious poll is probing Brosche’s appeal versus Curry, leading to claims and counterclaims in the consultant set as to who is pushing this poll and why.

GOP gun control push?

Peter Rummell is among the leading names in Jacksonville’s Republican donor class, and he made news himself this weekend as part of a New York Times article detailing prominent GOP donors who no longer will back candidates who support assault weapons sales.

Peter Rummell wants a ‘debate’ on Second Amendment prerogatives in the GOP.

Rummell, described as “a Jacksonville-based donor who gave $125,000 to Jeb Bush’s ‘super PAC’ in 2016, said he was on board with Mr. Hoffman’s plan and would only contribute to candidates supportive of banning assault weapons.”

Rummell said, per the NYT, “the Parkland shooting was a turning point: ‘It has to start somewhere,’ Mr. Rummell said, of controlling guns.”

Rummell has donated majorly to candidates and causes in the Jacksonville area also, including but not limited to the last two successful mayoral campaigns and the pension reform referendum of 2016.

“Al Hoffman has made a bold and decisive statement and his ultimate point is we need to do something major and radical-nipping at the edges isn’t working. Starting is hard and he’s taken what he considers to be an important first step. And, I totally agree that we as a nation need to focus on laws that would create a safer world for all. I am not sure that starting with just an ‘ultimatum’ is the right first step,” Rummell told Florida Politics in a statement, drawing a subtle but important distinction between his position and the rhetorical absolutism of Hoffman’s as documented by the NYT.

“We need a plan, a strategy and tactics. Starting any process is hard — especially one that is as serious, complicated and emotional as this is. Now is the time for us to have a debate that is honest, thoughtful and complete, taking into account all the important issues about how we live practically under the Second Amendment, which I fully support. The discussion needs to end with real transformation and actionable items that bring about real reform, protections and change,” Rummell said.

Keep it 100?

The National Rifle Association endorsed Curry for Jacksonville Mayor in 2015, yet when we asked Curry about NRA support, he said he wasn’t in “100 percent alignment” with donors and supporters Wednesday.

“Not issue specific. Any supporter, any donor, any endorser, you’re not going to have 100 percent alignment on,” Curry said at a media availability.

“At least I don’t. They don’t expect that. They expect independent thinking,” Curry said of donors and endorsers.

The NRA endorsed Lenny Curry in 2015.

We asked Curry where he diverged from NRA positions; he offered no answer, potentially a reflection of the balancing act Republican politicians currently face with the gun lobby.

“I’m a constitutional conservative, believe in the rule of law, and the firearm issue is regulated at the federal and state level,” Curry said. “My commitment to public safety has been demonstrated in real investments and real actions here in Jacksonville.”

When asked about the assault weapon ban that the Florida House effectively voted down Tuesday, Curry said it was another example of a state regulation and offered no comment on the Republican legislators in this region who voted to not even give the bill a hearing.

“Recognizing that we are in very sad times right now, tragic times, I’m going to do what I can in Jacksonville to keep our city safe,” Curry said, citing his reforms of children’s programs via the Kids Hope Alliance as an example of such action.

Stormy weather

Reimbursements will come sooner or later for the city of Jacksonville from the federal government for Hurricanes Matthew and Irma.

Flooding was a major impact of Irma, and thus far Jacksonville’s general fund remains soaked.

Until then, however, the impact of the storms will be felt in the city’s general fund budget.

The Jacksonville City Council Auditor’s quarterly report for the final three months of 2017 puts the figures in sharp relief.

“The latest Hurricane Matthew projection estimates the financial impact will be approximately $45.1 million. As of Jan. 31, 2018, the City incurred expenditures of $28.0 million related to Hurricane Matthew,” the report contends.

“87.5 percent of the total allowable expenses are subject to reimbursement, leaving the City to fund the remainder. The fiscal year 2017/18 approved budget includes an appropriation of $7.0 million from the GF/GSD to cover the City’s estimated obligation,” the report adds.

Irma is worse: the fiscal impact will be approximately $86.4 million, with no less than a $10.8 million charge to the city even if all reimbursements come through.

With slow reimbursements, one wonders if the discussion of reserve levels will be a more forceful one this summer.

The city has already been dinged by analysts for high fixed costs. These, combined with a reluctance to hike taxes, are leading influencers and policymakers to take a hard look at JEA privatization, which could net the city $3 to $6 billion.

Meanwhile, the city has worries regarding increasing interest rates and the equity market volatility of recent weeks.

Conditions to JEA sale for Curry

While on the JEA subject, Curry tells the Florida Times-Union that he’s not, contrary to opinion in some quarters, married to a JEA sale.

Lenny Curry continues to maintain public agnosticism toward utility sale.

Curry said: “There’s a whole lot of questions that would have to be answered.”

“From my perspective, I would not be supportive of anything that took a lump sum of cash in any scenario — JEA or anything else — and spent it,” Curry said. “Future generations and future taxpayers always have to be protected … people working at JEA need to be protected as well, and their families honored.”

The sale could net the city $3 billion to $6 billion, though there is a lot of salesmanship ahead between Curry and members of Council.

On Tuesday, Council President Anna Brosche took a proactive measure, setting up a special committee that will run through June looking at the issue.

She believes that if the proposal is sound it will survive scrutiny. And she, along with other skeptics, will be on the panel.

More skepticism abounds: the city’s ethics commission wants to firm up rules to avert the temptations and potential abuses of the sale process, should it go forward.

JEA straw poll bill coming, and so are ‘bounties’?

Jacksonville City Councilman Garrett Dennis is introducing a bill that would force a straw poll on JEA privatization, he said this week at a meeting of the Duval Democrats.

Garrett Dennis is a marked man, he says, by the Mayor’s office.

Privatization, Dennis said, would be “bad for our city … a cover for a shortfall for a bad pension plan that we were all duped into passing.”

Also of note: Dennis claims there is a “bounty” on five Council members from the mayor’s office.

“The mayor, who we all know is a bully, has bounties on five Council members’ heads.”

Those Councilors: President Anna Brosche and Danny Becton, two Republicans, along with Democrats Dennis, Reggie Gaffney and Katrina Brown.

Dennis, Becton, and Brosche are all on the JEA privatization committee.

‘Senseless violence’ again on Jacksonville streets

Seven-year-old Tashawn Gallon was gunned down in Durkeeville Sunday night. Per the Florida Times-Union, he died hours after being shot in a drive-by.

Curry took to Twitter hours later.

“Last night a 7 yr old was killed in a drive-by shooting in our city. We must come together as a community and stop this senseless violence to give our kids a sense of hope and peace.”

Durkeeville, a rough neighborhood for decades now, is on the periphery of Downtown Jacksonville.

“This happened Less than 2 miles from City Hall, Within 2 miles of our government and churches and schools and FSCJ and firehouses and sheriff substations, all institutions designed to help keep a community safe and allow kids the security to grow and learn how to make choices and follow dreams,” Curry continued.

“In the shadow of all that opportunity and assistance, a 7 yr old had life stolen by someone so hopeless and directionless that they didn’t hesitate to recklessly turn our streets into a war zone. We have to break through to these young people. We have to find a way to make them recognize there is so much more for them than they can imagine, if they choose to believe in hope and peace.”

Small children being shot: a running theme in Jacksonville homicides, and something that Curry has all too routinely had to address during his two-and-a-half years in office.

Fishweir Creek to be swimmable, fishable again

A Jacksonville creek restoration project awaited by Avondale area residents for over a decade is finally on the verge of a City Council green light.

Clearing committees Tuesday and Wednesday: a bill (2018-8) to move forward on the restoration of Big Fishweir Creek.

Making Big Fishweir Creek great again.

Urbanization and development over the course of decades made the tributary inhospitable to swimming and fishing, per the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The USACE outlines some benefits to the project. Included among them, making the creek “swimmable and fishable,” creating a navigable habitat for the still endangered manatee, improving water quality generally, and creation of a marsh island.

The project is estimated to cost $6,549,000; the city of Jacksonville has appropriated $2,566,375, with the USACE picking up the other 65 percent of the tab. If the federal contribution goes up, the local share will do likewise. The federal cap is $10 million.

Construction is expected in 2019.


A Jacksonville City Council candidate left the Public Service Grants Council this month, while the head of sports and entertainment also moved on.

The TaxSlayer Bowl will be someone else’s problem this year, with Dave Herrell gone.

Tameka Gaines Holly, running in District 8 to replace fellow Democrat Katrina Brown, resigned the PSG by email.

The candidate leads the money race: she posted $10,800 in January — her first month as an active candidate. Holly is the cash on hand leader, with candidates Diallo-Sekou Seabrooks and Albert Wilcox each under $2,000 on hand.

Also out the door: Dave Herrell, after almost four years handling Jacksonville sports and entertainment.

Herrell was responsible in a previous role for elevating the status of the Fiesta Bowl; however, the TaxSlayer Bowl was not particularly raised in his term.

Budget hearings between Herrell’s department and the Mayor’s senior staff, at times, were contentious, with Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa and others questioning the necessity for the department as it was constituted.

Herrell’s Resignation Letter indicates that, while the resignation is effective April 10, the actual departure date was Feb. 9.

Endorsement watch

Katie Dearing is unopposed in her bid for 4th Circuit judge. And every sheriff in the circuit backs her.

In addition to being supported by sheriffs, Katie Dearing’s nuclear family backs her as well.

“Katie is highly respected by her peers and the law enforcement community. She brings a wealth of experience and courtroom knowledge as well as practical wisdom. I proudly endorse her for Circuit Judge,” said Sheriff Darryl Daniels of Clay County.

Sheriff Mike Williams called Dearing “qualified, capable, and caring and she will be an asset to the judiciary.” And Sheriff Bill Leeper of Nassau “heartily endorse[s]” the candidate.

UNF names new leader

Jacksonville’s University of North Florida has a new president.

The UNF Board of Trustees selected University of Cincinnati business-school dean David Szymanski to become the school’s sixth president.

David Szymanski is the new president of UNF.

Szymanski currently serves as dean of the Carl H. Lindner College of Business and a professor of marketing at the University of Cincinnati. The board authorized Chairman Kevin Hyde to negotiate a contract with Szymanski, whose appointment also is subject to confirmation by the state university system’s Board of Governors.

Anonymous gift brings special ed school closer to new campus

An anonymous $1.5 million gift has helped the North Florida School of Special Education get significantly closer toward a new campus.

The donation brought the school to $5 million of its $6 million goal in a three-year “Angel of the Woods” fundraising campaign. The new campus will be called The Christy and Lee Smith Lower School Campus and Therapeutic Center.

A rendering of The Christy and Lee Smith Lower School Campus and Therapeutic Center.

“This is a beautiful tribute,” school head Sally Hazelip told circlecharityregister.com. “The gift honors our past and helps plant the seeds for our future; we are so thankful for this donor’s generosity.”

The campaign is for the facility to build a 32,000-square-foot facility and a Therapeutic Equestrian Center on 5 acres of land bestowed to the school in 2014 by the Ida Mae Stevens Foundation and Doug Milne, trustee. One of the first donations to the campaign was a $1 million gift from Delores Barr Weaver to name the Therapeutic Equestrian Center.

The Smiths were among the first four families who founded the school in 1992. The school’s current Anderson Smith Campus is named after their son.

Groundbreaking is set for fall 2018 with a targeted completion sometime in 2019. The new buildings will join the current 9,000-square-foot classroom structure on the 3-acre campus at 223 Mill Creek Road. When finished, the school will cover 41,000 square feet over 8 acres.

Jax driverless vehicle prototype passes first on-road test

Soon, driverless vehicles will begin having a profound change on Jacksonville streets.

“This is not a question of if. It’s a question of when,” said Jacksonville Transportation Authority CEO Nat Ford to Action News Jax.

Rosalie Simcoe was one of the riders on a prototype autonomous vehicle operated by Transdev tested on the Easy Mile this week.

“It was incredible. It was very smooth,” Simcoe told reporter Jenna Bourne. “I felt very safe.”

It was the same type of vehicle that soon will be seen Jacksonville streets and the Skyway. Ford expects the infrastructure conversion to support autonomous vehicles on the Skyway to take five about years.

“This vehicle here is the one that we currently have on our test track over by EverBank Stadium,” Ford explained. “And we’ll be running that vehicle for the next few months and then we’ll swap out, every so many other manufacturers’ vehicles.

“So, we’re in a test and learn phase.”

White the model tested can travel up to 28 miles an hour, for the demonstration – at the University of North Florida – it only traveled about 10 miles an hour.

As for safety, the demonstration had a person step in front of the vehicle, which came to a full stop until he moved away.

Bricklayers and craftworkers back Nancy Soderberg for Congress

Nancy Soderberg, a Democrat running to replace outgoing Rep. Ron DeSantis in Florida’s 6th Congressional District, rolled out a union endorsement Thursday afternoon.

The International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers (BAC) described Soderberg as having the potential to be a “powerful voice for working families in Congress” in its endorsement.

“Our campaign could not be more honored to receive the endorsement of a Union that has been fighting for workers since 1865 and represents over 75,000 members,” said Soderberg. “The International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers protects the rights of their highly-skilled workers, and fights to ensure living wages and safe working conditions, values we as Americans share. As the next Congresswoman for District Six, I commit to fighting for living wages and protecting our working families.”

Soderberg, the all-but-certain Democratic nominee in the district that runs from southern St. Johns County through Volusia, is showing momentum in her campaign.

She opens her campaign HQ in Daytona Sunday afternoon, and she recently hired a campaign manager and field director, both signs that she is earnestly testing the theory that the seat currently held by gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis can be flipped.

Soderberg, who served as Ambassador to the United Nations during Bill Clinton’s presidency, has shown momentum since entering the race in summer 2017. She raised $207,949 last quarter, putting her above the $544,000 mark. She has $376,000 cash on hand.

While this does not give Soderberg the total cash on hand lead (Republican John Ward has $644,216 on hand), Soderberg will have the resources to be competitive.

In a quest for more resources, Soderberg has a DC fundraiser lined up for March 8. On hand: James Carville and Rep. Darren Soto.

Jacksonville City Council moves to ensure voter input into any JEA sale

For the second straight week, Jacksonville City Council members mulled ongoing efforts to privatize JEA.

The narrative has gotten rockier for the administration of Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry in recent weeks, with poison pills preceding each Council conclave.

Just as the meeting to discuss the valuation report was presaged with the Council President saying Curry’s chief of staff wanted immediate legislation to push a sale forward, Thursday’s meeting came hours after revelations that members of the administration had sidestepped Council and procurement code and pushed out an RFP for companies that had experience with transactions.

Complicating the narrative further: the company that conducted the valuation report was also handling the RFP.

Council members, including three on the special committee formed by the Council President, were roiled by the tactics.

Thursday saw Councilman John Crescimbeni put forth two draft bills, each of which would offer voter input before moving forward.

One bill would have a referendum to approve any sale of 10 percent of more of JEA that Council committed to, similar to the Better Jacksonville Plan; the other one would set up a straw ballot on the November ballot (a bill similar to the measure filed by Councilman Garrett Dennis this week, for the August ballot).

“What happens if this goes to the voters? Somebody will launch a marketing campaign,” Crescimbeni predicted.

“If this gets approved in November, everybody running for office will be asked. If somebody expresses an opinion different from this straw ballot, they will not be elected,” Crescimbeni added.

Councilman Dennis described his bill as a simple “yes/no” question, in light of persistent feedback he’s gotten of opposition to the sale.

Dennis noted transparency and trust issues with the administration.

“I read where the Council President said ‘this doesn’t pass the smell test’,” Dennis said, offering to sub Crescimbeni’s bills for his if needed.

Council President Anna Brosche offered to make the sub effective on the addendum on Tuesday night’s Council meeting.

It will be in the regular, 6 week legislative cycle.

Mark Ziegler becomes second Republican to enter race to replace Jay Fant in HD 15

The long-awaited competitive Republican primary in Jacksonville’s House District 15 is now a reality, with yacht broker Mark Zeigler entering the race Thursday.

Incumbent Jay Fant is currently running for Attorney General.

Zeigler’s rationale for running: “We need more people who understand the impact that the rules made in Tallahassee have on our small businesses. Every time a tax is increased or a new regulation is passed, it raises costs on our businesses and makes it more difficult for jobs to be created.”

Zeigler enters the HD 15 race with Bert Ralston as his political consultant, and will take on Wyman Duggan (whose consultant is Tim Baker, who handles Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry in this market).

Duggan has had steady fundraising. $5,350 of new money in January brought Duggan over $109,000 raised, with approximately $95,000 of that cash on hand.

The entrant of a second Republican in the primary is good news for Tracye Polson, a first-time Democratic candidate running unopposed for the party’s nomination.

Polson has raised $135,347 between hard money and her political committee, with over $91,000 COH.

A lot of Polson’s money ($55,000) is self-financed, and more of it comes from out of the area than is the case with Duggan; however, with the Democratic field clear, Polson can take the high road in what certainly will be a bloodbath of a primary.

The last competitive primary in this district: 2014’s special election, which was a bloodbath between Fant and Paul Renner.

Fant won by two votes, spending $647,000 to win, with $374,000 self-financed.

Latest JEA sale revelations roil Jacksonville City Council

Did the mayor’s office move toward a sale of Jacksonville’s utility before Council had a chance to weigh in?

And what does that mean for the process going forward?

A profound rift has emerged between Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and the City Council on the question of JEA privatization. And, say some Councilors, existential questions loom about the way forward.

It sets the stage for what will be a heated public notice meeting at 2:30 at City Hall.

The latest developments, reported Wednesday night by multiple media outlets including the Florida Times-Union: Requests for proposals for, as Council auditor Kyle Billy put it: “Financial Advisory Services that would be needed to solicit bids to purchase JEA, evaluate those bids, assist city staff in negotiations, and assist in bringing the transaction to financial and commercial close.”

Billy “thought it was unusual because it appears to be a City of Jacksonville RFO, but the responses were not coming to the city. The responses were to be returned to PFM.”

PFM is Public Financial Management: the same private company that conducted a valuation study that, per Council President Anna Brosche, was intended to facilitate emergency legislation to push sale efforts forward.

The RFP, as reported first by News 4 Jax, had a January 15 deadline for proposals, which ask for detailed information on facilitating “complex financial transactions” between parties, including the “lease, sale, and disposition of city assets.” There is a scoring matrix.

Sources say that parties such as Goldman Sachs, Ernst and Young, and JP Morgan are involved, but we have yet to see the responses, some of which allegedly directly address an ability to facilitate utility transactions.

Administration members pushed back: Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa said that “for the last two years, the Administration has been approached by private equity providers and affiliated operating companies interested in either monetizing our City public infrastructure or entering into public/private partnerships for new City infrastructures. Infrastructure such as parking garages, airport, seaport, bridges, roadways and various other City public infrastructure have been presented for consideration.”

However, as a special committee prepares to ramp up regarding the exploration of JEA privatization, it is notable that Council members have questions about the process, which they are beginning to see as circumventing the ordinance code (as the procurement head was looped out of the process) and Council’s prerogatives as the legislative body.

Council President Brosche voiced concerns Thursday morning.

“The terms of the RFP in question line up a little too closely with the potential sale of JEA.  I am perplexed by a number of things,” Brosche asserted, “not the least of which is that such RFP was not issued through the City of Jacksonville’s Procurement Department.”

“While I have learned the Finance Department is legally allowed to do so, that this RFP exists and how it was handled raises questions about who is really driving this bus.  I look forward to getting answers to the many questions I have,” Brosche added.

In the context of ongoing revelations, Brosche questions the ability even to have a good faith consideration of the proposition.

“I have a lot of questions.  There have been multiple instances so far where I have felt we put the cart before the horse and it appears we have another glaring example of the same.  I am committed to ensuring this exploration travels through a path of transparency and to protecting the citizens and their hard-earned taxpayer dollars.  In light of these developments,” Brosche said, “it is becoming increasingly difficult to have an honest discussion regarding the merits of a potential sale and the benefits a potential sale may bring to the community.”

Other Council colleagues on the special committee, including a former rival for the Council presidency in John Crescimbeni, echo these concerns.

Crescimbeni noted that the responses to the RFP were “sought and collected” before the City Council was even considering the question of a sale and that the latest revelations are potentially “polluting the waters,” raising “transparency” questions, and precluding a discussion of the sale on its merits.

Crescimbeni holds to his position that voters should participate in the decision.

Councilman Garrett Dennis, who filed a bill this week to have an August straw ballot on the question of a JEA sale, likewise has “more questions than answers.”

Dennis likewise questions the transparency, saying it appears that “citizens and the City Council have been lied to” by the Mayor’s Office, which he adds has a history of attacking Council members that stand athwart its plans and proposals.

“What if there had been a bill and it had been an in and out emergency? We would have a private company owning JEA right now,” Dennis said, describing this move as an attempt toward “the biggest heist in history in Jacksonville.”

Dennis believes that the administration exploited a “rubber stamp” mentality on the questions of the Kids Hope Alliance and pension reform, and became emboldened to “do whatever whenever they want to do it.”

The gap between demonstrated reality and Mayor Curry’s declared agnosticism on a potential sale also nettles Dennis, who asserts that Curry’s “lost credibility” and wonders how the mayor can govern given these questions about the JEA process.

“I hope I’m not the only Council member thinking ‘what else’ [is next],” Dennis added.

Another committee member, Danny Becton, shares many of the same concerns, even as he tries to reserve judgment.

“Being a member of the Special Committee regarding the Potential Sale of JEA, I am leaving my views and opinions open concerning the recent and past developments of the issue; allowing me to gather the facts of what has happened, who might or might not be involved and to get a clearer picture of what ethical questions need to be put forward,” Becton said.

“In the interim,” Becton added, “I will state that I do find the recently received information troubling in regard to the transparency and repeated statements of culpability related to the underlying issue, how this issue has been portrayed and folks being disparaged so far in this process. Public trust and confidence is paramount and, on the surface, the perception of what is being seen here is concerning.”

There are those who claim that people in Mayor Curry’s political orbit are helping to lobby Council members, though aren’t registered to do so.

Perhaps in that context, the city’s ethics director seeks to tighten the code to prevent undue influence.

For prominent Jacksonville Republicans, it’s impossible to buck the NRA

As the push for gun control measures grips the state of Florida, attention has turned to the positions of Northeast Florida Republicans.

Despite the carnage in Parkland, and the unprecedented activism in its wake, Republicans in the Jacksonville region aren’t evolving on the matter of assault weapons bans.

The latest example: 4th Circuit State Attorney Melissa Nelson.

Florida Politics reached out to Nelson’s office in Jacksonville over the weekend for her position on whether assault weapons should be banned or not. After what was represented to us as a delay in getting the email coupled with work on a capital murder trial further delaying response, we got our answer from Nelson’s spokesman, David Chapman.

“As state attorney, Melissa Nelson is not a lawmaker — she is responsible for upholding the laws of this state. This issue is best left to elected lawmakers. The State Attorney’s Office will continue to work with law enforcement to prevent tragedies like Parkland.”

Nelson, of course, was endorsed by the National Rifle Association just days after launching her challenge in the Republican primary to Angela Corey.

“I am humbled to have the support of the men and women of the NRA and Unified Sportsmen of Florida,” said Nelson. “Like them, I am committed to defending our constitutional liberties and upholding the rule of law.”

In the wake of Nelson’s victory in a campaign which brought many NPAs and even Democrats to the GOP primary to vote against Corey, her then-spokesman Brian Hughes noted that Nelson’s victory was not a “success of the left,” and that Nelson is a “conservative Republican.”

Nelson is the second prominent Jacksonville politician in two days to struggle with NRA questions in the wake of the Parkland massacre and an unprecedented surge of anti-assault weapon activism.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, when asked about the NRA backing him for Mayor, reframed the question as a general proposition regarding not having “100 percent alignment” with “donors and endorsers.”

Curry noted that assault weapons bans are the province of federal and state legislators, not locals, and didn’t advance a position.

One politician who isn’t struggling with NRA questions: Rep. Jay Fant,  a candidate for Attorney General.

Fant, who last week said the push for gun control was a manifestation of liberal fake news, found himself in what some would consider the crucible of liberal commentary: Meet the Press Daily on MSNBC Wednesday, in what was far and away the most valuable earned media that the campaign has gotten (nearly $80,000 per 30 seconds).

“I would not support a gun ban — it is part of the package because gun bans don’t work in preventing these types of crimes,” Fant said. “Gun bans don’t keep criminals from getting guns.”

“Gun bans aren’t helpful in this discussion because it is incumbent upon us to find ways to protect these kids. and gun bans don’t keep criminals from getting guns. It prevents law-abiding citizens from getting guns but not the criminals,” Fant said.

Following Fant in the segment: Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, a Democrat running for Governor.

Levine said that Fant, and other politicians, were chasing “NRA money” and didn’t want to get “cut off” by proposing a ban.

Jacksonville lobbying, ‘dark money’ rules under scrutiny with JEA sale in play

Not too many weeks ago, the Jacksonville City Council confirmed Carla Miller to be head ethics officer for three more years.

Miller will be in the role during a pivotal time in Jacksonville history: an exploration of JEA privatization, with a potential sale in the offing that could net the city $3 to $6 billion … and could make those involved in engineering the deal considerably richer as well.

Additionally, there are those who wonder if termed out politicians and lobbyists will be in a position to profit after the fact.

In that context, a meeting of the legislative subcommittee of the Jacksonville Ethics Commission Wednesday afternoon was notable: a discussion of revising the city’s ethics code, which has some provisions going back 40 years … a lifetime in the world of influence peddling and campaign finance.

The timing couldn’t have been better. The JEA Board will workshop the concept. The Jacksonville City Council will have its own special committee on the topic. And, though it’s early in the game, the Florida Times-Union already is pushing for an exploration of the sale.

With all of these different actors, and a process that will be sprawling if it proceeds, an examination of ethics code revisions was in order.

“The biggest issue in the city right now is the potential sale of JEA,” Miller said. “Is our code adequate?”

With city elections looming, there are temptations for blurrings of lines, in this “unique time period where people who are termed out, looking for new things to do … a clump of people coming in … and a multi-billion dollar decision.”

Chair Mary Bland Love noted that the committee has some “self-teaching” to do on code.

“This JEA thing is a way to [see] if the code [suits] a multibillion dollar decision,” Love said, noting the JEA and Council workshops, and other community groups gauging the concept.

“Our lobbying code provisions are inadequate generally, and particularly inadequate in terms of [the JEA decision],” Miller said, citing “revolving door” issues with people promised jobs after employment.

“Do we let that occur?” Miller asked.

“Political action committees will be very active in the next year,” Miller predicted, with the election and JEA messaging, and discrepancies between financial disclosures at the state and local level.

527 issues — direct mail, especially funded by “dark money“: also a significant issue, especially given how these communiques come from third party committees and the money is untraceable.

As is the $100 gift limit, easily circumvented via a contribution to a political action committee.

“There are no restrictions,” Miller said, when a donor decides to cut a check.

Unregistered lobbyists: another issue Miller identified, along with other occlusions of transparency. Some lobbyists exploit loopholes, saying they weren’t being paid on a given day.

“We’re really lacking in the lobbying area … not up to the standards of other cities,” Miller remarked.

Subcommittee members were cautious of a focus on the JEA sale; Miller noted these issues related to influence peddling recur with big ticket issues.

“The stakes are very high,” Miller said. “If we’re going to do this kind of stuff, let’s do it now while it will make a difference on a multi-billion dollar contract.”

“If we’re not going to make [rules] effective on stuff like this,” Miller continued, “what’s the point?”

This process would take months, between going through the ethics commission process, then the six-week legislative cycle.

The subcommittee will consider these issues again in a few weeks.

About NRA backing, Lenny Curry isn’t ‘100 percent aligned’ with donors, supporters

The National Rifle Association endorsed Lenny Curry for Jacksonville Mayor in 2015, yet when we asked Curry about NRA support, he said he wasn’t in “100 percent alignment” with donors and supporters on Wednesday.

“Not issue specific. Any supporter, any donor, any endorser, you’re not going to have 100 percent alignment on,” Curry said at a media availability.

“At least I don’t. They don’t expect that. They expect independent thinking,” Curry said of donors and endorsers.

We asked Curry where he diverged from NRA positions; he offered no answer, potentially a reflection of the balancing act Republican politicians are facing with the gun lobby currently.

“I’m a Constitutional conservative, believe in the rule of law, and the firearm issue is regulated at the federal and state level,” Curry said. “My commitment to public safety has been demonstrated in real investments and real actions here in Jacksonville.”

When asked about the assault weapon ban that the Florida House effectively voted down Tuesday, Curry said that was another example of a state regulation, and offered no comment on the Republican legislators in this region who voted to not even give the bill a hearing.

“Recognizing that we are in very sad times right now, tragic times, I’m going to do what I can in Jacksonville to keep our city safe,” Curry said, citing his reforms of children’s programs via the Kids Hope Alliance as an example of such action.

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