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City of Jacksonville to council woman’s business: pay up the $210K you owe us

A letter from the city of Jacksonville’s Office of Economic Development to the family business of Councilwoman Katrina Brown demanded repayment for economic incentive money that didn’t create jobs.

On Jan. 5, a Certified Letter was sent from OED to CoWealth, LLC, noting that the city received the “required annual surveys” for 2012 to 2015, in which the company was supposed to create jobs at a Northwest Jacksonville barbecue sauce plant.

However, said the city, no jobs were created.

“Therefore,” said the city, “the full balance of the Northwest Jacksonville Economic Development Fund grant, $210,549.99, must be repaid.”

OED wants payment in full within 60 days of the letter.

The alternative: setting up a payment schedule within 30 days.

Brown’s family businesses have had other issues as well, including delinquent sales tax remittances and delayed property tax payments.

The barbecue sauce plant, meanwhile, was raided last month by the FBI, state, and local agencies, though the exact reason for that raid is not known to media.

Bad press has plagued Brown’s familial business interests of late.

CoWealth LLC, which has been in the news for failing to fulfill job creation goals for a Westside Jacksonville BBQ sauce plant for which the company secured $590,000 in loans and grants from the city, finally paid its 2015 property taxes on December 30.

CoWealth also is in trouble with the Small Business Association.

The Florida Times-Union reported that “CoWealth received a $2.65 million loan from a Louisiana bank. That loan was backed by the Small Business Administration, whose Office of Inspector General was among the agencies that went to the Commonwealth Avenue building two weeks ago” for a multi-jurisdictional raid involving federal, state, and local authorities.

Brown’s family business enterprises seem to have struggled with revenue problems for a couple of years now.

Even during her successful city council campaign of 2015, delinquent property taxes became an issue.

Lenny Curry sweetens pension offer to Jacksonville police, gives 30 days to respond

The city of Jacksonville and its police union resumed collective bargaining for the first time since November on Tuesday, with the sides starting far apart.

The daylight between labor and management was significant as last year closed.

There’s less daylight after the Wednesday session. The city made an improved offer, one which offers a bigger city match on the defined contribution deal for new hires and gives current employees more money and restored benefits.

But there’s a catch: the city gave the police union 30 days to accept it, or the offer is dead.

Fire union negotiations are slated for later this afternoon; a reasonable expectation is that similar terms will be offered.

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To move negotiations into a different posture, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry was in attendance with opening remarks at a meeting that saw the parking lot of the Fraternal Order of Police building full even half an hour before the 10 a.m. negotiating session commenced.

Curry offered opening remarks; his chief lieutenants, CFO Mike Weinstein and CAO Sam Mousa, stayed behind, along with the general counsel, Jason Gabriel.

In those opening remarks, Curry outlined a considerably enhanced package of defined contribution benefits for new hires, with a city match of 25 percent approaching the FRS mandated contribution of 29 percent.

The plan would be vested in five years for new hires.

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Police union head Steve Zona noted that the union worked with the mayor “in the trenches” to sell the pension reform referendum option, with Zona saying the union thought the mayor understood that public safety merited compensation.

“All the time, the Florida Retirement System was on the table,” Zona said, before showing a video with Curry saying “I’m going to honor the agreements we have” and that 401K plans for police forces in the state “would not work for officers.”

“I’ve come to the conclusion that 401Ks will not work,” Curry said in the video from the 2015 campaign endorsement process regarding current employees.

A second video saw Curry say “if you want to attract the best, you have to be competitive” and that “pension plans” are necessary.

“The public doesn’t understand what I’ve said because a mayor has never said it,” Curry said in the video, vowing to “try to educate in meetings and conversations.”

Zona said, then, “you said you’d be willing to stand alone and educate the public, and that hasn’t been done.”

“Put FRS on the table,” Zona said, “and let’s get the deal done.”

Zona then cited Florida Politics quoting the mayor as saying a 401k plan would “set the stage” for 401K discussions beyond Jacksonville.

Curry then offered remarks, noting investments in human and physical capital in his first two budgets.

Then Curry floated a new offer: a 3 percent bonus, a 20 percent pay hike in three years, and full restoration of all benefits taken away from officers in 2015, including an 8.4 percent “return on DROP guaranteed” and a 3 percent COLA.

Curry then noted that his comments in 2015 were intended to address the issues for current officers, not new hires.

“A defined contribution plan that looks like nothing anyone has ever seen for new hires,” Curry said, with a 25 percent city investment from day 1, and a fully vested plan within five years.

That plan would have the same disability and death benefit that the current plan has.

“This is a rich plan that will attract and retain people.”

“Since I’ve been in office,” Curry said, “I’ve put my money where my mouth is.”

Zona endorsed the wage proposal and the benefit restoration pitch, saying though that the “new hires” is a different matter.

“When it’s you mayor, or another mayor attacking the benefits of new hires, you watch the attrition rates go through the roof,” Zona said.

Curry noted that statute requires collective bargaining every three years, and that even a defined benefit plan has attendant risk.

“This is not a 401k as would be defined in the private sector,” Curry reiterated of his plan. “It is rich. It will work.”

Curry noted that FRS would be even more expensive, with a 29 percent city match, and a lack of local control.

“I like local control,” Curry said to media after he left the room for a gaggle.

Notable: Curry’s plan, with restoration of pre-2015 benefits for current employees, would reverse a great deal of the 2015 pension reform.

Nine percent of the FRS hit, Mousa said later, was unfunded liability.

“We’re far exceeding FRS,” Mousa said.

****

Negotiations resumed shortly before 11 a.m.

General Counsel Jason Gabriel, when asked about the 2015 deal, cautioned that it wasn’t a seven-year deal.

“There was provision for a waiver of unilaterally altering benefits for seven years,” Gabriel said, but that didn’t supersede state statute requiring terms not exceeding three years.

“The seven years is something that we need to be careful when we discuss that,” Gabriel said. “The collective bargaining agreement needs to be for a term of three years.”

Police negotiators sought a 20 year guarantee for men and women on the current force.

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The city presented written proposals for police and corrections, and for judicial officers and bailiffs.

The police proposal was the 3 percent lump sum hike and the 20 percent raise phased in over three years, with DROP return guaranteed at 8.4 percent and a 3 percent COLA bump.

Judicial officers and bailiffs got the same 3 percent lump sum bump, and a 14 percent pay raise phased in over three years for judicial officers, and a 12 percent hike for bailiffs.

All new employee groups would have fully-vested defined contribution plans, via a 25 percent city contribution.

The proposal would supersede all previous agreements, a city negotiator said.

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Zona noted that a provision of the deal is that, if the sales surtax is overturned, the city won’t have the money to deliver.

CFO Weinstein noted that “if one piece of the puzzle falls out, we have to revisit” the pension deal.

The surtax is needed to fund the plan; the city sees it as “highly unlikely” that the surtax would be overturned.

The impact would be a re-opening of the wage discussions.

Zona saw the escape clause as an “out for the city,” and the couple of hundred officers in the crowd stirred as the city again tried to reiterate its position.

 “If it’s that unlikely it’s going to occur,” Zona said, the city needs to “shoulder risk” and insert a clause guaranteeing the city commitment to officers for 20 years.

CAO Mousa noted that the city has to redo actuarial studies, among other “significant work,” before Oct. 1 to “take advantage of the process” and access the revenue stream.

“If there are any delays that keep us from getting to council in time, we’ll have to wait a whole another year,” Mousa said, noting that legislation needs to pass.

Zona noted that a 30 day time frame may not be tantamount to “bargaining in good faith.”

“That may be some sort of violation of collective bargaining,” Zona noted.

Mousa pushed back, saying the union knows “exactly what the numbers are and where they lay.”

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After another caucus, Mousa reiterated the city position: “nothing other than wages” would be required to be re-negotiated if the sales tax fell through.

“It’s our problem to afford it,” Mousa said,

 The city again stressed the urgency of meeting the thirty day time frame.

Zona contended that the cost of the proposed plan is very close to that of FRS, especially with a Social Security contribution added.

“We wouldn’t have made an offer today,” Mousa said, “if we couldn’t afford it … if it wasn’t fair and reasonable … to the taxpayers.”

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Zona produced another video toward the end of the meeting, where Curry said the media “demonized” the police union as “fat cats.”

Then another video, where Curry said Mayor Brown “has failed to deal with the pension in a serious way.”

Curry, in the video, said that he wouldn’t “tolerate” police being attacked in the press.

“We showed the videos for a reason … our members haven’t seen those videos. The public hasn’t seen those videos,” Zona said.

“Everybody needed to see those videos so people would understand why we’re taking the position we’re taking. We’re told one thing by the mayor,” Zona said, yet “information was not shared with us,” even as the union helped to sell the pension reform referendum of 2016.

“Where’s the data? What’s the reasoning to change your mind?”

Zona’s question was rhetorical.

But the conflict wasn’t.

For his part, Mousa said “it’s going to take a lot more than these videos to embarrass the mayor.”

Mousa reiterated the “time and effort” put in the mayor’s plan, adding that more formal actuarial studies are needed to come up with a shared set of assumptions.

“If we don’t come to an agreement, we won’t have final actuaries,” Mousa added.

Both sides want to “get out of the risk business,” Zona said.

But the problem isn’t the destination, but the conveyance.

Lenny Curry previews 2017 agenda at Meninak meeting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jobs: another talking point.

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

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

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

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

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

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Questions from the audience came next.

Among them: a question about sluggish downtown recovery.

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

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

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

****

Related: a discussion of the Jacksonville Landing.

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

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

“The Landing is embarrassing,” Curry affirmed.

“Embarrassing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

Would Curry accept a federal solution?

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

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

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

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

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The HRO came up next.

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

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

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

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

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Curry was asked about running for re-election.

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

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

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Deepening the port came up also.

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

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

Ft. Lauderdale massacre caps a miserable week for the military

Last week’s news was overstuffed with upsetting reports about the mental health of military people. And that was before “troubled Army veteran” Esteban Santiago opened fire at the Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

The armed forces have shrunk by 10 percent in recent years, but child abuse and neglect in military families are up. Way up.

Some of our “heroes” will be spending time in the stockade, but at least they’ll have a roof over their heads.

That’s more than we can say for America’s 40,000 homeless veterans. The nation that set and achieved the goal of putting a man on the moon in a decade has been unable to meet a five-year goal of getting homeless veterans out of the woods and into permanent homes.

Miracle workers like Ju’Coby Pittman, the longtime CEO of Jacksonville’s Clara White Mission, have taken a bite out of the problem. You’d think the job of getting veterans off the streets would be easy in a community where the military is omnipresent and everybody professes to “honor our heroes.”  But when it comes to sharing the block with the disabled and the mentally ill, folks in Duval County can be as NIMBY as folks anyplace else.

In Seminole Heights, Laura Sellinger mourns her husband John, another “troubled veteran” who survived deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, but not the “survivor’s guilt” that “exploded” in a rampage, a struggle with Pasco County deputies, and death.

Our country provides a bottomless book of blank checks to the manufacturers of military hardware. The men and women who bear the weight of war must make do with whatever’s left behind in the petty cash drawer.

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

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

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

Stakeholders are worried that a golden opportunity is being squandered.

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

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

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

The Fiorentino Group helms Northeast Florida lobbying efforts again in 2017

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran may abhor the influence of lobbyists in Tallahassee. But Jacksonville and its independent agencies have them anyway, as do other regional entities in Northeast Florida.

The calculus is not complicated for Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, who parlayed $150,000 last year into a sustained and successful lobbying effort helmed by the Fiorentino Group and aided by Ballard Partners and Southern Strategy Group.

“I have and will continue to work with a team of professionals who ensure getting the highest return for the investment of taxpayers. The successes of our team include a solution to the pension crisis and earned us state resources for infrastructure and public safety,” Curry told us in November.

This year, the asks are different. The pension reform referendum pushed through Tallahassee in 2016 passed, setting the stage for increasingly fractious collective bargaining environment to negotiate new plans for new hires.

The Curry administration this year wants $50 million of state money to tear down the current Hart Expressway offramps near the sports complex, replacing them with an exit onto Bay Street.

And to that end, resources are dedicated to the effort. And at least potentially, they add up to more than the 2016 commitment.

The Fiorentino Group has a $60,000 budget for 2017, up from $50,000. The same holds true for Ballard and SSG, we hear. [For its part, Curry’s office says the “contracts are in the process of execution,” and wouldn’t confirm numbers.]

If that uptick in expenditure holds for all three lobbying groups, the city is boosting its investment in lobbyists by 20 percent year over year — a reasonable spend given the unproven nature of the Duval County Legislative Delegation’s newest members, and the lack of pull the local delegation has in the Florida House.

In short, it’s money well-spent.

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Fiorentino is also handling the concerns of many of the city’s independent authorities.

The Fiorentino Group has a $5,000 a month deal with the Jacksonville Aviation Authority that started in October 2016 and runs for three years thereafter, adding up to $180,000.

TFG is still under contract with the Jacksonville Port Authority through January 2017, a deal originally launched in 2014.

And TFG has a $6,000 a month deal with the Jacksonville Transportation Authority. That fee is matched by what the University of North Florida pays Fiorentino.

The Fiorentino Group also has contracts regionally.

Among those: a deal with Green Cove Springs, the seat of Clay County, capped at $15,000 total.

St. Johns County also benefits from the Fiorentino touch. The county itself has had TFG on a $4,500 monthly retainer since 2009. And the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office has a deal for $2,500 with the Fiorentino Group.

Jacksonville human rights ordinance expansion push begins … again

On Wednesday, Jacksonville City Council members and community leaders met in a packed conference room in city hall.

The subject: expanding Jacksonville’s Human Rights Ordinance to include members of the city’s LGBT community. The bill is expected to be filed by 3 p.m. January 4, with an eye toward committees and a full council vote on February 14.

The rhetoric of Wednesday’s meeting: familiar. Lots of phrasings about the economic and the moral case for the HRO from its biggest advocates on Council and other prominent community leaders and figures.

Bill co-sponsors Tommy HazouriJim Love, and Aaron Bowman were on hand, along with other council members, such as Al FerraroGreg Anderson, Katrina BrownJoyce Morgan, VP John Crescimbeni and President Lori Boyer.

Bowman noted that President-elect Donald Trump “supported LGBT” at the GOP Convention and got applause, while HB 2 was a “disaster” in North Carolina, suggesting that both were auguries of change.

Jacksonville Chamber Co-Chair Darnell Smith urged council co-sponsorship for what he called a “Jacksonville solution,” which “truly represents who we are as a community.”

“We don’t want anyone in our community to be discriminated against for any reason,” Smith said, adding that the HRO won’t take away anyone’s religious freedoms.

Smith lauded Mayor Curry for his departmental directive protecting LGBT city and vendor employees from discrimination, saying that it’s “time to act” on the HRO, a “comprehensive” bill “written in a tenor and tone of togetherness.”

Smith implored the eight council members on hand to co-introduce the bill.

Others followed with their own pitches.

Steve Halverson of Haskell spoke further of support from the Jacksonville Civic Council and its “strong support for a comprehensive human rights ordinance.”

Hugh Greene of Baptist Health called the lack of an HRO expansion an “embarrassment” and an issue that “clouds our city.”

Pastor John Newman asserted that HRO expansion will “help us clarify that this is a welcoming city.”

“We protect each other. We love each other. That goes for those in the LGBT community as well as those in the religious community,” Newman noted.

The bill, said Jimmy Midyette of the Jacksonville Coalition for Equality, synthesizes the “best bits” of the two previous bills filed in attempts to expand the HRO.

Discussion followed regarding the difficulties of business recruitment, and other issues, with Councilman Hazouri noting that investments in sports facilities and entertainment venues might come to naught because entertainers won’t want to perform in a place without legal protections for LGBT people.

The bill was then presented to the council members and VIPs in attendance, explaining the specific additions of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to ordinance language, and the various carveouts and exceptions that protect small businesses and religious organizations.

“We’re not telling every business in the city that they need to retrofit their bathrooms,” Midyette said.

Then, the call for co-sponsors.

Jim Love reiterated his support and vowed to co-introduce the bill.

Tommy Hazouri likewise said he was still all in.

Councilwoman Katrina Brown had questions about restrooms in small businesses, like her family’s restaurant. She was told that transgender people were advised, via the bill, to use the bathroom they are comfortable with.

“Nothing changes,” Midyette said.

And the bill stood with three co-introducers.

Council President Boyer urged the bill to “go through the committee process deliberately.”

“We have had a long period of time in which to debate and evaluate our positions,” Boyer said, urging a normal committee cycle.

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Will the third time be the charm for attempts to add LGBT protections to Jacksonville’s Human Rights Ordinance?

The bill went down in two versions in 2012. A “compromise” bill, which would have kept the “T” out of the protections rendered, fell 10 to 9 after one committed supporter, Councilman Johnny Gaffney, got “confused” and voted no.

Then, the original fully-inclusive version was defeated 17 to 2.

Gaffney did not ask for a re-vote. Years later, he would say he was pressured to vote no by the administration of former Mayor Alvin Brown.

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After 2012’s down vote, the HRO remained on the backburner as a political issue. That backburner got hot during the 2015 mayoral campaign, contributing to Brown’s defeat.

In later 2015, the HRO resurfaced.

Councilman Tommy Hazouri filed a 14-page bill that sought to add sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression to the protected categories.

That bill was preceded by Hazouri’s council colleague, Bill Gulliford, filing his own bill pushing for a referendum on the HRO. Gulliford’s expectation was that the referendum wouldn’t pass.

The Hazouri bill sought to expand equal protections under the law, including housing and employment, as well as public accommodations, to people regardless of sexual orientation (real or perceived), gender identity, or gender expression.

In filing the bill, Hazouri’s office issued a prepared statement decrying the Gulliford bill, saying that a “referendum would lead to months and months of hateful rhetoric that would fully divide our city. Outside groups on both sides would come in with staff, and money would pour in from outside sources.”

Indeed, that’s what happened.

The early weeks of 2016 were fraught with conflict, with Equality Florida and the Human Rights Campaign’s lobbyists facing off with national firepower on the opposing side, such as Roger Gannam of the Liberty Counsel and Barronelle Stutzman, a Washington State florist who was sued for not providing flowers for a same-sex wedding.

As the issue began to dominate the Jacksonville body politic, it began to look like Hazouri and bill co-sponsors Jim Love and Aaron Bowman were outgunned.

Team Hazouri counted the votes. And quietly, the press leaks began one February weekend: his HRO bill was to be withdrawn.

And at a council meeting a few days later, it was pulled.

Since then, the noise has been that the bill would be brought back.

The conventional wisdom: that the bill would be timed more conveniently after the pension reform referendum passed in August.

That came and went, as did the general election, and the Christmas season, and New Year’s fireworks.

However, January rolled around, and advocates of HRO expansion are pushing yet again.

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FloridaPolitics.com reviewed the legislation – one that has seen many different iterations.

But one signature virtue the latest version has is simplicity.

The 14-page monster of a bill was pared down to a more manageable four pages.

Part of that bill details the parts of city code – equal employment opportunity, public accommodations, and fair housing – that would be amended if the bill passes.

“Wherever protected categories are listed,” the text reads, “sexual orientation and gender identity … shall be added to the list.”

The bill attempts to fix the definitions of gender identity as a “consistent and uniform assertion of a particular gender identity, appearance, or expression.”

That “consistent and uniform assertion” language is intended to circumvent an expected legislative loophole: “that gender identity shall not be asserted for any improper, illegal or criminal purpose.”

That language is intended to short-circuit the critiques of HRO expansion as a so-called “bathroom bill,” able to be exploited by lavatory malingerers.

The bill also offers carve out exemptions (as did the 2015/16 bill) for religious institutions, including schools and affiliated non-profits, and small employers in the hiring process. In particular, the bill says that legislators have “carefully considered”

And it allows for employee dress codes, as long as “such dress code shall not be based on sex stereotypes.”

As well, the bill is predicated in recent evolutions of city policy, framing Jacksonville as an “inclusive and welcoming community, wherein no discrimination should occur.”

The bill notes that the Duval County School Board, Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, JEA and JTA, and the Jacksonville Port and Aviation Authorities all codify similar protections. Meanwhile, the bill cites Mayor Curry’s “departmental directive” protecting employees of the city and its vendors from discriminatory actions in the workplace.

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Of course, there is a catch. Curry, in issuing that directive almost a year ago, waved a caution flag.

“Based on the extensive community discussion and the actions that I have taken and directed, I have concluded my review, analysis and determination of this issue, and as such, I do not believe any further legislation would be prudent,” Curry observed.

If the bill were to get ten supporters – and an informal vote count by one advocate says that it should have 11 – then that would push it past the threshold for passing.

Our understanding is that the mayor’s office would prefer 13 votes in favor of legislation; that supermajority would remove the question of whether or not Curry would veto it, sign it, or take the middle ground and let the bill become law without his signature.

Before the bill can get to the full council, it has to get to committees, and a lot can happen in those council panels.

In 2012, Johnny Gaffney supported HRO expansion in committee, before changing his position at the council meeting.

The hope among advocates: that the bill only gets heard in Rules.

The reality: there will be a push to have the measure heard in other committees.

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There are reasons that advocates are hopeful for this council to do in 2017 what it wouldn’t do in 2012 or 2016.

There is hope that Council President Lori Boyer, who said that the discussion had barely gotten started in 2016 when Hazouri pulled his bill, will ensure the process is not distracted.

There is hope also that bill advocates, such as JEA’s Mike Hightower, can convince social conservatives like Councilman Sam Newby to go along.

There is also hope that Sen. Audrey Gibson, chair of the local Democratic party, can ensure that all seven Democrats on the council are on board with the legislation.

If seven back it, only three Republicans are needed – and Jim Love and Aaron Bowman are two of those Republicans.

Former Council President Greg Anderson, who took a thoughtful position toward the process during his year in the center chair, could well move from a maybe to a yes.

The same could hold true for President Lori Boyer.

In June, Boyer said that “for some of us,” Boyer said, the sticking points are “all about language,” including reasonable exceptions and accommodations.

As well, the previous discussions never got to issues like how other jurisdictions handle similar legislation.

“The dialogue can hopefully happen before the bill is filed.”

And Anna Brosche, the chair of the Finance Committee, offered conceptual support for legislation on the campaign trail … but she wants the legislation to protect all parties.

“My words were pretty consistent during the entire campaign. I have zero-tolerance for discrimination,” Brosche said, but legislation must “make sure that small business and the faith-based community is considered as part of the process.”

Brosche, during her campaign against the anti-HRO Kim Daniels, was “turned into a champion of the topic.”

“There may be people who expected me to be a champion, a leader. I’m interested to know how people reached that conclusion,” Brosche said, wondering “how much of it was me, and how much was it the nature of that race in particular.”

There is room to get over 10 votes, if all of these variables play out in the right way. The question in 2017 is similar to that of 2016: can the agents of change demonstrate that they have mastered the process of manufacturing consensus?

There are hints of problems in that process. One observer has framed the effort as one of “too many cooks in the kitchen.” Meanwhile, questions remain as to whether there should have been more groundwork laid via backchannels before filing the bill.

At a time when mayors of cities like Orlando and Tampa are telling businesses looking at Jacksonville that the city is “backwards” on this issue, and the NCAA is requiring anti-discrimination legislation as part of its scoring matrix for assigning tournament games, a lot may be riding on the answer to that question.

Jacksonville City Council to mull equal opportunity ordinance

While the introduction of another legislative attempt to expand Jacksonville’s Human Rights Ordinance drew the TV cameras Wednesday, another bill designed to remedy discrimination was introduced the same day.

Councilman Garrett Dennis filed Ordinance 2017-16, “encouraging the City of Jacksonville and its independent agencies and authorities under the code to provide positive steps to correct or eliminate the vestiges of any past discriminatory practices and any current potentially discriminatory conditions, whether purposeful or inadvertent, that may have effectively denied full and equal participation by underrepresented groups in the city’s workforce.”

Jacksonville, of course, has a long history of issues with employment discrimination in the workplace, including governmental entities. And the Equal Opportunity/Equal Access program, set up in 2004, was established to remedy those injustices.

However, what Dennis’ legislation would do is offer some concrete steps toward and resources behind those goals.

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

The bill notes that the position of assistant director of the equal opportunity program has been vacant for a long time for budget reasons, which occludes the council from knowing exactly how entities like JEA and the Jacksonville Transportation Authority address these issues.

That assistant director, were the position funded, could ensure that demographic criteria isn’t the reason for hiring, firing, promotion, or lack thereof.

Positioned to monitor how these agencies address diversity goals, the director would be expected to report to council annually. The agencies would also be expected to offer similar reports.

Jacksonville councilman decries drug overdose ‘epidemic’

Jacksonville’s homicide rate gets all the press. Yet the rate of deaths via drug overdose exceeds it. And a prominent city councilman wants action.

An email from Duval County’s Medical Examiner’s office laid it out: from the beginning of January until mid-November, Jacksonville experienced 345 drug overdose deaths.

In terms of casualties, whites and males are the most vulnerable, dying in numbers outsized compared to their proportion of the population.

Of the 345 deaths, 214 decedents were male. And 299 — or 86.67 percent — are white.

Almost 30 percent of those who perished during the period of tabulation were in their thirties. People in their fifties comprised another 23 percent of those who passed on.

One prominent council member, Bill Gulliford, wants movement from the legislative body this year on stemming the tide of casualties.

Gulliford noted that “it is a scary number especially when you compare it to homicides which get all the media attention. And, how many of the homicides are drug related? My executive assistant is trying to secure that information from the sheriff’s office. If we combine the two it gets even scarier.”

“We should be shouting these numbers from the rooftops folks. This is an epidemic and yet the attention is limited. I think bringing attention to this should be the number one priority of the Public Safety Committee in 2017. Attention is just the first step. Maybe bringing attention to the numbers alone will help scare some young people to avoid drugs,” Gulliford noted.

Will Jacksonville get a handle on a problem common to all major cities, one becoming more common all the time? Time will tell. But Bill Gulliford will ensure an effort is made.

Former assistant state attorney to become Jacksonville real estate chief

For the second time in ten months, the city of Jacksonville will bring aboard a new chief of real estate.

Renee Hunter, an alumna of the University of Wisconsin’s journalism school and of the Florida Coastal School of Law, will be “official” pending confirmation by the city council.

Hunter is no stranger to work in the public sector. She served as an assistant state attorney from 2007 to 2013, with a tenure spanning the end of the Harry Shorstein era and the bulk of the Angela Corey epoch.

Hunter’s specialty in that capacity: land use and zoning issues and property law.

From there, Hunter moved into the private sector, where she continued her work with property law, including issues with deeds, titles, and other real estate issues.

The previous chief of real estate, Stephanie Burch, was brought on last March, but was promoted to head of the Neighborhoods Department in November.

Hunter, if formally approved by City Council, will be “responsible for the acquisition, appraisal, management, disposal, inventory, utilization assessment and other functions relating to real property,” including fulfillment functions, and execution of purchases of real property with money from federal community development program grants.

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