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Future sales tax referendum bills could be restricted to general election ballot

The biggest moment in Jacksonville politics in 2016 was the August passage of a referendum unlocking future local sales tax proceeds to address pension debt, provided collective bargaining closes at least one of the city’s current pension plans.

Considered to be an audacious, high-risk play when the initiative was formally launched early in 2016, former RPOF Chair and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry invested a great deal of local and statewide political capital to shepherd the measure from concept through to a 65 percent popular vote for the tax extension.

However, Curry’s August triumph may not be repeated ever again after Florida’s 2017 Legislative Session.

Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, the current RPOF Chair, introduced a bill in the Florida House on Thursday that would ensure any future sales tax referendum bills would have to be on the general election ballot. The bills covered include transportation and indigent care sales surtax measures.

Ingoglia, a Hernando County Republican, had a similar bill in 2016; it passed the House 95 to 19, but died in committee in the Senate.

H.B. 139 stipulates also that all infrastructure sales taxes, such as the one Jacksonville voters opted to extend past its 2030 sunset date, would have to be approved by referendum.

Ingoglia, in a Friday conversation, stressed that the current bill had nothing to do with Jacksonville, but with bringing back a bill from the previous session that had “overwhelming bipartisan support” and backing from the Florida Association of Counties and Florida League of Cities.

Over the last five years, Ingoglia estimates that a third of all taxation bills filed have been on a special election ballot, with half on the primary ballot.

This bill, Ingoglia sais, “forces local governments to put [taxation] questions on the general election ballot,” so that a simple majority of a small voting universe isn’t making those decisions for everyone.

Notable: in its initial conceptual phase, city of Jacksonville policy makers considered having the tax extension approved by a supermajority of the city’s pliant city council.

Also notable: one of the local debates in Jacksonville, ahead of the referendum passing, was about the political calculus used by the mayor’s office to put the referendum on the August ballot rather than the November version.

The August ballot inclusion was depicted as a better road toward voter education, so that the measure was not drowned out by the inevitable noise of the November election.

Ingoglia rejected such reasoning, saying that having “as many people as possible” decide taxation questions mattered more.

Ingoglia’s bill currently lacks a Senate companion measure.

Subpoenas with a side of sauce: The 10 biggest #JaxPol stories of 2016

Subpoenas with a side of sauce.

That’s one way to sum up the year.

In Jacksonville politics, 2016 started with subpoenas being delivered to Rep. Corrine Brown and her clique at a barbecue place on the Northside.

And it ended with a raid on Councilwoman Katrina Brown’s familial barbecue sauce plant on the Westside.

Katrina Brown’s family, which was granted/loaned over $600K by the city for job creation that never fully happened despite having years to do it, poured real money since that money came through into the campaign apparatuses of the councilwoman herself, along with Corrine Brown and former Mayor Alvin Brown.

As well, shortly after Katrina Brown got the Corrine Brown “Quick Pick,” she gave $500 to Corrine Brown’s former right-hand woman, Von Alexander, for what was called “marketing.”

That, my friends, is what we call a narrative arc. And a story that will have legs in 2017.

Beyond these issues, a heck of a lot happened in #jaxpol in 2016.

Political dynasties: toppled.

Conventional wisdom: shattered.

We are limiting ourselves to looking at the ten biggest stories of 2016 in Jacksonville politics.

In a year as driven by a change dynamic as any since the Consolidation era, this was an easy write.

The biggest difficulty?

Limiting the article to just ten stories.

***

The # 1 story of the year: the passage of the pension reform referendum Aug. 30.

Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry spent the better part of a year manufacturing consensus for the once unlikely seeming proposal of getting the Better Jacksonville Plan tax extended, and using the revenue secured to stabilize the pension debt.

Curry brought together a coalition that the city hasn’t seen since consolidation, with unions and union bosses; African-American pastors and community leaders; and other unlikely supporters, including every Democrat on the city council, lining up behind the mayor.

The manufacturing of consent went deeper than just influencers:
Also in play was a deep-dive data operation, with specific appeals made to medium-propensity voters, to female homeowners between the ages of 35 and 46, and to other blocs of voters, where support could be firmed up and maximized.

“Campaigns are tough,” Curry said at the victory party at the Hyatt on Aug. 30. “You’ve got to execute and win.”

Execute and win he did.

Curry leveraged support in the Senate and the House from regional power brokers, Sen. Rob Bradley and Rep. Travis Cummings, driving to and from Tallahassee with everyone from Marty Fiorentino to Randy Wyse, the head of the local fire union to guide and prod the bill through committees in each house, then through a floor vote.

Any resistance that might have manifested was quelled, as Curry had entire days of meetings with everyone in a position to kill the bill in committee.

It was a tour de force political performance; one planned out well before the session.

And while there is a long way to go to secure the future revenue from the current ½ cent sales surtax — a tortuous road through collective bargaining — Curry did the impossible: provided actuarial certainty that Jacksonville had a way to pay down its massive unfunded pension liability.

Story of the year? Absolutely.

But it had competition.

***

# 2: Angela Corey goes down.

While some other Northeast Florida titans drew their last political breath in 2016, the State Attorney from the 4th Circuit is arguably the most significant locally.

Legislators go to Tallahassee and Washington and generally toe the party line. They aren’t going to be outliers on the big issues of the day.

Corey? Very much an outlier.

It was a climate where the Koch Brothers are attempting to push criminal justice reform from the right, and various groups on the left and libertarian sides pushing for similar ends.

Corey’s “lock ‘em up” approach was as much of a throwback as acid-washed jeans, Milli Vanilli cassette singles, and asbestos insulation.

Corey? She stood athwart that trend, seeking more death penalty convictions than almost any district or state attorney in the country, and earning sobriquets like “the cruelest prosecutor in America.”

It all seemed to be going pretty well. Corey stacked regional and state endorsements like Scrooge McDuck stacking greenbacks. Her first declared opponent in the primary, Wes White, attempted to run an insurgent campaign with little money and institutional backing.

White got some traction, as the negation of the case for Corey, but it looked until June like Corey would get her third term.

Then, a funny thing happened.

Melissa Nelson got in the race, getting real money behind her, and the best political machine in the state — Tim Baker and Brian Hughes — doing what so many people wanted to do.

Getting paid to end Angela Corey’s political career (though one suspects that Baker and Hughes might have been willing to take that task on for free).

By July, Corey was cratering in the polls. By August, the scenarios in which Corey — the epitome of a disqualified candidate — would find even a dead cat bounce were winnowed down to nothing.

By September, she was a lame duck.

Melissa Nelson takes office in January, armed with a community and institutional support, a great team (Dave Chapman, handling comms next year, had been probably the best reporter on the Jacksonville city politics beat this century), and a commitment to reform.

Nelson will spend a big part of her first term cleaning up Corey-era messes.

There will be stumbles.

But Melissa Nelson, unlike Corey, is willing to have a dialogue with the media and the community. And she is looking for applications of justice that actually heal rather than divide communities.

As hinted above, Corey’s political obituary wasn’t the only one written this year. In fact, the third-biggest story in Jacksonville this year was a variation on that theme.

***

#3: Corrine Brown goes down, and Jacksonville loses a congressional seat.

When federal agents served subpoenas up to Rep. Brown and political operatives at the Bono’s on Norwood Avenue, it was the beginning of the end for the congresswoman.

Though she ran a modified version of a re-election campaign for her seat in Congressional District 5, Brown was wounded.

She couldn’t raise real money. She was distracted by the legal fight. And when asked during and after her sole televised debate about the incompatibility of a 23-count federal indictment and a campaign for re-election against a Democrat as connected as Al Lawson, Brown said that the charges against her were as absurd as accusations of pedophilia against news media members.

“The Fifth Amendment says that the prosecutors have to prove their case. Now, what if I said, as we standing up here talking, that you were a pedophile? You would think there would be something wrong with me. So, you would put together a team of lawyers and you would go to court, and duke it out in court. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do. Just because someone accuses you, doesn’t mean that they have the facts. The federal government under these, have a slush fund, and they can do and they can bring charges,” Brown said in August.

She’s not saying that now. Or much of anything. The waiting game of 2017 now involves seeing when and if her inner circle (including/especially Ronnie Simmons, her co-defendant and almost-erstwhile chief of staff) turns against her in the One Door for Education trial.

Meanwhile, Jacksonville is in deep doo-doo regarding its representation, as Al Lawson hasn’t demonstrated a real understanding of local issues compared to those out west.

Jacksonville may produce a real challenge to Lawson in the 2018 primary, but the first two years of the Trump era are going to be challenging for Jacksonville. At a time when the White House is looking to fund ambitious infrastructure projects via expanding the monetary supply, a reliable Jacksonville veteran of the United States Congress will be replaced by a neophyte.

Meanwhile, we hear that the initial staffing process for Lawson is chaotic, with scheduling problems for mid and lower level staff interviews, and a distinct Tallahassee bent to those hired by his office.

***

# 4: Ander Crenshaw out, John Rutherford in.

“I won’t miss the circus, but I will miss the clowns.”

Those words from Rep. Ander Crenshaw, who represented Jacksonville in D.C. for eight terms, say it all.

Crenshaw was ready to step down. And former Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford, on the political sidelines since he was termed out in 2015, was happy enough to step up.

Crenshaw was the type of Republican prominent around Jacksonville in a bygone and better time; cut from the John Thrasher/Mike Hightower cloth, Crenshaw was the kind of conservative who didn’t fit the polemical Tea Party mold.

Because of that declining level of affinity with the grassroots, Crenshaw faced a primary challenge in 2014 from Ryman Shoaf — and it was a closer race than many expected.

Crenshaw’s decision not to run for re-election set up a lively primary campaign, with Rutherford forced to fend off State Rep. Lake Ray and the biggest spender in the race, Hans Tanzler III.

Rutherford, evidently, will attempt to maintain as much continuity as possible. Jackie Smith, a Crenshaw holdover, will run the district office.

That realization of the importance of continuity by their replacements is a major difference — in terms of impact — to the departures of Corrine Brown and Ander Crenshaw.

Of course, there’s more to Jacksonville politics than arrivals and departures. Some issues persist no matter who the incumbent is.

***

#5: The ongoing battles of collective bargaining

When “County Referendum 1” passed Aug. 30, allowing the extension of the one-half cent local sales tax to be devoted to the unfunded liability conditional on closing one of the city’s pension plans to new hires, it represented the fulfillment of one quest and the necessary beginning of another.

Mayor Curry counted fire union head Randy Wyse and police union leader Steve Zona as allies in the run-up to the referendum. However, that was destined to be a short-term accord.

As the days got shorter in 2016, it became apparent that the city and its unions — especially its public-sector unions — were far apart.

The union heads will tell you: getting competent new hires to come in and stick around with a promise of little more than the same 401(k) an office jockey gets is not a sustainable strategy for workforce development and retention.

Cops in their 20s may not see that the future involves them being battered and broken down from the job. But add a wife and 2.5 kids to the equation, and then the future moves from an abstraction to reality.

Thus, the unions want the Florida Retirement System for new hires.

The current sheriff, Mike Williams, is caught between labor and management, and his comments to us a few weeks back reflect that.

While Williams wants a “competitive pay and benefit package,” he contends the “vehicle” doesn’t matter — a position that is news to the union.

Former Sheriff John Rutherford, advocating pensions for officers while in office, has yet to see a defined contribution plan accounting for the real downside risk of a career as an officer.

Expectations are that general employees will be the easier sell on DC plans for new hires. But with six bargaining units to deal with, consensus won’t be quick — and probably won’t be in time for the budget deliberations of June and July.

Amazingly (or not), another pension story makes the top ten.

****

#6: Drama continues between city and Police and Fire Pension Fund

The PFPF continues to serve as a piñata for local politicians; 2016 was no exception.

Things were relatively quiet between city hall and the pension fund in the first quarter, until the city and the fund squabbled over the controversial “senior staff voluntary retirement fund” that served to benefit former executive director John Keane and a few others.

Just as May brought in the summer heat, Jacksonville’s general counsel issued a ruling that — contrary to the PFPF position — the fund was subordinate to the city, and the general counsel was, in fact, the prevailing legal authority.

The PFPF attempted to appeal to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. But it didn’t do any good.

From there, the PFPF cropped up again — a $44 million accounting true-up, for which the fund claimed to have a waiver from the state, allowed Curry to win a November news cycle by excoriating the fund for its sloppy financial practices.

Curry’s ire was undercut in December, however.

The city’s CFO and the executive director of the PFPF appeared together at a Dec. 7 meeting of the Jacksonville City Council Finance Committee.

They said the documents regarding the waiver leaked to the media before they had a chance to figure out a collaborative strategy to address it.

They also suggested that the extra $44 million or so of yearly costs — could be phased in over a few years, or even wiped out after collective bargaining with the public safety units wraps.

Whenever that is.

The CFO, Mike Weinstein, also undercut the mayor’s position by saying the $44 million was a “hiccup” compared to the larger unfunded liability.

A goal for the city of Jacksonville: to not have next year’s “stories of the year” piece marred by yet another chapter in the saga between the city and the PFPF.

There’s still a lot of work to do to get there.

***

#7: Municipal bond ratings improve.

In the “if it bleeds, it leads” world of television news, the esoterica of bond ratings doesn’t exactly drive the Nielsen #s.

But in the world of municipal government and finance, bond ratings determine the ability to borrow money, and the favorability of the repayment terms.

With that in mind, a big success of 2016 was rooted in Dec. 2015, when Mayor Curry and an entourage of senior city staffers flew to New York for that year’s annual meeting with the rating agencies.

Successes outnumbered failures.

JEA came out of the event with its first ever AAA rating. Standard & Poor’s Rating Services upgraded the rating on the City of Jacksonville’s sales tax revenue bonds to an “A+” from an “A” the previous year. Other rating upgrades followed.

By October, with the referendum out of the way, Curry’s office was able to trumpet the improved perception of its financial management.

Examples thereof: documentation of Better Jacksonville Plan sales tax revenue upgrades in February to A+ from S&P and Fitch, with a A1 from Moody’s in that category; a March upgrade to AA in excise tax revenue from Moody’s; a July Fitch AA long-term credit rating and an AA issuer credit rating predicated on expectations the city will “continue to demonstrate a prudent level of fiscal management” and “continue to moderate the impact of its pension liability on the annual budget;” similar upgrades in the special revenue rating in August; and an upgraded commercial paper rating in September.

Curry ran as a CEO type with an accounting background, and though his team deserves a lot of the credit regarding the nuts and bolts actions, Curry brought it together.

That wasn’t the only major story of 2016 involving JEA, however.

***

# 8: “JEA Agreement

“It’s important to put this in context,” Curry said in March when signing off on the deal.

When Curry came into office, there was a “narrative” that there “didn’t look like a way forward” for the mayor’s office, the Council, and JEA on an agreement.

Curry pushed Alvin Brown’s appointees out, for the most part, and put in his people, creating a “strong board.”

And that strong board was a mechanism to get an agreement between the city and its utility through 2021.

To recap: the JEA Agreement applies between the city and the utility through 2021, with the current JEA contribution set at about $114.2 million, with minimum annual increases of 1 percent. It also allocates $30 million of total funding, split evenly, from JEA and the city for five years for water and sewer projects. And two million dollars a year in water quality trading credits, which will go to stormwater needs.

The stormwater projects are already under way, and they will help to close a long-standing infrastructure gap between pre-Consolidation communities and the rest of the city.

Curry’s comfort level with JEA is such that even when the CEO was out of town during Hurricane Matthew, the mayor did not take the opportunity that some on the city council did to question his priorities and job performance.

Speaking of Hurricane Matthew, that was a pretty big deal also.

***

# 9: Hurricane Matthew

There was a reasonable chance in October that, if the storm had moved 40 miles west when trucking up the Florida coast, Jacksonville would have been devastated.

In fact, the city did pretty well, considering.

While St. Augustine got hit with higher winds and more devastating flooding, which the city is still recovering from, Jacksonville dodged the catastrophic hit that was feared as the storm approached.

To be clear: there were tens of millions of dollars of damage.

Debris removal from rights of way and parks cost a couple of million dollars.

Streets, drainage, and parks likewise required a real financial commitment.

The road to Huguenot Park still needs repair.

And over half the city lost power, with, in some cases, restoration taking up to a week.

But Mayor Curry, the sheriff’s office, and mayors of the beach communities coordinated evacuations for zones where half the city’s population lives (as well as the entirety of the county east of the Intracoastal), and despite the property damage and inconvenience, Jacksonville got through the storm.

***

#10: Duval GOP dysfunction

While there are probably stories offering more civic import, worth watching is the continuing decline of the Republican Party of Duval County.

This tale of infighting goes back well before 2016 began, of course. But 2016 had enough drama to make up for it.

The year started with Lake Ray as party chair. That lasted until May, when Cindy Graves took control.

All seemed to be going well enough. From the outside at least.

Karyn Morton, who backed Graves at least by the time votes were counted, said in a news release: “Cindy is the leader our party needs right now.”

Note the temporal phrasing.

The election came and went, and despite Trump getting elected, there was still some trouble brewing.

Just like Andrew Ridgely and George Michael in Wham!, the Morton/Graves alliance would turn a different corner soon enough.

By summer, Morton was grousing as Graves spoke at GOP events, saying that “the leader our party needs right now” doesn’t know when to shut up. [Paraphrased, obviously]

Summer turned to fall, leaves turned on and fell off the trees, and quiet dissidence turned into open rebellion.

December was Graves’ undoing.

Morton ran against Graves, and her speech brought the quiet frustrations to light, as it was peppered with descriptions of mistakes from past leadership.

Some of the old guard wasn’t allowed to vote, including Rep. John Rutherford and Mike Hightower.

Meanwhile, some new Republican Executive Committee members were allowed to vote. And they made the difference.

A veteran of party politics says Morton and the other party officials constitutes the “worst leadership since 1980,” predicting “Audrey Gibson will have a field day” as local Democratic chair, as Republicans “decentralize” in the short term … an important factor to look for as the 2018 races ramp up.

Will Morton be able to appease the donor class? That question remains to be answered.

***

And that was the year that was.

Will 2017 have as much barbecue-related drama as 2016?

Probably not.

But it will have drama, personality clashes and, if we’re lucky, some things on the policy front as well.

A.G. Gancarski surveys the wreckage of his 2016 predictions

When 2016 kicked off, the world was different, and our political prognoses reflected those false assurances.

We didn’t imagine President Donald Trump on a national level. We figured Hillary Clinton would end up taking on Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio in the general election. And we expected the rhetoric would sound like the previous two or three campaigns.

Regarding #jaxpol, we had a pretty good idea of what was going to happen also.

We figured that Ander Crenshaw would return to Congress with little opposition. And that Corrine Brown would, perhaps, end up running for Congress again from the Orlando area.

We weren’t actually thinking about the pension reform referendum from Jacksonville’s mayor either. It hadn’t even been announced yet.

In other words: baseline conventional wisdom assumptions going into 2016 were shredded by reality.

My 2016 predictions fared no better than those above.

***

Prediction 1: I guaranteed that the Human Rights Ordinance would go to a referendum unless Mayor Lenny Curry stopped it.

There was lots of talk on the right about Bill Gulliford and his measure to push for a popular plebiscite on expanding protections against discrimination in jobs, housing, and public accommodations to the LGBT community.

Gulliford’s bill was filed as a response to Tommy Hazouri introducing a bill that would add the LGBT community to protected classes under the current ordinance.

It looked like a showdown was imminent. Then a slowdown happened.

Hazouri couldn’t get enough commitments to get the bill through and withdrew the bill.

Some say that he felt pressure to do so because of the pension reform referendum becoming the city’s focus, and no one wanting two confusing referendums on the ballot.

The reality, though; the votes weren’t there.

***

Prediction 2: I said that if the Hazouri version of the HRO passed, Jacksonville politics would be a circus through August.

That was a moot point, of course. Though given the freak show nature of Northeast Florida primaries up and down the ballot, the “circus” part of the prediction held true.

***

Prediction 3 ruled that Florida’s 5th Congressional District race will illustrate the GOP symbiosis with Corrine Brown.

Expect Jacksonville Republicans to work, behind the scenes and otherwise, to ensure that Corrine Brown stays in CD 5 and maintains her seat. Undoubtedly, the converse will be true out west from Tallahassee Republicans. Lawson versus Brown will illustrate the dictum that all politics are local. Again,” I wrote a year ago.

This was written, of course, before Brown’s legal issues took center stage.

What ended up happening: Susie Wiles helped to show Lawson around town, including setting up an interview with the press. Denise Lee, a Democratic stalwart who works for Mayor Curry now, also helped. And even though Lawson wasn’t especially encyclopedic in his knowledge of Jacksonville issues, it didn’t really matter against a wounded incumbent in August.

And it didn’t matter in November, either, as Republican Glo Smith proved completely inept in maximizing any political advantages she might have had as the Jacksonville candidate.

***

Prediction 4 held that the Police and Fire Pension Fund drama would quiet down.

The reasoning: the lightning rod John Keane was no longer going to run the fund. Instead, Beth McCague would serve as a “cooler” as executive director.

The PFPF drama was quelled for much of the year. The unity push of Mayor Curry and the heads of the police and fire unions, vis-à-vis an extended push to sell the pension reform referendum bill in Tallahassee, and then with locals ahead of the referendum vote.

While things did get more interesting toward the end of the year, with a news cycle devoted to a $44 million “waiver” in pension costs, even that was muted by the city’s CFO saying that, given the larger scale of the $2.8 billion unfunded liability, the $44 million was a “hiccup.”

This prediction was less wrong than the previous three. For what that’s worth.

***

Unfortunately, Prediction 5 was also more right than it should have been.

We held that “UF Health’s funding woes” would still be “largely unaddressed” by year’s end.

And that, sadly, is true.

At the First Coast Legislative Delegation meeting at the end of November, CEO Russ Armistead urged the legislators not to be “embarrassed” to take federal money.

Armistead’s safety net hospital has been hamstrung both by the Obama/Rick Scott standoff on the Affordable Care Act, with Washington starving the Low-Income Pool — on which UF Health relies — of funds.

Armistead urged legislators to consider the continuation of the Low-Income Pool funding for uninsured patients, noting that the bulk of that money comes from intergovernmental transfers.

As well, he urged them to “support any federal program that will bring federal funds to Florida for health care,” saying that Florida has been “dramatically underfunded” for the last decade.

Armistead now has a new problem: the profitability of trauma centers.

UF Health’s unique value add as the only regional Level I trauma center has been challenged. And with that, adds Armistead, UF Health’s viability.

“Trauma was a losing business” years ago, Armistead said, but now “trauma is profitable.”

“I have 50 days of cash. So what will happen to us … I’ll be back in the newspaper saying we have to have additional funds,” Armistead added, “or drop to a Level 2.”

“If we don’t bring this trauma center expansion under control, I’ll be in financial trouble … and the quality won’t be as good as it was,” Armistead added.

Hopefully, President Trump can come through for UF Health. President Obama’s model did not.

***

Prediction 6 was a botch; “the right wing will turn on Lenny Curry” was the call.

That didn’t happen. Curry said HRO expansion wouldn’t be “prudent.” And that’s really all the social conservatives wanted him to say.

***

Prediction 7 was correct.

I posited that “Nikolai Vitti would have another tough year.”

And given the subtle attempt to get him to take his talents elsewhere by former Duval County School Board Chair Ashley Smith-Juarez, that prediction was on the nose.

***

Prediction 8 held that Jacksonville would explore privatizing some city services.

While those explorations may be happening, that didn’t quite come to pass as predicted.

Yet.

***

Prediction 9 involved races for the state House getting interesting.

If only all the predictions were such slam dunks.

The internecine GOP warfare in House District 11 — when Donnie Horner turned his budget in the end toward knocking Sheri Treadwell out of the race — was interesting.

The same was true in HD 12, where the race between Clay Yarborough and Terrance Freeman became a proxy battle between outside groups and their mailers, with even the Florida Times-Union weighing in — twice — on the propriety of the mailpieces.

And in HD 13, where Tracie Davis lost the primary, but won the seat when Reggie Fullwood pleaded guilty to two felony counts and left his race for re-election in the ultimate October Surprise.

HD 14? That one saw Kim Daniels dismantle the best-laid plans of Leslie Jean-Bart and her activist young Democrat supporters. Like no other candidate this cycle, Daniels made distinctly local appeals in Northwest Jacksonville and won despite the kind of stories that would have sunk other campaigns.

And in HD 16, Jason Fischer dismantled Dick Kravitz, a political lifer whose last ride was squashed by Fischer, with assists from Tim Baker and Brian Hughes.

Prediction 9? On the nose.

***

Meanwhile, Prediction 10 — “Jax lobbyists will bear fruit” — was also on point.

They brought home 90 percent of the city’s appropriations asks and got the pension reform referendum through both houses and the governor in Tallahassee.

Not a bad ROI for $150,000. But when that money gets invested in Fiorentino Group, Southern Strategy Group, and Ballard Partners, you can expect that.

Prediction 10 was on point.

***

Meanwhile, Predictions 11 and 12 pointed to the perils of predicting primary elections eight months before they happened.

Prediction 11 was validated: “the Public Defender’s race would be one to watch.”

To win, “Shirk will have to go negative, somehow, but there are inherent risks in going negative against someone as respected as Cofer, especially when Cofer has an attack dog, in the form of John Daigle, who is always ready to counter-message.”

Shirk did go negative — calling Cofer a liberal Democrat or whatever.

It didn’t take.

The oppo dumps came in, time and again, against the hapless Shirk. In fact, even after the election, reporters were still fed stories about irregularities in the public defender’s office.

So far, so good.

Prediction 12, meanwhile, posited that the State Attorney’s race would be a snoozer.

At that point in late December, it was the Punch and Judy act from Angela Corey and Wes White. If Melissa Nelson was listening to “Fight Song,” it was on her morning run.

But still! We got it wrong — bigly.

We wrote that “in Jacksonville, the political reality is that Corey is one of the most powerful and respected people in public service, able to work symbiotically with law enforcement and City Hall.”

We didn’t count on Nelson getting in the race, raising over a million dollars in the space of a couple of months, bringing on Brian Hughes and Tim Baker.

We didn’t count on Corey collapsing under the weight of her own hubris, symbolized by one of her henchmen driving to Tallahassee to file an opponent’s paperwork to close the primary, even as issues with staff donations and her retirement nest egg became campaign issues.

So, how did the 2016 predictions go?

We got six right. We got six wrong.

A 6-6 record is good enough for a college football bowl appearance.

But there’s definitely room for improvement.

The 2017 predictions surface later this week; we will see if that record improves … or gets even worse.

Jacksonville City Hall renovations done, but $80K over budget

The front entrance to Jacksonville’s City Hall is substantially renovated, and is open ahead of the anticipated January 2017 date of completion.

The schedule was “purposely accelerated to have the project complete before the holidays,” even as “minor grouting and cleanup work remain.”

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the project, budgeted at $549,000 earlier this year, came in $80,000 above that number.

The city’s public works department explained the cost escalators.

“There was one change order issued earlier this month that addressed some conditions found during construction and accelerated the completion date.  That change order was valued at $70,058.25, making the current contract value $619,058.25.  There will be a second change order valued at approximately $10,500 to cover extra work not in the original bid scope, including pressure washing and sealing the stone (steps, landing, columns) and landscaping. Final contract value is expected to be approximately $629,550.”

The project, handled by Jacksonville’s KBT Contracting, was dedicated to addressing issues of non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and included “new sidewalks, entrance landings, walks, steps, ramps, railing, planters, modification of the existing store front system at the east entrance to add new entrance doors, and related construction of cast stone brick pavers, concrete, retaining wall, concrete masonry foundation walls, concrete and steel structural framing and foundations, precast stones, landscaping improvements, tree grates, bollard relocation, electrical work, irrigation work, plumbing work, and all other related work not specified herein but which is necessary to complete the project.”

The four-story brick building was designed a century ago by Henry Klutho, and boasts a skylight as one of its key design elements.

The post-Consolidation exodus of meaningful retail from downtown left the building vacant until Mayor Ed Austin revived the structure in his River City Renaissance initiative.

FY 16 a boon for Jacksonville’s budget, but questions loom

According to the Jacksonville City Council auditor’s report, FY 2016 was a good year for the city of Jacksonville’s budget, highlighted by a $29 million favorable variance in a $1.1 billion budget.

Revenues were $15 million above budgetary expectations, and expenditures were $14 million under projections.

However, underneath the rosy picture, the report spotlighted issues with pension contributions below where they could be, inadequate emergency reserves, and questions about one independent authority’s accounting practices.

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Property tax collections showed a favorable variance of $4.6 million, with the bulk of that money from the collection of delinquent property tax.

“Summer temperatures” are credited with higher revenue from JEA taxes. Between electric, water, and sewer, the city came out $6.4 million over projections.

Red light cameras, a program which Policy Advisor Robin Lumb suggested the sheriff sell the renewal of to council, outperformed revenue targets.

Expectations were that the city would come out $150,000 ahead; the real collection was close to $1.12M.

Expenditures also trended well for the city.

A $2.3 million unfavorable variance in Fire and Rescue was offset, and then some, by a $10 million favorable variance in the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office budget.

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Despite these positives, a worry was expressed regarding pension contributions from the city that may be too low: “For the General Employees Pension Fund pension contributions, the City utilized the percentage of covered payroll method … However, as we have noted in recent years, this approach may result in the City under-contributing to the fund.”

And another worry was expressed regarding the emergency reserve, which came in below 5 percent at the end of September.

With $101 million in unassigned operating reserves, “the Emergency Reserve will fall short of the 5% target by $382,586 mainly due to an additional $8.0 million transfer from fund balance near the end of the budget process.”

The recommendation from the council auditor: an emergency reserve of at least $55 million.

Among the subfunds with some issues: municipal stadiums and arenas.

The stadium is over $3.5 million in the hole. The arena subfund is almost $1.6 million in the red. And the Performing Arts Center fund? Insolvent.

City Council has sought to increase user fees on these facilities to make the books balance, but that bill still has to clear one committee before the full council hears it in January.

Meanwhile, there are some line-item issues with the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, as “the Skyway Division, CTC Division and the General Fund/Engineering Division all overspent their Fiscal Year 2015/2016 amended budgets.”

The council auditor also threw major shade at JTA’s shoddy accounting practices: “It should be noted that while JTA submitted their quarterly report on time, there were numerous errors with JTA’s report. JTA had to submit their quarterly report three separate times before we could properly review the report for reasonableness. JTA should be reviewing their reports for errors and inconsistencies before submitting them to our office to ensure the quarterly reports agree to the supporting documentation.”

Behind the scenes, Robin Lumb guides Jacksonville’s public policy

Compared to other members of Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry‘s administration, Policy Director Robin Lumb has a behind the scenes role.

He’s rarely at meetings of the city council – an irony, of sorts, given his term spent among that body.

However, Lumb has been working on the policy side, on issues that largely are under the radar until they are in the news.

FloridaPolitics.com reviewed memos and policy papers from Lumb’s tenure, which started last summer, and we found that his role encompasses many different areas.

Though Lumb is rarely quoted in the press, the policy director exacts influence over a great deal of city decision making, including macro issues – such as logistics around the re-creation of the Neighborhoods Department – and more granular, day to day concerns.

Lumb’s initiatives have a direct effect on administration policy.

Just as importantly, however, they also frame the narrative.

As Lenny Curry and his political team know very well, it is narrative that drives the future.

And even though Lumb doesn’t give quotes, he helps to shape that unfolding story.

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One strong example of such: executing Lenny Curry’s “vision for Jacksonville,” a 2015 campaign document that expresses priorities, such as public safety, economic opportunity, education, neighborhoods, and downtown.

In a September 2016 memo to Chief of Staff Kerri Stewart, Lumb formulated a strategy.

The “next six months,” Lumb noted, need to contain “specific policy recommendations and initiatives to address key features in all policy areas” in the plan.

All of these will “require funding and need to be addressed in the FY 17-18 budget … At a minimum, we need to be seen as having done two or three significant things in each policy area by July 1, 2018.”

“Lenny Curry’s ‘Vision for Jacksonville’ will be the benchmark against which we are measured in the 2019 election,” writes Lumb.

“For obvious reasons,” Lumb adds, “it’s important that we begin to act on it.”

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Actions take many forms, and occur in many areas.

Among those areas: crafting the first letter requesting assistance to HUD Secretary Julian Castro regarding the issues in Eureka Gardens, a few pages that set into motion a series of events, including the compelled sale of Global Ministries Foundation properties and the re-election bid of Sen. Marco Rubio.

Another area where Lumb’s impact has been felt: Hemming Park, a perpetual lightning rod for controversy.

Much of the coverage of Hemming’s issues has revolved around public disorder, mainly predicated around the unpredictable and extra-legal actions of the transient community that congregates there when weather permits.

Lumb’s first concern? The tree canopy.

Lumb noted that a vast majority of the oak trees in the park will need removal sooner than later, as they were planted in 1978, and the typical lifespan for these trees is between 30 and 50 years.

Beyond that, Lumb does address that transient community: “the city does not have a compelling interest in creating conditions in the park conducive to attracting any group of persons looking for a place to ‘hang out’ for extended periods of time … people who otherwise have no reason to be downtown other than to receive services from homeless agencies, food kitchens, and shelters.”

Lumb’s recommendation: that Hemming Park become Hemming Plaza again, and be returned to the custody of the Parks Department.

Friends of Hemming Park or a similar non-profit could be retained for the express purpose of promoting events, managing vendors, et al.

Lumb’s other suggestions: surveillance cameras, replacing the sickest trees, and removing the park’s two fountains.

Many of these suggestions seem to be on their way, with the city taking back control of the park.

One important suggestion that Curry’s critics would want to see: a “well-managed day center for the homeless.”

If the mayor were to roll out a proposal for something along these lines, one could expect the timing to be deliberate: perhaps the March ICARE meeting of local socially-conscious church types would be that time.

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Lumb’s input has also been provided on Jacksonville’s controversial red light camera program, the only advocates of which seem to be in the sheriff’s office or the editorial room of the Florida Times-Union.

Lumb noted that the contract with Redflex is set to expire at the end of 2017, and will require a new RFP for extension.

Lumb also noted that the city boosted its statutorily mandated cap on debt, which was set at $7.8 million, but actually increased to $12.6 million due to these $3,999 cameras.

Lumb concludes that, while the city’s red light camera program is “well-designed” compared to some in the state, it would be incumbent on Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams to push for an extension of the program.

Williams, “the most credible actor in this process,” should “take the lead in any effort to continue and/or expand the program here in Jacksonville.”

Another way to read that: the mayor won’t gain any political capital from becoming the mouthpiece for Redflex, and should leave that task to others.

Beyond red light cameras, Lumb also has advocated the “Shotspotter” technology that will be implemented in the city’s violent crime hot zones to detect the location from which stray gunshots may hail.

“I’ve been an advocate for this technology for some time and nothing I’ve heard or read during my research has convinced me otherwise,” Lumb writes, advocating its deployment over “several square miles” with money from the Jacksonville Journey budget.

Lumb’s recommendation prevailed in the budget, with a pilot program rolling out in 2017.

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Lumb’s commentary is not restricted to enforcement issues.

Consider, for example, his comments on the St. Johns River Accord, an agreement to clean the tributary that ended in July 2016.

Lumb offered a report on the project, which was suffused with his characteristic deadpan presentation.

“It’s arguable whether the accord represented a genuine effort to jumpstart the process of improving water quality or was primarily an attempt to package, for public consumption, a series of water quality projects that COJ and JEA were already legally obligated to carry out,” Lumb wrote.

Lumb suggested that, in continuing the work of the accord, that the mayor’s office should create a “Nitrogen Reduction Working Group” including the city, JEA, the St. Johns River Water Management District, and FDEP, convening the group in early 2017 with a report due by the year’s end.

This would “demonstrate a continued commitment to the health of the St. Johns River,” Lumb wrote.

Among Lumb’s papers: a draft of a press release issued by the mayor’s office opposing water withdrawals from the St. Johns River.

Though the mayor’s position did not prevail, it did achieve an easy political win with locals, especially those more ambivalent about Curry than the GOP base.

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Lumb was also pointman on Mayor Curry’s “official comments” regarding the EPA cleanup plan for the Kerr-McGee Superfund site.

The site, a former fertilizer factory for 85 years, requires massive remediation.

In the letter Lumb crafted outlining Curry’s “official position,” the mayor expressed concern about contamination beyond the property line, into adjacent lots, the St. Johns River, and Deer Creek.

The letter, Lumb notes, is “not inconsistent” with the position of the St. Johns Riverkeeper.

As with the previous river messaging, there is a conscious balancing of policy objectives and political realities.

Often, there is little daylight between the two.

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An interesting example of Lumb attempting to throw a stiff arm to a local columnist: an August draft of a letter, from the mayor, responding to Ron Littlepage’s column opposing the pension reform referendum that passed overwhelmingly at the end of the month.

Much of Lumb’s policy analysis is antiseptic, weighing costs and benefits in a dispassionate way.

The Lumb response to Littlepage had the kind of swagger one might expect from a former county chair of the Republican Party.

“Littlepage announced … that he was finally getting off the fence to vote against the ‘Yes for Jacksonville’ plan to permanently fix our pension problem,” Lumb wrote.

“It’s just too bad he got off on the wrong side of the fence,” Lumb quipped.

Lumb asserts that the veteran columnist has “problems with … math” and understanding of the legislation behind the referendum, as he defended the referendum in light of “pension costs [having] eaten nearly one-third of the city’s annual budget.”

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Robin Lumb doesn’t seek out the press. And he doesn’t get the publicity for his role that he theoretically could.

But what is clear: Lumb sees a long-term vision for the administration.

And in his niche, he is helping to bring that vision to reality.

Almost two years ago, Lumb used his role as Duval GOP chair to help guide the party’s executive committee toward an endorsement of Lenny Curry in the mayoral race.

Now, with Curry in office, Lumb has a quieter role, but a role every bit as instrumental to the administration’s success, both in terms of first-term policy and the seemingly inevitable re-election campaign.

Lenny Curry is INFLUENCE Magazine’s Florida Politician of the Year for 2016

It’s fair to say Lenny Curry had one heck of the year. He did everything from addressing the public pension funding shortfall to bracing his community for a 100-year storm. And now the 46-year-old Jacksonville mayor can add one more thing to his list of 2016 accomplishments: INFLUENCE Magazine’s 2016 Politician of the Year.

The biggest issue in Jacksonville in recent years has been the pension shortfall, something that piqued Curry’s interest early on. Mayors had come and gone, unable to solve the problem. But the Curry administration found a fix: an unprecedented referendum extending a half-cent infrastructure tax past its 2030 sunset, creating a stable funding source for the obligation.

“It intrigued me,” he said. “There was great and significant political risk pursuing this in the first term, specifically within the first year, but if you want to do big things, you’ve got to play big ball.

He did his homework and decided to move forward, saying he “wasn’t going to let it sit for four years.” The decision to move forward was the right one; voters overwhelmingly approved the measure earlier this year.

But that wasn’t his only challenge in 2016. As Hurricane Matthew barreled toward Florida, Curry was one of dozens of elected officials up and down the state’s east coast urging their residents to stay out of harm’s way. The community was spared a direct hit, but the impact from the storm was severe.

Curry said he was “completely and totally at comfort and at ease in handling the decision making, the preparation, and the communication” before, during and after the storm. And he looked to Gov. Rick Scott, a long-time friend and political ally, for advice and encouragement.

With 2016 in the rear view mirror, Curry is now looking toward the future. That means focusing on downtown revitalization efforts and discussions about social legislation.

Want to know more about our 2016 Politician of the Year? Check out AG Gancarski‘s profile of Curry in the 2016 winter edition of INFLUENCE Magazine, available online now.

LISC unveils ambitious redevelopment plan for Jacksonville’s Eastside

Jacksonville’s Eastside faces challenges on par with any area in Jacksonville.

One census tract has 51.2 percent of its residents below the poverty line, an 18 percent unemployment rate, and a $23,158 median household income.

Another nearby tract is even worse.

65.3 percent of residents fall below the poverty line, and 60.3 percent are unemployed. Median household income is below $11,000. Housing prices in these tracts are around $65K on average.

Health outcomes in the Eastside are just as bad.

The Eastside is part of Health Zone 1, the worst in the city, where half of all children live in poverty. Two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese. Less than a sixth of the population has post-secondary education.

And as one would expect, violent crime is also an issue. From the police shooting of Vernell Bing, Jr. to the drive by shooting of toddler Aiden McClendon, the Eastside is wracked with outcomes closer to the Third World than the First World.

This, despite city money going into EverBank Field, the Jacksonville Veterans’ Memorial Arena, and the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville.

These projects, expected to bring economic benefit to the neighborhoods that house them, have yet to.

Despite the Eastside’s seemingly perennial struggles, there may be hope for a turnaround in the next few years, if an ambitious redevelopment plan gets traction and buy-in from civic leaders.

LISC Jacksonville – the Local Initiatives Support Corporation – presented the mayor’s office with as “Eastside Initiative” plan on Thursday.

Billed by Executive Director Janet Owens as a “redevelopment strategy that incorporates the rich heritage and culture of this neighborhood,” Owens expects detailed discussions with senior staff for Mayor Lenny Curry in the coming weeks.

The Eastside Initiative has five areas of focus: the Business Association/District; coordinated rehabilitation and infill development; “strategic site acquisitions”; multi-family development; and jobs/workforce development.

The plan currently calls for 285 multi-family rental units and “36,000 square feet of commercial/training space for workforce development,” via a training/education center on Albert Street.

The expectation: that the plan would “catalyze” additional housing projects “leading to the preservation and/or creation of 700-800 additional units of housing.”

All of this, however, is contingent on the city “acquiring, assembling, and transferring strategic parcels” in the area on and around A. Philip Randolph Blvd.

Development would impact both Springfield and the Eastside both.

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Broadly speaking, the plan has three initial development phases.

The first: redevelopment of the lower part of A. Philip Randolph Blvd. This includes “large scale, mixed income multi-family development” and rehabilitation and redevelopment of vacant lots and extant housing stock.

The northern part of A. Philip Randolph is next, including revitalization of existing green space, adaptive reuse of a vacant warehouse site, and single-family and multi-family infill.

From there, more in-fill housing on arterial streets would follow.

The first part of 2016 would be devoted to site assessment and environmental testing, project design, and community engagement.

If all goes as planned, total capital investment in the project would reach $21.705 million by the end of 2020.

To put this number in perspective, the city plans to invest $6.8 million for a Lower Eastside drainage project, remedying a long-term infrastructural problem.

And the city’s big ask this legislative session: $50 million to remove the Hart Bridge offramps by the stadium, routing traffic instead onto the underutilized Bay Street to service the sports complex and expected development at Metropolitan Park and the Shipyards.

If all these plans come together, the Eastside may look different when Lenny Curry leaves office than when he took control of City Hall’s fourth floor.

In Jacksonville, Adam Putnam talks energy independence, technology, and transportation

On Thursday, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam spoke in Jacksonville, capping off an event at the North Florida TPO.

After a discussion by local leaders on advancing technology in the sector, including electric buses and autonomous vehicles, Putnam spoke of the unique challenges Northeast Florida will face via rapid growth.

Putnam said that local transportation advances “personified disruption,” with the potential to “turn the [sector] on its head.”

“When these things start to happen, they happen quickly,” Putnam said.

Putnam lauded Jacksonville and the Jacksonville Transportation Authority for converting vehicles to clean energy as well, before pivoting into remarks about the “generational shift” related to driving habits and the cities of the future.

Kids today, Putnam said, aren’t as yoked to vehicle ownership as generations in the past.

Despite this shift, congestion is a statewide impact, Putnam noted, along with lack of infrastructure.

These issues affect commuters, but they also affect businesses reliant on infrastructure to make their margins.

Congestion: a “quality of life impediment and a drag on the economy.”

Putnam speculated on a big federal infrastructure bill, urging that “Florida gets its fair share,” and adding that there is “no better time than to be investing in infrastructure projects.”

Northeast Florida, said Putnam, is a model for the rest of the state.

The “revolutionary” shift in oil and natural gas production in the last decade domestically has helped Florida.

“We have established North American energy independence,” Putnam said. “It’s a new dynamic.”

To capitalize on that, specifically relative to natural gas, the infrastructure — from pipelines to ports — is imperative.

Regarding post-Panamax ships, Putnam noted “they’re only going to stop here if there’s something to put back on that boat.”

“Northeast Florida is uniquely positioned to take advantage of that renaissance in manufacturing,” Putnam said, and “can be that hub of activity for energy development, port and trade business, and energy storage.”

Disruption was a recurrent theme in Putnam’s remarks, which also posited that the increased demand for STEM jobs will be an economic driver.

“We need an economy and an education system that prepares talent for those career tracks,” Putnam said.

However, said Putnam, there is an “angst” for those such as truck drivers, fleet maintenance workers, and so on.

Technology advancements require people to become “adaptive and agile,” which can be difficult for workers who are displaced.

However, said Putnam, attention to “workforce development” will help to mitigate the effects of unavoidable changes.

In homecoming speech, John Rutherford addresses Jacksonville business club

On Wednesday, Congressman-elect John Rutherford addressed Jacksonville’s Southside Business Men’s Club at their weekly meeting.

Well before the program began, Rutherford was talking to club members like old friends. And people at tables were swapping Rutherford stories.

Not a surprise, given the former Jacksonville Sheriff’s deep roots in the community, and fourteen years in the club.

One day after Rep. Ander Crenshaw briefly addressed the crowd of dignitaries at the JAXUSA quarterly awards, saying of D.C. that he wouldn’t miss the “circus,” but he would miss the “clowns,” Rutherford prepared to become Jacksonville’s establishment ringmaster.

Rutherford noted that “it was always an honor and a privilege to serve as sheriff,” calling law enforcement a “calling” and a “ministry.”

“It’s funny the way the lord works. He shut the door on law enforcement, through term limits … when you’ve been in God’s grace for 41 years doing what you want to do, it’s kind of tough.”

Rutherford’s priest told him to “accept” God’s grace, and with Crenshaw’s retirement, “God opened another door.”

“This is no less a calling for me than law enforcement was,” Rutherford said regarding the House.

Rutherford then pivoted to orientation stories.

Speaker Paul Ryan was hosting a dinner inside the Capitol’s Statuary Hall, and when Rutherford and his wife were walking to the Capitol, “it took my breath away.”

“The enormous responsibility of it really hit me,” Rutherford declaimed.

Inside the dinner, Rutherford noticed a plaque: “John Quincy Adams’ desk sat here.”

That reminded Rutherford of his “obligation to the district,” to the weight of following Crenshaw, Tillie Fowler, and Charlie Bennett.

Rutherford told a story of Election Night.

His wife looked down at her phone at 7:10 and exclaimed that “they just called your race.”

Of course, that race was decided more or less in the primary, something that couldn’t be said about the top of the ticket.

By 3:30 in the morning, with Trump’s election, Rutherford was reassured.

With majorities in both houses, “I believe that we can do great things for this country.”

Congress knows, Rutherford said, that it needs to fix overregulation and taxation.

High corporate taxes, Rutherford said, keeps capital offshore.

Lowering taxes and systemic reform could lead to repatriation, Rutherford said, with some “true reform on the international side where they’re going to go with territorial tax.”

The regulatory process, Rutherford said, would be “moved back into Congress where it belongs.”

“The executive branch has been legislating by fiat, and all of that is going to stop,” Rutherford said.

Securing the borders, with “drugs and violence that pour across our southern border that is no longer sovereign,” is a priority.

As is “taking care of our veterans.”

If veterans are not taken care of, “the next generation ain’t gonna sign up,” and there’s “nothing better than a volunteer military.”

Another priority: stemming $150 billion of “waste and fraud in entitlements.”

“It is off the chain,’ Rutherford said, vowing to “get us back to a welfare to work state rather than an entitlement state.”

All of this, Rutherford contended, is part of the quest to “make America great again.”

When advised not to reach across the aisle by an audience member, Rutherford demurred.

“I don’t mind reaching out. I think we should convince them to go with us on the journey,” Rutherford said, noting that it’s “up to them” if they “don’t want to come on the journey.”

That journey will include tax reform (which could include a flat tax or a “fair tax”), and a hard look at Social Security and Medicare, with an eye toward spurring the economy toward 4 percent growth.

“We are never going to cut our way out of a $19-20 trillion budget. We have to grow our way out,” Rutherford said, “and I can’t think of anyone better [to lead the way] than the next president.”

There are limitations, of course, to what a freshman can do; Rutherford doesn’t expect to be on Appropriations next year.

However, as a freshman who essentially won his race in August, he was able to help out with other campaigns, building the kind of political capital with House leadership that might give him a leg up over some of his freshman class.

Some news came out of this event also, including key staff announcements.

Kelly Simpson will be Rutherford’s chief of staff, moving over from Robert Hurt’s office. Jackie Smith, a Crenshaw holdover, will run the district office.

Rutherford expects a staff of between 14 and 18 people in the end.

Of Trump’s cabinet picks, Rutherford is especially excited about Scott Pruitt at the EPA.

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