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Amended HRO expansion bill clears first Jacksonville City Council committee

Monday morning saw the first of three Jacksonville City Council committees approve the latest attempt to expand the Human Rights Ordinance.

The vote was 4-2.

The measure would extend protections in housing, public accommodations, and employment on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression.

As well, the bill offered in its original form carve out employment protections for businesses with fewer than 15 employees, and for owners of owner-operated rental homes and four unit buildings.

As you will read below, an amendment was passed allowing such protections for businesses with fewer than 50 employees … a measure which speaks to a fragmentation in the process.

The bill also exempts some religious organizations such as churches, synagogues, mosques, religious schools, and affiliated non-profits.

Despite the attempt to produce a clean bill, there were questions even before discussion started.

The agenda for the meeting of the Monday Morning Neighborhoods, Community Investments, and Services committee noted that the “legislation is brief” and that “thorough discussion” was recommended in committee.

Thorough discussion happened — though the bulk of it dealt with a substitute bill advanced by Councilman Bill Gulliford, drafted in the hours before the meeting.

The substitute ultimately failed, with just two votes in support after a lot of discussion.

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Gulliford’s sub included changes such as “gender identity” to “transgender identity.”

“One of the big problems,” Gulliford said, is “the number of different gender identities out there.”

Religious organizations would become a “broader” definition, Gulliford said, including such as homeless shelters.

“What I’m attempting to do,” Gulliford said, “is to make it as acceptable to all parties as possible … a serious attempt to try to end up in a place where both sides may feel a little better about it.”

“The big issues are the bathroom issue, the religious liberty issue, and the impact to small businesses,” Gulliford said.

Gulliford also referred to a letter of opposition from the Diocese of St. Augustine, which invoked the principle of “conscientious objection” to laws perceived to be unjust.

Among the features of the bill: a person being exempted from the bill if he or she is acting in accordance with a religious belief, including a belief that marriage is between one man and one woman — a provision that runs counter to federal anti-discrimination laws.

Council VP John Crescimbeni wondered if this substitute conflicted with Florida Statute, federal or state law.

The office of general counsel had no answer.

Council President Lori Boyer noted that the substitute bill would require a re-referral.

Councilman Greg Anderson took issue with Gulliford coining a term “transgender identity,” which Gulliford said was a “way to avoid a lot of argument” and “be more definitive.”

“I’ve done a lot of research on this. I’ve never seen it before,” Anderson noted.

Councilman Tommy Hazouri noted the conflict between Gulliford’s substitute and federal law.

Councilman Jim Love, a bill co-sponsor, noted also that worries of lawsuits and assaults — a specter raised by HRO expansion opponents — did not come to pass in Tampa, a city to which Jacksonville is losing jobs and economic opportunity.

As did many of his colleagues, Love opposed the bill substitute.

Love also noted that 50 percent of the state was protected by legislation barring discrimination on sexual orientation and gender identity grounds.

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Responding to the substitute, bill sponsor Aaron Bowman noted that there were 30,000 service officers in Jacksonville, with 85 percent required to live outside the gates because of a lack of housing.

“A portion” of that group is divested of rights once off their base, Bowman said, especially given the military offering protections to the LGBT community.

Bowman also noted that, out of the emails he’d received on the subject, he found that out of over 3,000 emails, 2,768 support the legislation.

“That’s a 10 to 1 ratio,” Bowman said, adding later that in other cities, “the world hasn’t stopped” because of this legislation.

Councilman Tommy Hazouri, another bill sponsor, noted his contention that the council has a duty to move the bill through committees and vote on it next week.

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Gulliford had his say, of course, and stood by his substitute.

Councilman Garrett Dennis, meanwhile, asserted that the current bill is just “words on paper” because the aggrieved party “has nowhere to go to report, to complain” for relief.

The general counsel’s office described recourse, through the Jacksonville Human Rights Commission, which includes “conciliation” between the parties and a potential cause finding that could assert grounds for actionable grievance.

Among the potential penalties: a $500 fine and a 90 day jail stretch.

Dennis noted that the director position, which would be necessary for enforcement, is currently unfunded; he has a bill (2016-35) to rectify that.

“This bill doesn’t go far enough in protecting who we already have and who we’re trying to add,” Dennis said.

Notable: the vast majority of complaints the JHRC hears are employment complaints related to medium-sized businesses, with 1 percent of them driven by public accommodations such as bathrooms.

Some complaints are filed by “frequent fliers,” described by JHRC Director Charlene Taylor-Hill as people who complain repeatedly.

In other jurisdictions, said the JHRC director, the addition of SOGI protections has not led to the need for additional staff.

Councilman Doyle Carter noted that the extended process of inquiry hurts the “little guy, who does not have the resources” for a lengthy JHRC investigation.

However, that burden exists now.

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Councilman Gulliford, feeling a loss coming on, got fired up.

Gulliford noted that in Houston, legislation was repealed by citizen referendum.

“You have to anticipate the worst of situations that may arise,” Gulliford said, noting that liberties are being granted to one group at the expense of another.

Councilman Hazouri said “this is not a bathroom bill like it was in Houston,” noting that the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office agreed with him.

“This bill is voted on on Valentine’s Day. Will it be Happy Valentine’s Day or a Valentine’s Day Massacre?”

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The Gulliford substitute was dispatched, but amendments were offered to chip away at the bill.

One amendment: to increase the number of employees a small business could have for purposes of exemption from the sexual orientation/gender identity provisions to 50, which contravenes federal statute from the EEOCleaving the city exposed to litigation.

That amendment passed 4-2, with Garrett Dennis joining Doyle Carter, Bill Gulliford, and Joyce Morgan in support.

Council VP John Crescimbeni thundered that “this creates a two-tier system,” allowing discrimination against LGBT people that would be otherwise barred by the bill.

“That’s insane,” Crescimbeni said.

Hazouri said “we have to be consistent with what we do, just like we have to be consistent with what our sexuality is.”

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From there, discussion moved toward the meta-discourse realm, with Councilman Dennis wanting to know how the city can “regulate a private business.”

“How in the world do we regulate it here in this city,” Dennis said.

Gulliford voiced his opposition to the measure again, calling it “onerous” toward those who oppose these “burdens of laws,” with potential for “frivolous enforcement” due to the malleability of the “gray area of proof.”

Despite those caveats, the bill passed 4-2. And Dennis supported it.

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Speaking after the meeting, Councilman Dennis discussed his thought process on the bill, including backing the amendment that seems to create tiers of permissible discrimination.

“I spoke to a few business owners,” Dennis said, and “their sweet spot is around 50” employees.

Dennis believes that protections should be “consistent across the board,” and suggested that maybe he “misunderstood” the amendment he voted for.

Dennis is also coy about where he stands on the bill.

“No one has gotten a yes or no out of me,” Dennis said. “I still have a couple of days to figure out” a position.

Dennis suggested that one way forward may to be raise the threshold of actionable discrimination to companies with 50 employees across the board, which means that the full human rights ordinance — and not just the proposed addition — would be out of compliance with EEOC guidelines.

However, “the LGBT plight is totally different” from the experience of African-Americans, Dennis added.

The next committee stop for this bill: Rules on Tuesday afternoon.

 The chair: Garrett Dennis.

Jacksonville’s HRO expansion is in sight, but questions loom

With less than a week to go before 2017-15, the latest attempt to expand the Human Rights Ordinance, hits three Jacksonville City Council committees, advocates are rightly optimistic and proud of the progress they’ve made in educating the council.

The HRO expansion bill would include sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression as categories in the current HRO, protecting people on those grounds from discrimination in the housing market, the workplace, and in terms of public accommodations, such as bathrooms and locker rooms.

The carefully-worded bill includes carve out protections for businesses with under 15 employees, and for religious organizations.

Even as some outside groups, such as the Anti-Defamation League, say that the religious exceptions go too far, advocates of expansion know that they are the price to pay to get a HRO passed that protects people on the grounds of gender identity.

There is some rough consensus on the vote count that will emerge February 14.

Most say there are at least 11 votes in favor; the goal is 13, a number that would remove Mayor Lenny Curry from having to take a position on it either way.

Despite that, there are reasons for caution, on the local, state, and national levels.

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On the local level, a familiar face returns to City Hall to warn against HRO expansion on Thursday afternoon.

Roger Gannam of the Liberty Council will address members of the panel at 2:00 p.m. Thursday, at the request of Councilman Bill Gulliford (an opponent of expansion of the ordinance).

Gannam asserts that “Jacksonville does not have an LGBT discrimination problem that needs to be solved.”

2017-15, says Gannam, would force “businesses and citizens” to “open their women’s facilities to men.”

The bill would also compel those same parties to “celebrate” same-sex relationships.

Gannam has had plenty of exposure in Jacksonville during the HRO debate. He’s not expected to say anything new regarding the impacts of the HRO expansion.

However, in an attempt to get 13 votes on this measure, it is entirely possible that Gannam could sway a council member toward his moral case.

The margin for error is nil for expansion advocates. And Gannam’s role is to impart reasonable doubt.

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In addition to local resistance to expanding the HRO, a bill filed in the Florida House this week could impact local ordinances such as this one.

House Bill 17, filed by Republican Randy Fine, would preempt and supersede local regulations governing businesses.

Exceptions include laws adopted before Jan. 1, 2017, though the Fine bill would have those local regulations sunset at the end of 2019.

Another exception: regulations “expressly authorized” by the state.

While Jacksonville’s current HRO, which does not include so-called SOGI protections, would qualify as a pre-existent law, any expansion of the HRO may be argued as being in conflict with the Fine bill.

Our sources in Tallahassee confirm that there will be a Senate sponsor.

While it is theoretically possible that someone in the Duval Delegation might move to have the expanded HRO “expressly authorized” by the state, in practical terms there are only two people, both Democrats, who would push for that: Sen. Audrey Gibson and Rep. Tracie Davis.

The Fine bill may be less than fine for LGBT equality advocates, in its amorphously-worded current form.

One more note of caution: the low number on the bill filed on Jan. 31 suggests a tacit endorsement from House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

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On the federal level, mixed signals have been sent from the Donald Trump administration regarding LGBT rights.

While he was lauded, albeit cautiously, for continuing the Obama policy of barring workplace discrimination against federal contractors and employees, there is fear that the other shoe will drop in the form of a new executive order.

The Nation, a left-of-center publication, produced language from a so-called “leaked draft” of Trump’s  “Establishing a Government-Wide Initiative to Respect Religious Freedom” executive order.

Trump, once seen as an unlikely exponent of the policy goals of the religious right, embraced its agenda during the GOP primaries.

This draft language, according to The Nation, “covers ‘any organization, including closely held for-profit corporations,’ and protects ‘religious freedom’ in every walk of life: ‘when providing social services, education, or healthcare; earning a living, seeking a job, or employing others; receiving government grants or contracts; or otherwise participating in the marketplace, the public square, or interfacing with Federal, State or local governments’.”

 “Americans and their religious organizations will not be coerced by the Federal Government into participating in activities that violate their conscience,” the order reads.

While there are serious questions as to what the order would ultimately mean, or even if it would pass legal scrutiny to be released in anything close to its current form, it adds another layer of uncertainty to a potential long-awaited expansion of Jacksonville’s HRO.

Ballard Partners going national, opens D.C. office

Ballard Partners is extending its reach, announcing it is opening an office in Washington, D.C.

Brian Ballard, the firm’s president, announced this week Ballard Partners has opened an office in the nation’s capital. The announcement comes just weeks after President Donald Trump, who Ballard supported, took the oath of office.

“There is great enthusiasm with President Trump’s new administration in Washington. We are thrilled to be part of this excitement with the opening of our new Ballard Partners office in our nation’s capital,” said Ballard in a statement. “We have assembled a first class team to lead our office in Washington, and we look forward to representing our clients on a path to success at the federal level.”

That top-notch team includes Dan McFaul, a 20-year veteran of Capitol Hill. McFaul served as the chief of staff for newly U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, was a staffer on Trump’s transition team, and was the chief of staff and communications director for former Rep. Jeff Miller. He also served as former Rep. Joe Scarborough’s legislative director and deputy press secretary.

With an expansive client list, it isn’t surprising that Ballard has decided to open up an D.C. office. The firm is regularly one of the top earning lobby firms in the state; and in December, it announced a strategic partnership with Chicago-based All-Circo political consulting firm.

But beyond the expanding the firm’s reach, the decision to open up shop just weeks after Trump’s inauguration might not be that astonishing.

Ballard served as the finance chairman for his campaign in Florida, and was selected to serve as one of the finance vice chairs on the Presidential Inaugural Committee. He was a top adviser to the New York Republican during his presidential bid, and there were rumblings he might be nominated for an ambassadorship.

And their relationship goes beyond politics. Ballard served as the Trump Organization’s lobbyist before the Florida Legislature for several years.

Susie Wiles, who ran Trump’s successful Florida campaign, will also be joining the D.C. office. Wiles, a managing partner at Ballard Partners Jacksonville office, will split her time between Washington, D.C. and Jacksonville.

“Ballard Partners’ Washington, D.C. office will help provide clients critical access to the happenings at the federal level,” she said in a statement. “We are excited to hit the ground running with the powerhouse team we’ve assembled.”

The D.C. team will also include Otto Reich, the former ambassador to Venezuela.

Reich also served as the assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, the Special Envoy for the Western Hemisphere under President George W. Bush, and a senior staff member of the National Security Council. Reich was appointed as ambassador to Venezuela by President Ronald Reagan, where he served from 1986 to 1989.

“I am thrilled to join Ballard Partners in the new Washington, D.C. office at a very exciting time in our country’s history,” said Reich in a statement. “I look forward to helping bring the Ballard Partners standard of first-class government relations to Washington.”

Sylvester “Syl” Lukis has been tapped to lead the D.C. office. Lukis, a senior partner in Ballard Partners, brings more than 40 years of experience in government and representing clients Florida and Washington, D.C. to the position.

Anti-Defamation League backs expanded Jacksonville Human Rights Ordinance

Though some religious organizations, such as the Catholic Diocese of St. Augustine, liken expanding Jacksonville’s Human Rights Ordinance to the “darkest days of World War II,” other groups have different takes.

On Jan. 26, the Anti-Defamation League sent Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry a letter, urging Jacksonville to take a “leadership role by adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the HRO.

In fact, the ADL claims the proposed ordinance — 2017-15 — doesn’t go far enough.

The “exemption for religious institutions and non-profit affiliated organizations appears to go well beyond the religious exemption found in analogous federal employment discrimination, public accommodations, and fair housing laws,” the ADL asserts.

The “religious exemption as currently written is overly broad,” the ADL adds.

The ADL also calls the allegations that the bill’s public accommodations requirement pose a threat to public safety “completely unfounded,” especially in light of extant state laws prohibiting assault, molestation, et al.

The controversy over the proposed expansion of the HRO continues this week, with a press conference in Jacksonville’s city hall opposing expansion Tuesday afternoon, followed up by a Thursday “public notice” meeting on the topic.

Jacksonville Bold for 01.27.17 – Back in business

Jacksonville Bold is back with a new format.

Here we will offer our take on 10 of Northeast Florida’s biggest stories — beyond the blow-by-blow — explaining, as ever, why something is happening.

And why it’s important.

This edition will take readers inside issues related to the city’s legislative priorities, the Human Rights Ordinance debate, collective bargaining with police and fire unions, and other urgent matters.

1. What Lenny Curry is reading

An online article this week in Bloomberg was probably the most useful piece of publicity the Jacksonville Mayor’s efforts have received this month.

“Wall Street is hiring … in Florida” spotlighted some of the big momentum Jacksonville has gotten in the financial sector over the last couple of years.

Bloomberg notes that Deutsche Bank and MacQuarie have brought some C-suite folks to Duval.

“Also in Jacksonville are more than 19,000 employees of Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo,” Bloomberg notes, describing the “nearshoring” trend that Donald Trump is expected to accelerate.

Why Jacksonville? Office space costs a quarter of what it does in New York. Employees can get paid two-thirds what they make in the Big Apple. And as these companies almost invariably say, the Chamber and the mayor’s office push in ways other cities do not.

Even if, as a Deutsche Bank exec laments, you “can’t get Indian food at 11:30 p.m.,” a company can affect savings that enhance the bottom line, reassure shareholders and perhaps drive corporate bonuses.

2. Seven year itch

The city of Jacksonville negotiated with police and fire unions this week, and it seems like every time the city meets with these groups, negotiators sweeten the offer.

The goal: to move new hires to defined contribution plans, allowing the city to “get out of the pension business” eventually, as Mayor Curry says.

In the month’s previous meetings, the city offered a 25 percent match on DC plans for new hires.

This week, the city extended the possibility of seven-year agreements with each of the public safety unions — renewable within those agreements at three- and six-year intervals.

As well, in response to worries that police and fire hires lack an equivalent to Social Security, the city offered the prospect of a private annuity plan.

Floated during the police union meeting: mandating that, of the 33 percent combined match between the city and the employee, that 14 percent of that sum go into the annuity — effectively offering assurances that there would be a Social Security-style payment.

The city and its unions still have a way to go regarding negotiating raises for current employees, but a resolution of this issue may be in sight.

And, if a Florida House bill filed by Curry ally Jason Fischer that would close FRS’s defined benefit plan to new city plans goes through, then the city may really have the unions over a barrel.

(Speaking of that bill, Councilman Tommy Hazouri, an ally of the unions, believes it will be “dead on arrival.” Time will tell on that.)

Even if this issue were to be worked out immediately, though, the city isn’t done bargaining with the police union.

However, the Fraternal Order of Police also said Wednesday that they want collective bargaining before they put on body cameras. The city expects to roll out a pilot program this year. But before they can do that, the union wants to ensure it protects employees.

3. Exit ramp for Hart off ramp project?

A good get from Sebastian Kitchen in Thursday’s Florida Times-Union: the Curry Administration is hitting the brakes on its ask for $50 million for funds for the Hart Bridge off ramp project.

It’s probably just as well. Multiple members of the Duval County Legislative Delegation had told us, off the record, that they didn’t see the point.

One noted that the ask seemed motivated by Shad Khan and the impending amphitheater, an upgrade to the Sports Complex that should be paid off sometime in the next few decades, as bed tax revenues roll in to pay back money borrowed for the $88 million upgrades greenlighted in the Alvin Brown/Lenny Curry era.

While everyone agrees that the ramp is ugly, they don’t see the public safety argument Curry pushed at the Duval Delegation meeting.

What’s more, they — along with media — saw the case made in a manner not up to the standards of the current administration.

The case was made almost anecdotally, on the fly. And it was done without recognizing the reality that House Speaker Richard Corcoran isn’t just giving away money, and that the Duval House Delegation still needs a GPS to get around Tallahassee.

Kitchen notes that projects being pursued are “focused on public safety and neighborhoods, particularly those that are economically distressed.

“Other likely requests include continuing a grant that assists with funding community policing, pedestrian-safety improvements in areas prone to deadly crashes, a pump station to reduce flooding in San Marco, funding for ShotSpotter gunshot detection technology, and improvements to J. P. Small Memorial Park Stadium, one of the nation’s few remaining Negro League stadiums,” Kitchen notes.

Ambitious? No. But better to take ten easy wins than one hard loss, especially with HRO and collective bargaining looming over this mayor’s office.

4. Medical cannabis dispensary comes to Jacksonville

Jacksonville will have its first medical cannabis dispensary soon, reports First Coast News.

The announced Knox Medical location is 9901 San Jose Blvd., a retail location in the heavily-Republican Mandarin neighborhood, right next to a Smoothie King.

We talked to the Jose Hidalgo, president of Knox Medical last year about his ideas on the direction of the industry.

“I think education is key. My mom is 72 years old. She was completely freaked out … Just showing her how a suffering child is having 70-plus seizures a day and a single drop of CBD non-euphoric oil and the seizures stopped, she was already on board,” Hidalgo said. “This is a new world, when you talk about pharmaceutical. It’s not quite pharmaceutical. It’s not quite like pot. It’s a new space in medicine. And it’s an exciting time.”

For those who were paying attention two years ago, the city pushed one moratorium against dispensaries into law, then repealed it, then imposed another. There was palpable frustration among many activists about why the city had a “reefer madness”-styled discussion over Charlotte’s Web — the only medical strain legalized back in 2015.

Jacksonville used the second moratorium wisely, scheduling meetings with the Land Use and Zoning Committee and the Planning Commission to work out locational criteria for dispensaries to come.

Ordinance limits dispensaries to one per city planning district, with a minimum distance of a mile between them, permissible in non-residential zoning areas. And when we talked last year to Land Use & Zoning Committee (LUZ) Chair Danny Becton, he expressed confidence that this work laid the groundwork for implementation of Amendment 2.

Apparently, that was the case.

5. Liberty, at long last

What ended up being called the “Liberty Street collapse” became a great talking point for Mayor Curry during the 2015 mayoral campaign.

And, if all goes well, a successful fix might be a talking point in his re-election bid (if he runs again, of course).

WJXT reports that Superior Construction has 630 days to complete the reconstruction of the failed structure, on a $31 million contract.

In 2021, the FDOT will reimburse the city $7.5 million of that amount.

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6. Is Liberty just the name of a street?

Highlighting Tuesday’s Jacksonville City Council meeting was an extensive public hearing on the expansion of the Human Rights Ordinance.

Advocates for expansion want housing, job, and public accommodations protections for people on the grounds of sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. The bill language protects small businesses and religious organizations from abiding by this law, though it does not include a carve-out exemption from compliance for those who prefer to discriminate.

Expansion opponents frame this measure as a “bathroom bill,” an elaborate ruse designed primarily to ensure transgendered or those men who “identify” as female have carte blanche access to a women’s bathroom or locker room.

This is the same old debate we’ve been having here since 2012.

This time, advocates feel confident they may be able to get the bill passed. The expectation is that 11 to 13 yes votes may manifest.

Thirteen would be the magic number; a supermajority would take the issue off Curry’s desk. More likely, it will be 11 or 12.

And for Curry, who won’t leave politics anytime soon, it presents the toughest decision of his tenure.

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7. Ability Housing beats the NIMBY brigade

The Springfield neighborhood may not have wanted Ability Housing to develop a 12-unit apartment building to house veterans. And the city, sensitive to the community activists, may have thrown up some roadblocks.

Seemed like a good idea at the time.

But now, WOKV reports, it looks to have been all for naught.

“Federal court records obtained by WOKV show Ability Housing of Northeast Florida, Disability Rights of Florida, and the City of Jacksonville have come to terms over a pending lawsuit dealing with a project that would have housed homeless, disabled veterans in Springfield. A related case with the Department of Justice has also reached a settlement. In all, the City will pay close to $2 million in fines, attorney’s fees and other requirements, while making changed to zoning laws. The settlement comes without any admission of wrongdoing.”

Council must approve these settlements.

Springfield, a “neighborhood in transition” at least since the 1980s, continues to fight its battles between the urban pioneers who want the area to develop in the way that Riverside, Avondale, and San Marco have managed. The neighborhood’s proximity to a variety of social services for the dispossessed, which are antithetical to attempted gentrification, posed problems as well.

8. Local legislative delegations to meet next week.

Two local delegations will meet in their respective county seats next week.

Clay County’s delegation is slated to meet Monday afternoon at 4 p.m. at the county administration building in Green Cove Springs.

The next day, at 2 p.m., the Duval Delegation has a local bill hearing at Jacksonville’s city hall.

There are three local bills that the city council has urged for the upcoming session.

Two of them involve exceptions to liquor laws, with one seeking to lower seating requirements to 100 seats in some urban core neighborhoods, and the other trying to liberalize outdoor drinking rules during “special events” near the Sports Complex.

The third bill is more interesting: legislation to forbid the Duval County School Board chair from breaking a tie with his or her vote.

Those who remember last year’s personal discord between former chair Ashley Smith-Juarez and the current superintendent might note that there was a period when Smith-Juarez was suggesting Superintendent Nikolai Vitti should take his talents elsewhere.

Practically speaking, since the board was down to 6 members at that point, ASJ could have voted to bounce Vitti, and then become the deciding vote as the tie breaker.

9. Council prepares for “fifth week”

A gentle reminder: the Jacksonville City Council will be in its fifth week next week, and not meeting for committees.

Committees will start up again February 6 in a Monday-Wednesday schedule.

Expect council members to spend time reading hysterical emails against the HRO expansion, which for early February will be the major committee week topic.

Perhaps they will fit in some time to learn a phrase beloved by city hall reporters during votes on contentious issues such as the HRO.

“I call the question.”

10. Curry goes partisan.

Much has been said about “One City, One Jacksonville.” Yet in the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Jacksonville mayor proved yet again his partisan chops with a series of hot tweets over the weekend.

Saturday afternoon, after a presser by Trump’s comms guy Sean Spicer, saw the following:

“.@seanspicer talking reckless inaccurate “reporting” by some media via Twitter. Sadly, some media believe Twitter = immunity to facts … Subject/political party/issue/aside- some media members, those that put their names on new stories, treat Twitter w disregard for facts … It is reckless & inconsistent w objective, verified info- but as “rules” change we will adapt. That is all.”

Curry was, for reasons that might escape some locals, siding with the Trump administration in pushing back against reports that Trump’s inauguration wasn’t as big a draw as President Barack Obama’s first.

Wading into partisan waters offers both reward and risk.

A Republican mayor needs a good relationship with the Trump White House. However, given the very real possibility that scandal may strike the Trump administration at some point in the next four years (maybe even the next four minutes), it might be advisable to let Team MAGA carry its own water.

To put it another way: what has Spicer ever done for you?

 

Jacksonville, police union haggle over body cameras, pensions

As with the morning collective bargaining session with the city’s fire union, the city of Jacksonville’s afternoon session with the police union saw a sweetened offer for police and corrections.

But with the sweet comes the sour.

The Jacksonville Fraternal Order of Police held firm to the #YesToFRS position for new hires … and opened the door to collective bargaining on body cameras ahead of a pilot program to roll out later this year.

The body camera discussion was brief, but substantial, given that the discussion of body cameras so far has been between the sheriff and the city, with the union kept out of it

The local police union wanted “body worn cameras” to be subject to collective bargaining — a position that accords with that of the national Fraternal Order of Police.

“You need to understand, that’s for both — police and corrections,” local FOP Head Steve Zona said, reiterating a position taken in a previous bargaining session, in which the union said there was something else that needed to be put on the table.

Elsewhere, police unions have asked for compensation for wearing body cameras, which the sheriff’s office wants to begin rolling out in pilot form later this year.

Unions have been known to sue to secure their rights regarding body cameras.

The city was not ready to move forward on this discussion point.

However, Zona discussed the matter during a press gaggle after Tuesday afternoon’s meeting.

Zona noted that, while the FOP — locally, state, or national — did not oppose body cameras, negotiations were needed to develop policies and procedures to ensure the rights of union members were protected in the rollout of the cameras.

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Likewise, as one would expect: no major movement was made on the question of what a new pension plan would look like.

As with the fire union, a now-familiar sticking point: the city is offering a defined contribution plan instead of a defined benefit pension, and an annuity plan instead of Social Security, for police and corrections new hires.

The city offer, made earlier in January, included a 25 percent match on defined-contribution plans for new hires, with death and disability benefits comparable to those under the defined benefit plan currently in place, and raises for all current employees.

On Wednesday, the city sweetened the pot, offering an extended term of a labor agreement — effectively a seven-year deal, with terms revisited at three, six, and seven-year intervals — provided that it meets certain conditions.

“What you have before you is tantamount to a seven year waiver,” Gabriel said, of the city’s ability to change retirement benefits, assuming the “economy isn’t tanking.”

Among the conditions that must be satisfied for police, as with fire: a 7 percent annual rate of return on the fund, and 4 percent annual growth in the local sales tax revenue, and a three percent annual growth rate in the general fund.

“Those three indicators, which are reasonable indicators … would be automatic renewal … for the first three years,” said Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa.

“We think these are what’s needed to be in good shape,” said Mousa, adding that both the current plan and plan for new hires would be eligible for these terms.

Mousa also signaled a willingness, at some future point, to discuss “parity pay” between police and corrections.

Mousa also addressed the question of what happens if the surtax is challenged in court successfully.

“There’s currently a lawsuit that’s pending. If that lawsuit is resolved in favor of the city … that contingency goes away,” Mousa said, expressing confidence that the city would win the suit, and even if it didn’t, “it would be status quo until the appeal is adjudicated, and it will be a while until the appeal is adjudicated.”

“If this first lawsuit comes back negative against us before Oct. 1, everything will unravel,” Mousa said.

After Oct. 1, if the suit comes back negative, future pay raises would be off the table — but the restoration of the defined benefit plan benefits to current employees would stand.

Mousa also vowed that the city would restore all current members of the pension plan to a 3 percent COLA, removing a sticking point from the 2015 pension reform agreement.

Further discussion ensued between the union and city counsel, regarding the need to “modify or eliminate” aspects of the benefits and financing model of that same 2015 pension deal.

The city and the union provisionally agreed that the city council would vote before the union ratified the matter, though there was a divergence involving whether or not the Police and Fire Pension Fund had a vote.

The union lowered its raise proposals from 10 percent for each of the three years from FY 18 to 20 for police, bailiffs, and judicial officers, to 8 percent each year, and a 3 percent retroactive raise going back to Oct. 2014.

Meanwhile, the unions still want the FRS defined benefit plan for new hires in those employee groups. And, as with the fire union, that desire is rooted in an ineluctable context: that being a bill filed by a political ally of Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry to close the Florida Retirement System defined benefit plan to new hires.

“FRS is good enough for the bus drivers, we thought it would be good enough for police officers,” Zona said.

From there, Mousa floated the “end-plan annuity plan” that was floated in the fire union meeting, with CFO Mike Weinstein again making the pitch.

Weinstein noted that the unions and the city would decide what company makes the best plan for the city’s needs.

“We can even design it,” Weinstein said, “as a Social Security replacement,” with the city matching a 7 percent employee contribution.

That certainty would allow the employee to make an “educated guess” on what his or her payout might be on a recurrent basis at the end of his or her career, Weinstein added.

Zona and his union wanted to research this scheme further.

Jacksonville offers seven year agreement to firefighters in collective bargaining

On Monday, a political ally of Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry filed a bill that would close the Florida Retirement System’s defined benefit plan to new cities.

This is particularly relevant to Jacksonville’s police and fire unions, both of which want to see new hires put in the FRS defined benefit plan as a condition of collective bargaining.

The Jacksonville Association of Fire Fighters, which was the first of the two public safety unions to negotiate with the city on Wednesday, began the day by charging that Rep. Jason Fischer, who filed the FRS reform bill, was essentially doing the mayor’s bidding with this bill.

These developments seemed to undermine significant progress in collective bargaining, with the city having extended, earlier in the month, what Curry called a “deservedly rich” offer that had a 30-day window of acceptance.

That deal included a 25 percent match on defined-contribution plans for new hires, with death and disability benefits comparable to those under the defined benefit plan currently in place, and raises for all current employees.

On Wednesday, the city sweetened the pot, offering an extended term of a labor agreement — effectively a seven-year deal, with terms revisited at three, six, and seven-year intervals — provided that it meets certain conditions.

As well, in place of Social Security, a mechanism was floated to offer annuity accounts paralleling the DC plans.

However, the JAFF didn’t bite immediately. And Jason Fischer’s bill loomed over the whole event Wednesday.


Wednesday’s meeting started with a vocal disagreement between the city and the fire union about whether a collective bargaining deal can go beyond three years, with the city maintaining the limited term offers “dexterity to negotiate.”

General Counsel Jason Gabriel noted statute and case law prohibited governments from binding future elected officials to deals.

That said, he offered a waiver of benefit changes for seven years, “as long as the economy is of a certain value … it is an automatic renewal” after three years, then a second three years, then a year.

“In the event of some catastrophe, economically, there is some out,” Gabriel said.

Among the conditions that must be satisfied: a 7 percent annual rate of return on the fund, and 4 percent annual growth in the local sales tax revenue, and a three percent annual growth rate in the general fund.

Gabriel also said it was “possible” that after three years, a seven-year extension could be negotiated. Another scenario: after the second three-year term, with a year left in the seven-year deal, a negotiation could be for the next seven years.

“We want it legally defensible and not challenged,” said Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa.


 Other points the city brought up, in response to fire union inquiries.

One important one: the city council “will be open to voting on ratification” before the union’s vote.

Survivor and death benefits would remain unchanged, with all falling under pre-2015 deal benefit levels

One potential negative: the city offer does not include retroactive pay raises.


The fire union agreed on the pension proposal for existing employees but still had an issue with benefits for future hires.

“Our proposal on the table is still FRS. You’ve countered with a 401(k). You still haven’t given us a safety net,” said JAFF head Randy Wyse.

That safety net: Social Security.

“That’s why we think that FRS is the best for future employees, and now we have a [bill] that’s threatening that,” Wyse said, noting the “work done in Tallahassee” was not helped.

“To have people who are not at the table, who keep throwing these haymakers at us … I don’t understand it,” Wyse added.

“Every time we get a good feeling,” Wyse said, a “roadblock” emerges.

Mousa countered that the FRS was a nonstarter for the mayor from “day one,” when Curry floated a DC plan to the city council.

“Notwithstanding what Jason Fischer did,” Mousa said, “it’s got nothing to do with our mayor.”

“I don’t want to waste my time talking about Jason Fischer,” Mousa emphasized, saying Curry is “not controlled by Tallahassee” and “controls his own destiny.”


CFO Mike Weinstein then discussed a plan to provide “security” to new employees that the city had researched.

The plan: “in-plan annuities.”

A certain amount, determined by negotiation, of the 33 percent shared employee/employer contribution would go into the annuity.

“There’s a guarantee that it never goes down,” Weinstein said, “and hopefully it grows.”

The annuity would be disbursed periodically when an officer stops working.

The officer would have two accounts: the annuity account, and a defined contribution account, with levels of annuity “flexible” for the employee.

The plan would be “relatively conservative,” said Weinstein, driven by ROI. And the risk would be hazarded by the insurance company.

The guarantee, Weinstein added, is even better than a defined contribution plan.

“We can look at it as a Social Security replacement,” the CFO added.

Benefits are payable over the lifetime of the employee, or the employee and spouse.


The Fire Union had a proposal of its own regarding current employees.

Among the points: that benefit levels be protected for the life of the fund; the Chapter 175 funds be deposited into each member’s share account; that DROP be returned to a fixed level of 8.4 percent; a 3 percent COLA.

As well, renegotiated terms would be triggered by returns lagging at least 2 percent lower than the accounting rate of return of the fund for three years, or by two consecutive years when returns were at or above the ARR of the fund. (These were a non-starter for the city).

 Raises sought for current employees, meanwhile, are close to the city’s terms.

The union wanted 23 percent in increments from FY 18 to FY 20, comparable to the city’s 20 percent offer with a lump sum restoration, but the deal was rejected out of hand by the city.

“The 20 percent is taking care of your members,” Mousa said.

Also rejected at this time: discussions of incentive pay hikes, sought by the union.


These parties will meet again on Feb. 8 to hash out more details of the deal.

Jacksonville civil rights groups plan to take control of MLK Breakfast

There were rumblings last week that some civil rights leaders in Jacksonville were unhappy with the yearly Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast.

This week, there is written confirmation.

A letter in the mailbox of Mayor Lenny Curry from Jacksonville NAACP President Isaiah Rumlin let it be known that while the NAACP, the SCLC, and the Urban League will not be “pulling out of participation,” they have decided to “take the lead on planning this annual event effective immediately.”

“We believe that by bringing this breakfast back to the civil rights organizations,” Rumlin wrote this week, “it will more accurately reflect the vision and dream of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King.”

This year’s program showed cognitive dissonance at times, between an excerpted version of the King legacy and the realities of Jacksonville’s socioeconomic and cultural divides. For more on that, read last week’s recap of the MLK Breakfast in Jacksonville.

There seems to be dispute among the groups as to whether Rumlin’s letter represents consensus.

As Juan Gray of the local SCLC told WJCT Friday, “I don’t know what [Rumlin] wanted to do [with the letter], but that wasn’t the accurate message to send to a mayor who’s already confused.”

The mayor’s office notes that Curry and Rumlin are going to meet, but that they are waiting to hear from Rumlin regarding an acceptable date and time for the meeting.

The city’s office of special events collaborates with these organizations on the planning of the event, with four planning meetings with the principals.

The Curry administration met with the groups in October, 2015. They had complained of not being included in the planning, and the current administration made sure that they were central, with slots to speak, seats on the dais, and complimentary tables.

Finances, meanwhile, may dictate that the city continue running the event.

2016‘s cost to the office of special events: $133,000.

That number increased in 2017, toward the $150,000 range, but final numbers are not yet available.

Florida unemployment rate holds steady at 4.9% in December

Florida’s unemployment rate remained unchanged in December, holding steady at 4.9 percent for the second month in a row.

State officials, however, touted gains made in 2016, boasting Florida businesses created 237,300 private sector jobs in 2016.

“Over the last six years, we’ve worked each day to make it easier for job creators to invest and create new opportunities in our state, and we will continue to do everything we can to help Florida out compete other locations as the best place for jobs,” said Gov. Rick Scott in a statement.

Scott typically makes the monthly jobs announcement during a press conference, but the Naples Republican was in Washington, D.C. on Friday for the inauguration of Donald Trump.

“Today, as we proudly welcome a new president who will make job creation a top priority across our nation, we stand ready to fight for another great year of economic growth in Florida,” he said.

According to the Department of Economic Opportunity, Florida’s job growth has exceeded the nation’s rate since 2012. The agency reported December was the 77th consecutive month with “positive over-the-year growth.”

The leisure and hospitality industry continues to make the most gains, growing by 4.6 percent year-over-year.

“With more than 250,000 job openings across the state and more than 1.25 million new private-sector jobs created in the last six years, it’s clear Florida is a great place to find a good job,” said Cissy Proctor, the executive director of Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, in a statement. “Our low unemployment rate and strong record of job creation prove Florida is a great state to do business.”

The majority of the state’s 24 metro areas saw gains in December compared to the same time in 2015. The Orlando metropolitan area once again led the state in private sector job growth, adding 48,300 new private sector jobs in 2016.

The Orlando area’s leisure and hospitality industry saw the largest job growth over the year, adding 16,000 new jobs over the year; followed by education and health services with 10,200 new jobs; and construction with 9,7000 new jobs.

The Orlando area, according to the Governor’s Office, had the second-highest job demand of all the metro areas in December. It also had the second highest demand for high-skill, high-wage jobs.

“As job creators continue to grow in Central Florida and all across our state, we are seeing more and more families find the opportunities they need to succeed,” said Scott in a statement. “We will keep working to build on this success and make Florida first for jobs.”

The Tampa area added 29,100 new private sector jobs in 2016, and had an unemployment rate of 4.5 percent in December. The construction industry saw the most growth over the year, adding 8,400 new jobs; followed by professional and business services with 6,700 new jobs; and trade, transportation and utilities with 4,900 new jobs. The Tampa area led the state in demand for high-skill, high-wage STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) occupations in December.

Meanwhile, Jacksonville added 22,800 private sector jobs in 2016 and had a unemployment rate of 4.4 percent in December.

Affordable housing inventory bill clears first Jacksonville council committee

A bill authorizing the release of 101 properties from Jacksonville’s surplus properties list cleared its first Jacksonville City Council committee Tuesday.

Neighborhoods, Community Investments, and Services approved the measure that would, if approved by the full council next week, release the properties housed in five different council districts for the development of affordable housing.

The properties, with a value of $780,000, run the gamut from a $140 vacant lot to a $59,000 single family home.

Most of the properties were seized via tax reversion.

Council members raised questions in the agenda meeting before the full meeting about where the properties were located.

Of the 101 properties, all but nine of them were in districts 7, 8, and 9.

All but 18 properties were vacant lots.

Councilman Garrett Dennis noted that “25 percent of the properties on the list” are in his district.

Movement of these properties on the list already has been slow, so the city plans to add some dollars to the RFP to incentivize development.

The cap of dollars offered to community housing and development corporations, and other developers, would be $55,000 of city funds.

Councilman Bill Gulliford noted that some neighborhoods may be “too far gone” for this investment policy, likening Jacksonville’s most at-risk neighborhoods to the enclaves of Detroit.

The committee approved the bill without objection, and it will be considered by the full council after the committee process is complete.

Jacksonville has been trying to find a mechanism to dispose of surplus properties, yet so far results haven’t matched intentions.

****

A companion bill of sorts addressed settlement of nuisance abatement liens that were imposed on the properties in question before tax reversion.

Code violations add up, said CFO Mike Weinstein, who noted that charges of hundreds of thousands of dollars often are settled for a couple of thousand dollars by the city.

“The property could be worth $10,000,” Weinstein said, but the bill would exceed that.

Bills for code violations often are $250 a day, a number that adds up,

The liens, once they exceed the value of the property, make the property unattractive to investors.

The bill summary laid out the mechanism of the legislation: “This bill adds code enforcement liens to the list of items that can be settled administratively. The amendment will allow nuisance abatement liens with a principal amount of $1,000 up to $4,999 to be settled by the Director of Finance; liens with a principal amount of $5,000 to $9,999 to be settled by the General Counsel with the Finance Director’s concurrence; and liens with a principal amount of $10,000 to $99,999 to be settled by the Mayor with the concurrence of the General Counsel and the Finance Director.”

Some concern was expressed in committee regarding the disposition of commercial properties.

The bill passed the committee without a no vote.

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