One of the controversies that won’t go away in #jaxpol is the narrative revolving around Jacksonville City Council members Reggie Brown, Katrina Brown, Scott Wilson, Tommy Hazouri, and Reggie Gaffney texting with Jacksonville firefighters union head Randy Wyse during city budget deliberations.
Wyse was pushing, as Chris Hong reported in The Florida Times-Union, to ensure that fire chiefs didn’t lose $320,000 in salaries through 17 forced demotions to their previous ranks. Wyse proposed that the money come from the Jacksonville Journey allocation, which definitely would have gotten that initiative off on the wrong foot.
Instead, it came from the stormwater fund.
Since their vote, and the subsequent reporting and commentary in the Times-Union, the narrative has frothed, and public officials have reacted.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry told me Thursday that the council members “need to follow the law” and operate in the Sunshine, as members of the executive branch do.
Council President Greg Anderson, meanwhile, dropped the hammer, issuing a prohibition on council members using cell phones during meetings, in response to a fiery T-U editorial on the subject.
Anderson described them as an example of a “disruptive” technology, and indeed they have been in this instance.
In one day alone, a candidate for state attorney urged that the current state attorney delve into the
case, including issuing a subpoena to get the phones and associated records for a forensic examination.
Meanwhile, the Concerned Taxpayers of Duval County group has signaled its intention to sue.
The Sunshine Law is serious business, of course, and it is a cornerstone of democracy as we know it in Duval County.
Insert your jokes as you see fit.
However, there are a couple of flies in the ointment.
While it is definitely bad form to be texting lobbyists during meetings, it’s also, arguably, just an extension of other ex parte communications these elected officials and their staff routinely have with lobbyists of all types. Union bosses, the handful of pros who come through City Hall on behalf of a panoply of clients, and even social issue advocates.
As well, there is a question of intent.
Some have asserted those council members are in the pocket of the unions; indeed, during the heated discussion of the firefighter salaries on the council floor that night, advocates of the salary restoration were accused of parroting union talking points by John Crescimbeni, the at-large Democrat who faced staunch union opposition when he ran for re-election.
However, conversations with the council members themselves paint a different picture.
They see the issue as one of fairness. They assert the firefighters were made promises, and the city had an obligation to deliver, by staving off promised promotions and fulfilling the terms they expected.
A lot of it isn’t a good look. Like the text that Reggie Brown got from Wyse after the deal went down: “”You are the shit. God bless u.”
But the ultimate question, in terms of the larger civic discourse, is one of intent. Were the council members (many of whom are new to the body) functioning in good faith?
Despite the procedural irregularities, and the definitely quotable nature of the text messages, and (for that matter) the tortuous path Hong had to traverse to get access to these text messages, there is no evidence that they were doing otherwise.