On Thursday, a Jacksonville City Council panel again delved into the relative merits of selling JEA, the local utility.
As has been the case throughout this discussion, flashpoints of tension abounded, kicked off by a familiar antagonist of the Mayor’s Office.
The tension led to not one but two witnesses refusing to testify, given the committee requiring oaths to be sworn.
A subpoena was authorized, by the end of the meeting, for JEA CEO Paul McElroy, who is one of those witnesses.
Council members stopped short of subpoenaing the city’s Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa, however.
Oaths: Jacksonville Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa was set to discuss the December RFP to provide “strategic initiatives financial advisory services,” when Councilman Garrett Dennis wondered what the status of oaths and subpoenas were for the subcommittee.
Per the city’s general counsel, the committee could subpoena witnesses and swear them to oaths, but “judiciousness” and “deliberation” should drive those processes.
“I don’t know of any example in the last 50 years when an oath was used in a policy matter,” observed General Counsel Jason Gabriel. “Since Consolidation, employees and Council have attended hundreds of meetings of their own prerogative” with oaths not taken.
Gabriel also urged those sworn in to have independent legal counsel.
Even as Gabriel attempted to warn Council off from oaths, Councilman Dennis pressed him.
“We need to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” Dennis said.
Gabriel said that the underlying assumption should be to “trust the employees and officials that came before you.”
Discussion along these lines continued, with Gabriel contending that oaths in the context of Council committees are “not routine,” and Dennis positing that this discussion rises to a level of special significance.
“Wouldn’t you agree that this is the largest and most complex policy decision in the history of this county,” asked Councilman Danny Becton.
Becton asked CAO Mousa if an oath would affect his testimony. Mousa noted that in 30 years of testifying to the Jacksonville City Council, he had never done anything but tell the truth.
Council President Anna Brosche spoke in favor of oaths.
“If indeed everyone is here to deliver the truth, doing so under an oath shouldn’t be a challenge,” Brosche said. “It is of extreme importance that we’re getting the truth and the facts.”
Councilman Matt Schellenberg posited that oaths were unnecessary; however, Dennis wanted people sworn in.
“I feel I’ve gotten misinformation … information that hasn’t been quite accurate. I think there’s an expectation that this is something we’re going to do,” Dennis said.
Brosche seconded the Dennis motion. And it soon enough carried, even with Council members insisting that this isn’t personal.
After all that, Mousa had his response.
“I refuse to take this oath,” Mousa said.
Dennis then posed the question as to whether or not Mousa should be subpoenaed instantly, but committee chair John Crescimbeni moved on with the agenda.
Memoranda: The legalistic theme continued, with General Counsel Gabriel reviewing memos on procuring financial related services and exploring JEA privatization.
Gabriel contended that the city had the authority to procure said services from a third party, that precedent had been established previously with the procurement of city bonds, and that ordinance had permitted it for years.
Gabriel also addressed the process for evaluation of privatization of JEA, one he said had a number of different possibilities, ranging from no action to partial or complete liquidation.
“We’re still undergoing a vast comprehensive review of all the agreements and matters related to the utility … an ongoing process,” Gabriel said.
“Where and how far you go will determine the level of detail,” Gabriel said of the inquiry.
Gabriel said that such exploration is an “executive branch prerogative,” with input and eventual approval or lack there of from the council.
“It ends with this body,” Gabriel said.
Interlocal and franchise agreements, a review of real estate assets, regulatory approvals from federal and state authorities, and a public interest determination regarding the potential sale of water and sewer assets are some of the areas of consideration.
The marketplace and the evolution of technology would be other considerations, Gabriel said.
The general counsel’s office would also hire outside counsel with a specialty in mergers and acquisitions, should it get to that point.
Councilman Dennis wanted to know when the OGC began to explore options in this regard, and if it was as far back as November; Gabriel contended that wasn’t the case.
Council President Brosche pressed General Counsel Gabriel with a number of questions about how active the research would be from his office into a potential sale.
Gabriel noted that the research would go as deep as needed, and that there are a number of variables in play that would determine how much work was to be done.
Subpoena for JEA CEO: JEA CEO Paul McElroy was compelled to testify; however, “at the advice of counsel,” he would not take the oath.
Perjury penalties are stiff and could include prison time, as a third degree felony.
Councilman Dennis wondered what the process would be for subpoenaing Mousa and McElroy.
There would be seven days allowed for service, which would mean that the respondents could be called up within two weeks.
“I certainly have a lot of questions for McElroy,” Brosche said, urging an earlier start to the meeting on the 29th to accomodate the questions and answers.
Perhaps mindful of future political considerations, Councilman Becton attempted to put the brakes on the Mousa subpoena, but was willing to go forward with the McElroy subpoena.
Brosche urged caution on the Mousa subpoena, saying it might be best after McElroy’s testimony.
Dennis stood his ground, saying that if someone doesn’t take the oath, a subpoena is the logical next step.
“We could still subpoena Mousa, but we could do it at a later date,” Dennis said, a stutter animating his voice.
A city lawyer noted that documents could be subpoenaed as well.
Dennis floated the motion to subpoena McElroy, with Brosche amending the motion being to discuss the valuation report.
McElroy was subpoenaed for March 29.
Dennis floated a motion to subpoena Sam Mousa, but Council members wouldn’t bite on that one.
Dennis continued to push for the subpoena, but Councilman Danny Becton said that it was simply a matter of Mousa not wanting to take an oath to testify.
Council President Brosche, meanwhile, asserted that Mousa not taking the oath stood for itself.
Aftermath: Councilman Dennis defended the push for subpoenas, saying the committee is “all searching for the same thing, transparency regarding our city’s greatest asset.”
Dennis believes that “major transparency issues” were revealed, again, by refusals of principals to testify under oath.
“People need to come up here and answer the committee’s questions … not blatantly thumb their noses at the committee,” Dennis said.
Chairman Crescimbeni, meanwhile, noted that “the optics are going to be very challenging for the general public,” while also noting that if the Curry administration had handled preliminary considerations of a sale differently from November to January, things would be different now in terms of perception.
“The relationship between the Mayor’s Office and City Council has had struggles,” Crescimbeni said, and “this doesn’t help,” even as today’s drama wasn’t the “first degradation” of that dynamic.