Earlier this month, the United Arab Emirates gave Jacksonville $2.775 million towards post-Irma reconstruction.
The community is divided as to whether this money should be accepted, divisions that manifested in classic Jacksonville fashion only after the deal was done.
Some say it’s necessary “no strings attached” money for areas that have desperate needs. Others say it’s blood money designed to buy loyalty.
The City Council approved the ordinance accepting the cash; however, on Friday, two Councilmembers wanted further review, spotlighting transparency issues with the process.
Democrat Garrett Dennis and Republican Anna Brosche, each exploring runs for mayor next year against incumbent Republican Lenny Curry, met Friday at City Hall to discuss the appropriation.
The money will be used for various expenditures, including computer labs for Raines and Ribault High Schools, restoration of a local park, purchase of mobile medical units, with approximately $1.45 million going to projects in the Ken Knight Road area, which was among the slowest in the city to recover from Irma.
Ahead of the meeting, Curry’s top staffer released a statement defending the grant.
“Acceptance of these funds required City Council support, which was received unanimously at both the committee and full City Council levels,” asserted Chief of Staff Brian Hughes.
“Public safety and neighborhood improvement have consistently been, and continue to be, major priorities for Mayor Curry and his administration. The United Arab Emirates presented our city with an opportunity to address challenges in a historically underserved, vulnerable Jacksonville community created by one of the worst natural disasters in Jacksonville history, with no strings attached,” Hughes added.
However, despite Hughes’ assurances that the grant is unconditional, questions remain about the UAE’s commitment to human rights and civil society in the western model.
Brosche, who called the meeting, noted that she voted yes on the bill, passed by the Council Sept. 11.
She had met with two Curry Administration representatives just prior to the Council agenda meeting, and wondered what advance work with the community had been done regarding the donation.
There had been none, Brosche said, at the request of the UAE. Which made her wonder why the Council was voting on legislation the community was not aware of.
The administration started negotiating the deal in March, which made Brosche think that a lot of advance work had been done before the deal went to Council.
Brosche also noted that at the presser where the deal was announced, questions were dodged. And further questions came from the community.
Brosche had further concerns about the administration’s posture on the issue.
“When questions were asked at the press conference, they were not addressed, and the way the media was handled raised more questions,” Brosche said.
Noting her own familial connections to the military and patriotism, Brosche urged being “mindful” about the steps taken.
Dennis was also concerned about the city’s “security.”
“All across the county, people are questioning it. Different walks of life in our city. Different political parties. I feel like we should ask more questions and put a pause on these dollars,” Dennis said.
Dennis noted that in at least one other city, the donation was routed through the United Way; raising concerns for him about why the city accepted it officially.
“I’m concerned about what door this opens up,” Dennis said. “This is only less than $3 million … this is something that we as a city should be taking care of anyway and not going to a foreign nation.”
“The Mayor thought it was more important to spend $10 million on cleaning up cemeteries than providing the services [the city] is supposed to provide,” Dennis said.
Community members, such as Wells Todd of the Jacksonville Progressive Coalition, noted the “immorality” of “receiving blood money” from the UAE.
“The United States and the UAE are in league to control that area of the world for oil,” Todd said, calling the money a “trial balloon” from the Middle Eastern nation.
Brenda Priestly Jackson, a former Duval County School Board chair running for Council in District 10, made her case regarding the “blood money” as “unethical, immoral, and ungodly.”
Priestly Jackson noted the money being moved into her district and surrounding ones was done in lieu of taxpayer dollars.
“Why do we think we can compromise the values of people in District 10 for immoral and unethical handouts,” Priestly Jackson wanted to know.
“When we talk about getting good will, whose good will? Is there a belief that we’re not aware of what’s going on on the global stage in District 10,” Priestly Jackson asked rhetorically.
“We don’t want the blood money,” Priestly Jackson said, calling it an “abomination” that people waited in her district for hurricane help for a year until a “foreign entity” linked with “terrorism” decided to donate.
Cindy Funkhouser, whose Sulzbacher Center got grants for mobile medical units, noted the damage received during Irma.
The city told her of a “potential large donor” putting together donations, though the UAE’s name was kept out of it until she met the country’s emissaries.
“The UAE is an ally of the United States. Has always been an ally of the United States,” Funkhouser said, saying her focus wasn’t foreign policy but helping the homeless.
“Anybody that wants to help homeless people in Jacksonville and is an ally of the United States, I’m happy to take this money,” Funkhouser said.
“America gives aid all over the world, and nobody says they don’t have the right to give donations,” Funkhouser said, noting people could squawk about American human rights issues.
Dennis likened taking the money to taking money from a “drug dealer.” Funkhouser countered that the city vetted the donation, and further vetting wasn’t her problem.
Human Rights Watch noted continued imprisonment and disappearances of political dissidents and a “sustained assault on freedom of expression and association since 2011.” The regime kills people judged to have “undermine[d] national unity or social peace.”
Freedom House says the country is “not free,” ranking it below Zimbabwe and Venezuela in political and civil rights. Human Freedom Index says it is the 15th-worst country in the world for personal freedom.
Though the UAE is one of the most repressive police states in the world, certain freedoms (such as latitude for money laundering) are enjoyed by the monied classes.
It is uncertain if most of the Jacksonville City Council wants to reconsider the matter. The trend has been for legislators to follow the lead of the Mayor’s Office on most matters, with re-election looming for some members and post-Council jobs a possibility for others.
Brosche and Dennis were the only two Councilors in attendance (the Jaguars have their annual London trip, and it is Florida/Georgia weekend), suggesting that reconsideration of the measure may be difficult.
However, legislation is pending to rectify this matter; Brosche will file it. And Dennis wants to know if there is money available to allocate to take care of the needs the UAE wanted to address.
Brosche noted that the Mayor’s Office has moved out of agreements before, including membership in the 100 Resilient Cities initiative, rejecting a $1 million grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to fight climate change.
The question for Jacksonville policy makers: What makes the Rockefeller Foundation more objectionable than one of the most brutal countries in the world?