Electricity was in the air Tuesday, as the board of Jacksonville municipal utility JEA picked its new CEO.
It turned out to be the guy who had been in that role for some time.
Some members of the Jacksonville City Council and the media thought it was a done deal well ahead of the meeting, with interim CEO Aaron Zahn having locked the gig up.
Indeed, that turned out to be the case, but not after a four-hour discussion.
Chair Alan Howard called the process “transparent, open, and deliberate,” saying “any suggestion that there is a pre-determined outcome is disrespectful” to all parties involved, including Zahn.
Howard “categorically rejected” the idea of predetermination or influence from the Curry administration, setting the stage for interviews of Zahn and his competition from the outside: Cris Eugster, the COO of CPS Energy in San Antonio, Texas; Pamela Hill, former CEO of Bahamas Power and Light, who was bounced from that position last year, but still remains with BPL parent PowerSecure as a VP.
All had interviews of roughly 45 minutes each.
Eugster was up first, and his buzzword-larded narrative was that of drawing parallels between his current employer and JEA’s challenges. He stressed improved reliability and an enhanced “customer experience,” while suggesting “shaking up” the org chart for a “culture of innovation.”
However, the most interesting material seemed to be his unwillingness to commit to the move.
“It will be a big, big deal to move to Jacksonville,” Eugster said when pressed as to his “commitment to Jacksonville.”
“I want to make sure there’s a great fit here. If this process moves forward, I’d like to meet more stakeholders.”
One candidate, of course, has the stakeholders on speed dial already.
Board member Husein Cumber noted the close relationship between the utility and City Hall and the need to be a “growing partner with the city.” Eugster didn’t seem fully briefed on Jacksonville’s internal politics, answering again with San Antonio analogues.
Cumber also noted a seeming ambivalence from Eugster, pressing him to say whether he’d accept the job if hired.
“I want to be respectful to San Antonio. I owe my community a conversation,” Eugster said. “This process has been pretty fast.”
Pamela Hill was up next, talking of her experience with Caribbean utilities, which may not be directly applicable to Jacksonville.
Hill noted her sightseeing locally, such as visits to the Ritz and Moncrief Village, a seeming attempt to differentiate herself from Eugster.
“Aaron and Melissa [Dykes] have already created a great framework,” Hill added, making the unusual move of complimenting the man whose job she was trying to take.
Board members peppered her with questions, including about leaving Jamaica Power Service and Bahamas Power and Light.
Hill discussed Plant Vogtle also, speculating that there’s more overlap than daylight between JEA and Moody’s, which downgraded JEA as the utility challenged the decade-old deal in court.
“I do believe it is a matter for the courts to work through,” Hill said.
Hill, unlike Eugster, gave the board what they wanted when asked if she would take the job on the spot, saying yes without hesitation.
Zahn, who enjoys a strong relationship with the Mayor’s office as do the members of the board, was considered the inside candidate from jump, with advocates citing his “passion” for the job as an x-factor that transcended the kind of experience other candidates had.
The interim CEO had the connections and the buzzwords, and his narrative was tighter than his opponents, as he compared the “uncertainty” of seven months ago to today.
“I desired to see JEA overcome all these monumental obstacles,” Zahn said, invoking his “hometown” in his introductory remarks which sounded as scripted as any speech given by a denizen of City Hall.
Zahn positioned himself as an avatar of “transparency” and “answering tough questions” from employees, the city’s power structure, and everyone in between.
“We have pivoted JEA to a pervasive framework of creating value … and reliability,” Zahn said, noting innovations that will help “drive Jacksonville forward to the 22nd century,” including solar generation and putting more money into the septic tank phaseout process.
“We should face tough questions together … deal with them head on,” Zahn said, rhapsodizing about the singular virtues of the senior leadership team, and extolling his competitors’ qualifications.
“The last seven months, we’ve set the stage for anyone to be successful,” Zahn said. “Today I sit here with far less uncertainty [than in March].”
Zahn was asked about the push to privatize the utility, an initiative teased a year ago but put on the back burner in the Spring, will resume.
Zahn reiterated his belief that privatization was the “wrong conversation” months back, with a need to establish an understanding of the utility’s value, including non-tangible value “beyond financial.”
Zahn also addressed perceptions that he was less than qualified for the role, noting that as an interim leader he’d talked to other CEOs, who said that the role had evolved over the decades.
“They’re starting to see a migration to customer-focused CEOs with multi-market experience. My resume speaks for itself,” Zahn said. “I am not a traditional utility executive. If the barometer is that … I’m not your guy. And I’m OK with that.”
Regarding the currently contested Plant Vogtle nuclear deal, Zahn asserted that “JEA has never and will never repudiate its responsibilities,” Zahn said, to parties or investors.
“Success would be that customers and our city receive the benefit of clean renewable power along the lines of what we agreed to in 2000,” Zahn added.
Soon thereafter: what board chair Howard called “an open and frank discussion” of the candidates’ qualifications.
Howard noted that scoring should be used to narrow choices to the top two, followed by “intangible issues,” such as Eugster’s refusal to commit to the job if hired. And, he added, the scoring matrixes are public record.
We’ve requested those documents from JEA.
Board members concurred that Eugster was using the interview for “leverage at home,” as board member April Green said. Board member John Campion added that Eugster should have driven here during Hurricane Michael rather than doing a video interview because of flight issues.
After all that, the scoring matrixes were submitted and tabulated. The totals:
381 for Eugster. Hill scored 381 also.
And Zahn? 420.5.
So this issue is resolved. But other issues remain.
The conditions that spurred the “paused” privatization discussion still hold. Retirements are expected of what Zahn called an “aging workforce.” Revenues have flattened.
And with Curry still the clear favorite for re-election, and with some saying that he won’t run for anything afterwards, he may feel emboldened in his second term to reopen the talks.
The Mayor got the CEO he wanted. So what’s next?