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Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa is retiring.

Jax

Rift widens between Duval school tax advocates, Jacksonville City Hall

The latest twists in the 1/2 cent sales tax drama.

As August nears, prospects continue to look dim for chances that Duval County voters will get to vote this year on a new sales tax to improve Duval Co. schools.

The Duval County School Board wants a November referendum, but City Hall has proven to be a tougher sell.

And after Friday, it got tougher still.

The Florida Times-Union dropped an article detailing a negotiation process between School Board Chair Lori Hershey and two integral presences in Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry‘s orbit.

Curry political adviser Tim Baker and recently retired Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa would draw $12,500 a month for up to three years, basically in exchange for helping to get the referendum through Council and passed.

Mousa would oversee plan implementation, and help to flesh out details regarding cost and programming the $80 to $90 million a year brought in by the tax.

Hershey met with Baker and Mousa before Mousa left city employment, but the formal proposal came later.

Ultimately, the proposal got to the media before Hershey could take action on it. Sources say Mousa and Baker were surprised and disappointed by that turn of events.

Hershey had even hinted at using Baker as a consultant in an upcoming campaign in a text message. However, chances are that won’t be happening.

Baker sees the capital need, but doesn’t see the narrative having emerged to pull off a referendum victory yet.

“I wouldn’t oppose a good policy or meddle in a process because someone like Hershey is a fool and lashed out. A good plan with a good campaign can win by 20 points. A bad plan (or lack of one really) and the path they are on now loses by 20 points,” Baker said.

“I’m just a Duval County voter so my opinion is just worth one vote, but like the Mayor and every member of Council I’ve heard speak on the issue I personally believe the schools need more money for facilities but what I’ve seen isn’t enough to win my vote at the ballot box, which is the only place I have a say in,” Baker added.

Mousa, meanwhile, may be a different matter. The T-U article was deep inside baseball, and it’s possible that Mousa may not trust Hershey enough to be able to work together. This would raise the question of who would get the plan through committees, as Mousa did with the pension referendum recently.

Early July would have been a fortuitous time for consensus building in the Baker/Mousa vein. Many of the Council members freshly elected were Baker clients.

Mousa had been integral in selling other referendums pushes already, such as a pension, when he was in his CAO role. Baker, of course, created the political climate where 65 percent of voters came out in favor of an extension of a 1/2 cent sales tax to fund re-amortization of pension debt.

The two sides differ on who initiated the meeting. However, when the Times-Union ran the Mousa Consulting Company contract Friday, it was clear that the School Board and referendum advocates have decided to move forward, pushing through the City Council and against two men central to the Curry Era in Jacksonville politics.

Who will ultimately be charged with selling the plan to Council and running a political campaign: unknown.

Also unknown: the funding mechanism for that campaign. A third question mark: how many of those who are in office because of Tim Baker will greenlight the School Board push for a 2019 vote?

The Finance Committee is as favorable a draw as the Mayor’s Office could want during the budget process this summer.

Chairman Aaron Bowman leads a crew that largely employed Curry’s chief consultant, Tim Baker: Council newcomers LeAnna Cumber, Randy DeFoor, and Ron Salem did, as well as Terrance Freeman. Democrat and Council VP Tommy Hazouri endorsed Curry for reelection.

Democrat Ju’Coby Pittman, though not part of the Curry machine, was appointed originally (as was Freeman) to the Council by Gov. Rick Scott.

The whole Finance Committee can be trusted by Suite 400. How many of them enjoyed seeing Mousa dragged in the paper?

This battle has been fraught with brutal attacks. In a recent op-ed, former Mayor Jake Godbold was unsparing in describing the Council as being too gutless to buck Curry and let the people vote for school capital dollars.

The bristling reaction came from Councilors from both ends of the local political spectrum.

Scott Wilson, a second-term Republican, is Council President.

First-term Democrat Brenda Priestly-Jackson, a member of the Rules Committee that will vote on the bill in early August, was non-plussed by Godbold’s essay also.

First-term Republican Rory Diamond likewise seems to be growing weary of the pitched nature of the debate.

Some, of course, side with the School Board. First-term Republican Matt Carlucci believes that the board has been obstructed, and the new tax should be the voters’ to decide.

However, given the inability of the Board and the City Council to agree on the terms of communication, and given the questions various Council members have about the plan, and given the compressed time frame to get the desired result, there likely were very good reasons Chairwoman Hershey engaged Mousa for a proposal.

With that proposal having been in the Times-Union, however, it seems like the business of politics was purposefully exposed.

Tax advocates are betting that they can run a campaign that gets a new tax over and scores a salvo against Politics As Usual: the transactional spheres where business gets done and policy ultimately gets made.

It also follows that, unless some recalibration is in the works, which tax advocates believe they can run and win through (or against, if necessary) Baker and Mousa.

If they do all that and score 50 percent plus one, it will shake up the conventional wisdom about Jacksonville politics in the Curry era, a period in which the donor class has reasserted its grasp over public policy.

Written By

A.G. Gancarski has been a working journalist for over two decades. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." He can be reached at a.g.gancarski@gmail.com.

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