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LeAnna Cumber is new to the Jacksonville City Council [Photo Credit: Dennis Ho]

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LeAnna Cumber talks Jacksonville budget, school tax, utility privatization

A rising political star in NE Florida.

Poised to be a policy force for the next eight years, Councilwoman Jacksonville City Councilwoman LeAnna Cumber took over the office in July, replacing fellow Republican Lori Boyer in Southside District 5.

It was as sure a thing as possible as there was no actual election. Cumber raised nearly $200,000 in short order, all of it establishment money, foreclosing even the hint of a challenge.

Cumber, an alumna of the University of Southern California law school and a former member of the Jacksonville Children’s Commission, was part of a wave of candidates whose campaign operations were run by Mayor Lenny Curry‘s chief consultant.

With one major exception, those candidates won their races, ensuring a strong bloc of votes for second-term initiatives.

Worth noting: Councilwoman Cumber’s husband is likewise supremely connected, in the city and beyond. Husein Cumber, a Jacksonville Electric Authority board member and VP of Florida East Coast Industries, was a fundraising “Ranger” for George W. Bush‘s reelection campaign — raising over $250,000 for the former President.

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The Cumbers are among the forefront of Jacksonville power couples. Not inclined to self-promotion, however, they let their work speak for itself.

Appropriately enough, we caught up with LeAnna Cumber before a trip to D.C. for a consulting client, where she discussed settling into Council and some of the major issues ahead for the 19-person legislative body.

The Boyer-to-Cumber transition has been a smooth one, the current incumbent said. Boyer, the current head of the Downtown Investment Authority, has been useful on district and budget issues.

“She’s been great,” Cumber said, noting that meetings began as soon as Cumber qualified.

Boyer’s files have been useful for helping to resolve district level issues.

“She and I talk all the time,” Cumber said.

Of course, many of the issues ahead of Council lack easy templates. Exhibit A: the current debate over whether or not the Jacksonville City Council should authorize a 2019 referendum for a new half-cent sales tax for Duval County schools.

Cumber has numerous questions, including where the OPPAGA analysis is and the timing of whether that even jibes with a November vote.

Having worked in a federal Inspector General’s office, Cumber believes that an outside audit is an essential component to any successful plan.

“It’s important to have an outside auditor look at a $2 million tax liability,” Cumber said. If OPPAGA can’t produce an audit timely, she added, 2019 may be foreclosed by necessity.

The rhetoric around this issue strikes Cumber as pitched and somewhat coercive.

“As a legislative body,” the Councilwoman said, “we shouldn’t be told to vote one way or the other. Asking questions shouldn’t a problem.”

“Just because I’m asking questions doesn’t mean I disagree with you,” Cumber said.

“All of my questions I would have assumed the school board would have asked,” Cumber added, such as about timeline and schedules.

Cumber hopes a joint meeting with the School Board will resolve these questions. Theoretically, the School Board could provide answers to the questions provided by Council members also.

“Just saying ‘here’s our plan’ … clearly hasn’t answered the question. A lot of us have been unsatisfied,” Cumber said.

Another flashpoint in Council: the future of JEA, which is exploring privatization to some degree currently.

Councilwoman Cumber’s husband was a former member of that board, and the sole holdover from the Lenny Curry “purge” of appointees of the previous Mayor.

With a choice between spiraling costs and declining service quality on one hand and exploring privatization on the other, Cumber asserted that it’s important to know what the asset’s worth.

Valuation estimates have been as high as $7 billion, though some have been considerably less buoyant.

“I have never been of the mind that we shouldn’t know how much JEA’s worth … maybe it means you double down with a public utility or sell it … but there’s no way to know it without the information,” Cumber said.

“I can’t make a decision not knowing where everything stands,” the Councilwoman added.

Another discussion point: a potential new jail.

Some have said that it needs to be in the Capital Improvement Plan. Cumber notes potential roadblocks.

“Does it have to happen now or should we focus on other development where it’s critical to move it,” Cumber asked.

“There’s a lot of needs in the city,” the Councilwoman added.

One initiative that is not a need, per Cumber: Democrat Garrett Dennis’ proposal to decriminalize cannabis.

“I’m not sure what problem he’s trying to find a solution for,” Cumber said, noting that officer “subjectivity” would come into play.

“Philips Highway, it’s a huge issue. We have huge drug problems there,” Cumber said. “I don’t think right now is the right time to add an extra layer of difficulty to JSO.”

Cumber will fill the Boyer role well, with granular thinking and a sense of how to take emotional issues and find resolution for them in the policy space.

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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