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The power struggle continues in Jacksonville City Hall.

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Jacksonville City Council approves $1.85 million for outside counsel to guide possible JEA privatization

Complete procedural mess in Jacksonville: What else is new?

In an abundance of caution regarding the potential “recapitalization” of JEA, the Jacksonville City Council approved by a 15-3 margin $1.85 million for lawyers Tuesday night.

They liked the concept so much that they approved it again, and again, and again, in what was a sprawling discussion that pushed close to two hours.

Thus ended what was a dramatic series of events leading up to the day of the vote, and an absolute botch of the parliamentary process that led to three separate votes taken on the same question.

The initial question was simple.

Concerned about being looped out of the utility’s exploration of radical restructuring, the proposal before the Council sought to spend the money and get a lawyer dedicated to its interests.

As discussion began, there was an ultimately failed floor amendment that changed the original amount substantially, to $500,000 from Councilman Danny Becton. He framed it as a start that could be moved upward if needed.

Becton, the liaison to JEA, expressed confidence that the utility would offer full disclosure and access to its experts, saying a “much lower number” is appropriate.

The taffy pull proceeded, with discussion of the floor amendment conflated with discussion of the original bill.

Councilwoman LeAnna Cumber questioned procedural issues, including the seemingly arbitrary price tag, and how Council would have access to these firms.

Councilman Aaron Bowman had his own qualms about spending this money, wondering why the money was to be spent at all, given unlimited “access” to “those people under contract to JEA.”

Defenders of the $500,000 proposal included Al Ferraro, Rory Diamond, Ron SalemJoyce MorganMichael Boylan and Randy DeFoor.

“I have a question,” DeFoor said. “What’s the financial status of JEA?”

Boylan and DeFoor were less sold on access to JEA’s experts, the latter suggesting that Council could eliminate the utility’s $4.7 million marketing budget to pay for independent attorneys.

DeFoor, among others, stressed JEA’s big spend, and said it would be naive not to engage experts on par with the utility’s hired guns.

Brenda Priestly-Jackson, an attorney by trade, took a different tack during the discussion of the amendment, saying $500,000 wasn’t enough.

She questioned how JEA, a subsidary of the city of Jacksonville, could exempt itself from the charter “and sell itself through the procurement process.”

“We need someone to guide us,” she said.

Councilman Ferraro wanted lawyers, but also an idea of the value of the company given sharp interest from around the world.

Ultimately, the floor amendment failed. And after the first vote in favor of the $1.85 million, another wrinkle.

The $1.85 million was to come from investment pool funds; however, the Council Auditor noted that there was no money there.

The 14-3 vote was done again. The new tally was 15-3.

Then, for good measure, another motion to reconsider, which would take the money from fund balance.

That amendment was approved, and then another floor amendment was floated to make the special counsel an adjunct to the General Counsel’s office.

That amendment passed by one vote, setting up yet another vote on the bill that finally passed.

Council needs lawyers, among other things, given that JEA’s process is hurtling forward.

Sixteen bids, some from international players, were received by the utility earlier this month.

Florida Power & Light, Duke Energy, Emera and others are making bids for the electricity service, while French water company Veolia is among those seeking the water side of the utility.

The bid process is outside of the Council’s purview, and outside counsel is intended to give them clarity as to its role. Bids are expected to be made public by March, forcing a decision that could change Jacksonville forever.

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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