These are watershed times for Jacksonville’s public utility, and messaging help is coming in from Tallahassee in a major way.
Former Rick Scott Chief of Staff Melissa Stone is coming on board via Cavalry Strategies.
Cavalry is a subcontractor for Jacksonville ad agency St. Johns and Partners, which is charged with what Stone calls a “customer and public education campaign for JEA.”
“Specifically,” Stone said, “we will help amplify strategic messaging opportunities for JEA to get facts and information to the public, so their customers and the community are well-informed about JEA’s operations. We will also aid in developing web content and digital media.”
The Cavalry contract comes at a time when JEA faces narrative challenges.
The public utility, which is exploring privatization as part of a suite of recapitalization options, has attempted to offer its side of the story in several ways.
All of these modes of communication have been subject to criticism (some of it quite spirited) in some quarters.
The Jacksonville City Council, where privatization skeptics abound, moved to zero-out JEA’s ad budget as early as September.
Council Vice-President Tommy Hazouri, a Democrat, floated an amendment to the budget passed in September to move JEA’s $4.76 million ad budget below the line.
Over $4.5 million of that money goes to promotion of the electrical side of the utility.
Hazouri wondered if the marketing was for local customers or prospective buyers.
Ultimately, Hazouri dropped the amendment, but his concerns have remained.
JEA also got negative publicity this week, in light of Florida Times-Union reporting on an executive compensation scheme that could have moved up to $600 million of sale proceeds to members of the current c-suite. These proceeds would be on top of up to three to 12 months of post-employment consulting fees for those executives.
In that context, Cavalry will begin its work, one of many consultants with statewide profiles helping locals make a case for recapitalization.
Earlier this week, the high-powered Southern Group was enlisted to help with intergovernmental messaging.
Expectations are that The Southern Group will “represent JEA before the county governments in Nassau and St. Johns, and in Duval it would “be a force multiplier for JEA and others inside (and outside) City Hall who believe the current ITN process is a healthy exercise that should have a chance to play out regardless of final outcome.”
The JEA bid process is outside of the City Council’s purview, and it has engaged outside counsel in an attempt to get clarity. Meanwhile, the legislators will participate in a series of informational meetings in the next few months, so that they can get a better handle on the utility’s exact position.
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.
Local policymakers have warned for the last couple of years that the current structure of the public utility is unsustainable. However, groups such as the Jacksonville Civic Council question the probity of the analysis.
Polling from the University of North Florida shows that 59 percent of those polled (and 63 percent of Republicans) don’t want to sell the utility, either in full or as component parts (water, sewer, et al.).
Respondents aren’t sold on JEA CEO Aaron Zahn, either. He’s underwater, with 47 percent disapproval against 33 percent approval.