Another day brings yet another public relations debacle to Jacksonville’s public utility JEA.
The latest lowlight Wednesday morning: a group of business leaders calling for a grand jury to investigate irregularities around the sale process.
The Jacksonville Civic Council is calling for State Attorney Melissa Nelson to establish that inquiry.
The request is to “convene a grand jury to investigate the actions of the JEA Board and senior management with regard to the legality and appropriateness of: the decision to conduct the ITN and potential sale of JEA; the conduct of city officials, employees, contractors and lobbyists involved in the potential sale or recapitalization of JEA; the performance unit plan; and any related matters which may lead to actions by the grand jury, including a presentment or report on the behavior of public officials and others engaged in the matters involving JEA.”
Nelson responded Wednesday.
“We have heard the concerns of the community over the past several months. This office is, and has been, looking into matters involving JEA,” Nelson said.
The Civic Council’s recommendations didn’t stop with a grand jury. They also want to stop the exploration of selling JEA, America’s eighth-largest public utility.
They want “the current ITN bid process be halted completely, and all activity to sell JEA be stopped until the above-requested investigations are complete, and a new CEO is in place.”
The ITN (invitation to negotiate) was rolled out in July, eliciting 16 bids from around the world that are currently under consideration. Curry has urged that the process be sped up, with a tranche of the best bids advanced to the Jacksonville City Council in January.
The City Council and the JEA Board have thus far not embraced that concept.
The Civic Council position: “JEA is in no immediate danger of collapse or insolvency, and there is time to strategically evaluate the options and take action in a thoughtful, transparent manner.”
While the JEA Board voted Tuesday to terminate the contract of CEO Aaron Zahn without cause, the Civic Council wants that vote rescinded and recast.
And the group expects Curry, who has advocated for privatization and who has been cautious about the fate of Zahn (one of his political donors) to lead in process reversal.
“In the spirit of transparency and full disclosure, Mayor Lenny Curry and the Jacksonville City Council [should] direct the JEA Board of Directors to (1) engage the City Office of Inspector General, an appropriate City Council committee, or other external entity, to conduct an investigation into the actions of JEA CEO Aaron Zahn in the execution of his duties as a public employee; (2) make the results of the investigation available to the public and the City Council; (3) reconsider its vote and move to terminate JEA CEO Aaron Zahn for cause.”
Discussion Tuesday revealed some potential complications regarding terminating Zahn for cause, even as Board Chair April Green advocated strenuously for that.
The “JEA Board should not execute or agree to any severance package, waiver, or other covenant of confidentiality with Mr. Zahn before the conclusion of the investigation. Releasing him without cause is not enough. Mr. Zahn should not be able to profit in any way from his actions as JEA’s executive leader,” the Civic Council adds.
If the JEA Board were to reconsider its vote and fire Zahn with cause, it would rescind a proposed termination settlement, in which he would get one month ($52,000) of consulting fees, a fraction of the twelve months of fees he was promised. Also, 20 weeks of severance pay.
The Civic Council is the latest voice from Jacksonville’s political establishment to decry goings-on at the utility.
The Performance Pay Plan (an executive compensation scheme also scuttled at Tuesday’s meeting) led one ally of Curry, Jacksonville City Councilman Rory Diamond, to call for the resignation of Zahn and CFO Ryan Wannamacher over so-called “legal theft.”