Jacksonville business leaders want to stop JEA sale, start grand jury inquest
Subpoena time for JEA.

JEA (6)
Another day brings another public relations debacle to JEA.

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JEA Board voted Tuesday to terminate the contract of CEO Aaron Zahn without cause, the Civic Council wants that vote rescinded and recast.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.”

A.G. Gancarski

A.G. Gancarski has written for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. He is based in Northeast Florida. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter: @AGGancarski


  • Frankie M.

    December 18, 2019 at 11:58 am

    Why don’t they call for a grand jury investigation of the local school tax referendum while they’re at it? Could it be that they don’t want to investigate themselves??

    The funniest part about this whole saga is that Zahn thought he was underpaid. He wanted to compare himself to CEO’s running private utilities with years of experience. What is the going rate for the CEO of a public utility with zero experience? I’m guessing it’s alot less than he’s making now. Now he gets to sue the city for wrongful termination to boot?? Curry sure knows how to pick em. First Peppers, now Zahn. Who is the next domino to fall? Loyalty over everything…the Trump mantra.

  • b harper

    December 24, 2019 at 3:23 pm

    Agree with all of Frankie M.’s comments save one.

    Joe Peppers turned out to be an honest person.

    When he was told to give grant monies to certain church ‘players’ by Boss Lenny’s thugs . . . he questioned it, pushed back against it, and kept records of it that were forwarded to a trusted third party. Curry’s response: Brian Hughes called for an ethics investigation of him.

    Nothing like a good offense to replace an unethical and feckless defense.

    Oh, and another . . . Duval County School Board has nothing to do with JEA. What everybody needs to do is do their research on the current Superintendent. Public records show she did not report important issues regarding capital expenditures and overages of such in order to get budgetary approval. We need to fix the schools but we don’t need to do so with a questionable character in charge of things.

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