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Jacksonville Bold for 1.23.20 — Heck no, I’m done

Lenny Curry’s second term started with a big party, now it’s cleanup time.

Heck no; I’m done

Mayor Lenny Curry’s second term started with a big party downtown, including purple napkins with Jay-Z quotes that all seemed to hit a “haters gonna hate” theme.

The party is over though for a suddenly-embattled Mayor, who is getting hit from all sides.

The party is over; time for cleanup.

So the napkins are gone.

And the Bounty towels have been out: the quicker picker-upper necessary as the JEA sales push went sideways.

Since MLK Day, Curry has done damage control interviews, as has been the case during previous resets. The latest with WJXT was compelling.

“Privatization, from my perspective, is now off the table. I won’t be apart of any revisiting of it at all. If they come with the strategic future — if they think at some point while I’m in office — and they lay privatization process before me, I’m going to be: heck no. I’m done.”

With four words, Curry hopes to put the last two years in the rearview mirror.

Beyond the use of the vernacular, it begs the question: Who are “they?”

Jacksonville politics, back when Curry began his campaign in 2014, was a much simpler place. The discourse of the 2015 campaign, expensive as it was, ultimately stayed within the lines of what people came to expect from Jacksonville politics as did many of the early-stage appointees, familiar names from before Alvin Brown’s time in City Hall. 

Curry has governed like the party boss the Democrats bemoaned, consolidating power and winning a swath of arm-twisty consensus votes in his first term, compelling City Council to align behind his vision. While Garrett Dennis and Anna Brosche were vocal, they also were waylaid by what was a very effective shop in Suite 400.

This term, especially with the JEA schmoz, is a different matter. 

The case that was made in favor of the sale was not the case that should have been made. Jacksonville has, shall we say, jacked-up infrastructure. Roads, stormwater, sewage, schools … damned if the city couldn’t spend $3 billion.

But the saving ourselves from pending fiscal collapse argument was used when selling the pension tax. As far as people who aren’t paying attention know, pension reform solved the problem … rather than kicking the solution out and expecting a tax extension that goes into effect in the next seven to ten years to handle it.

Curry is working to re-marshal political capital with comfortable wins, like strong stances against vaping and human trafficking. However, he’s going to have to reestablish the bully pulpit eventually on issues more historically central to the operation of government.

Is Jacksonville headed over what he once called a “fiscal cliff?”

Was the sale of JEA necessary to keep current operations going and fund what needs to be an ambitious capital improvement plan?

Will downtown development, including the Landing and Bay Street, happen in this term? If so, how? 

And Lot J: whereas the last Jaguars project passed without a no vote, in the end, will this one? 

When it comes to JEA privatization, it makes sense for Curry to say, “heck no, I’m done.” That conversation he wanted has devolved into so much inside baseball that politicians don’t want on the front page.

These other questions, however, have an existential import and bear answering.

Gift ban changes coming

Changes are coming for the state’s gift ban, and a former city of Jacksonville employee’s struggle is the reason why.

Alexis Lambert, an attorney working for the Florida Lottery, previously worked for the city of Jacksonville in a similar capacity, facilitating public records requests for the Jacksonville media among myriad other tasks.

Alexis Lambert is leading the charge for reasonable changes to the gift ban.

Lambert got Stage 3 colon cancer, and the bills piled up quickly. Friends in The Process tried to help … but the gift ban precluded her from accepting the financial help she desperately needed.

A new bill will change that.

Senate Budget Chief Rob Bradley’s SB 1490 will allow nonelected state employees to “accept any gift or compensation, regardless of value” if it is applied directly toward the expenses incurred from treating their or their child’s “serious disease or illness.”

Bradley’s bill is moving through committees. Ethics and Elections approved it this week. 

For those who admire and respect Alexis Lambert (basically, anyone who knows her), there is little surprise that her personal struggle will end up conferring benefits to others in her position down the road.

43 years and counting

After 43 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, a Jacksonville man may be getting some relief.

HB 6507 seeks to compensate Jacksonville’s Clifford Williams, locked up for 43 years for a crime he did not commit.

Clifford Williams tells the media that God got him through his 43-year stretch in lockdown.

The House bill cleared the Civil Justice Subcommittee today. Appropriations and Judiciary follow. Meanwhile, the Senate version has four committee stops ahead.

If the House passes the bill, the Senate can take it up on the floor.

The total money sought: $2.15 million, for what is now a historical tragedy.

House bill sponsor Rep. Kimberly Daniels, a Jacksonville Democrat, laid the matter bare.

“How much can you give a man for taking 43 years of his life,” Daniels asked, noting the $2.15 million couldn’t make up for missed birthdays and holidays.

“Money cannot replace the nights he slept on a hard bed on death row,” Daniels added, calling it a “mental life sentence.”

Suped up

A measure that could change how Duval County picks its school superintendent cleared its first committee hurdle, with two ahead before the House floor.

A bill from State Rep. Jason Fischer that would create a pathway to make the (currently appointed) position elected was approved by the House Local Administration Subcommittee Wednesday morning.

Rep. Jason Fischer’s bill on changing the way Duval County picks its Schools Superintendent is gaining traction in Tallahassee. Image via Colin Hackley.

“This bill emboldens democracy,” raved state Rep. Anthony Sabatini, ahead of the vote.

The committee had a Republican supermajority: 10 Republicans to five Democrats, with no committee members from Duval County.

If the local bill (HB 1079) becomes law, Duval voters in November 2020 would be able to vote on whether they want an elected Superintendent, setting up a potential election in 2024 to select a replacement for a position appointed for decades.

The bill previously called for a 2022 election. Fischer said the change would give the district time to adjust.

Budget chair: Boost reserves

For the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, an optimistic revenue forecast means a chance to be more “aggressive” with reserves.

Rep. Travis Cummings, the Fleming Island Republican who chairs the influential committee, hailed a recent prediction that the state will be more flush with cash the next fiscal year.

Rep. Travis Cummings wants reserves boosted with new money.

The Revenue Estimating Conference suggests that the state could have $400 million more to deploy.

Cummings says that cash should go to reserves.

“I do think that the Legislature needs to get more aggressive in funding our reserves by taking advantage of the increase in state revenues just announced by the REC,” Cummings noted. “We have a duty to best position Florida and future legislatures long after we leave our service in Tallahassee.”

Meanwhile, Cummings is optimistic that some progress can be made on teacher pay, a position perhaps borne out by a House committee locating nearly $460 million for teacher raises in a budget reprioritization exercise last week.

That money would somewhat accommodate the Governor’s $600 million proposal to raise the base salary for starting teachers to $47,500 a year.

“The Governor fully understands that it is now our time to put our handprints on his proposal. We greatly appreciate our teachers and the boldness of our Governor, but as appropriators, we want to ensure that any increases to teacher pay are both equitable and sustainable,” Cummings noted.

Preemption bill moves

A bill that would change zoning for short-term rental platforms cleared its first House panel, despite local officials complaining by the dozens, and despite many in favor saying changes were needed going forward.

The state could take control of the short-term rental game.

The Workforce Development and Tourism Subcommittee approved Jacksonville Republican Rep. Fischer‘s bill (HB 1011) Tuesday afternoon.

The Senate version (SB 1128), filed by Sen. Manny Diaz, has already cleared its first committee.

The bill would change how short-term rentals, such as Airbnb, VRBO, and others are zoned.

This issue has proved contentious in virtually every major metro in Florida that draws tourists, by bringing what Fischer calls “accountability” to the vacation-rental industry.

The proposed legislation protects from local regulation rentals offered via an “advertising platform,” which provides software and online access to listings for “transient public lodging establishment[s]” in the state.

Ironically, Jacksonville is one major city that never figured out its rules for short-term rentals, with politically active groups in neighborhoods waylaying a timid City Council. 

If Fischer’s bill passes, the state will solve that problem for them.

King remembered

The left-leaning Florida Phoenix was the venue this week for a look back at a major Florida leader from a bygone time.

It’s been a decade since Sen. Jim King passed. Image via Colin Hackley.

Sen. Jim King, still a name with statewide resonance, was remembered by veteran correspondent Lucy Morgan

“He didn’t always like what reporters wrote. But it was never personal. He, more than most, understood the need to have reporters writing about what legislators were doing. Even when it wasn’t pretty,” Morgan wrote.

“King never refused to answer a question posed by cheeky reporters. Some lawmakers would hem and haw and say “no comment,’’ when surrounded by reporters wanting to talk about a sensitive issue. Not King. He would wade into any subject,” Morgan added.

“We could use a few like him today.”

Rigged system

“New year, new you” continues for the Jacksonville City Council, which now has a special committee looking into JEA.

New year, same old utility drama.

For those keeping score, the feds are also looking into the troubled utility and its sale push, while State Attorney Melissa Nelson has punted.

WJXT covered the MLK Day presser on the steps of City Hall, where it was revealed that the JEA SLT (senior leadership team) could have pocketed $18M if a sale had gone through.

“This thing is disgusting. It is incredibly rigged for the executives who were there. They knew that we were probably going to try to sell the JEA, they knew that, and they were going to pay themselves millions of dollars and with these bonus plans, hundreds of millions of dollars. Outrageous. We can never let this happen again,” City Council member Rory Diamond said.

The report will be finalized this spring. 

Amazon expands

It looks like Amazon will expand, again, in the Northeast Florida market.

More of this! Image via BizJournals.com.

WJXT reported this week that the online retail giant “is seeking a building permit for a project known as AMXL HJX1, which city building records describe as a $1.4-million renovation of an 11,015-square-foot facility on the Westside.”

Catchy name for its sixth facility.

Four facilities are online already.

A fifth, a planned distribution hub in the Cedar Hills neighborhood, will be online soon.

Look no further

The St. Augustine Record reports that the St. Johns County Commission liked their interim county manager so much, they went ahead and made him permanent without the trouble of a search.

St. Augustine got their man.

By a 5-0 vote, the board made Hunter Conrad the permanent choice.

They had considered looking nationally for the replacement for dispatched Michael Wanchick.

But the fix was in.

“He’s intelligent, but he’s also street smart. He knows the county like the back of his hand.” Commissioner Henry Dean said.

Deno Hicks out

The JEA drama took a high-profile casualty this week when the local managing partner of the Southern Group resigned.

Deno Hicks out at Southern Group.

Deno Hicks, central to the Jacksonville operation for years, left in the wake of revelations that he and suspended/fired/still on the payroll CEO Aaron Zahn had a land deal together.

The two had a commercial parcel on the Westside; the arrangement drew scrutiny given a ban on Zahn having outside employment.

The resignation was made official via email, the Jax Daily Record reported.

Southern will look for a new managing partner in the short term for the Jacksonville office. In the interim, it will run out of Tallahassee, the Record adds. 

Gruden returns to Florida

After the one-year experiment with John DeFilippo as offensive coordinator, the Jacksonville Jaguars have hired a former head coach with plenty of Florida ties to fill the role. Jay Gruden, a former head coach and offensive coordinator, will now try to lift the offense into a points-producing unit.

He has had some success in that regard. Gruden spent seven seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an offensive assistant under his brother, Jon. His first season in 2002 saw the Bucs win their only Super Bowl.

Meet the Jaguars’ new offensive coordinator: Jay Gruden.

His three years as offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals saw the team finish in the top tier in the number of passing touchdowns. At the same time, the rushing offense was usually in the middle of the pack. His last season with the Bengals saw his offense, under the direction of quarterback Andy Dalton, finish third in the league with 33 touchdown passes.

During his five-plus seasons as head coach of the Washington Redskins, Gruden’s teams had two winning seasons. In the end, the Jaguars relied on experience and philosophy when making their choice.

“We were trying to find someone who’s best for this staff, who’s best for what you want to run, then you’re looking for what person’s best for your players — who’s going to relate to the players, who’s going to be able to communicate with them,” said Jaguars coach Doug Marrone. “At the end of the day, we just felt that Jay was the best fit for us.”

Gruden will be right at home when he returns to Florida. Most of his football career has been spent in the Sunshine State.

He is a graduate of Tampa’s Chamberlain High School and played five seasons for the Tampa Bay Storm in the Arena Football League, where he quarterbacked his team to four Arena Bowl championships.

Arena Bowl X featured a duel between Gruden and future NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner as the Storm outlasted the Iowa Barnstormers. Gruden won two Arena League championships as a coach, guiding the Orlando Predators to victories in Arena Bowl XII and XIV.

As the 52-year-old Gruden arrives in Jacksonville, he has the good fortune to have two talented quarterbacks in Gardner Minshew and Nick Foles, unless the Jaguars decide to trade Foles. Development of these two into the Gruden offense may fall on him as the Jaguars are considering letting him serve as quarterbacks coach in addition to offensive coordinator.

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