Jacksonville Archives - Florida Politics

Making a list: Duval legislators hear Jacksonville’s funding needs

More members than not of the Duval County Legislative Delegation went into Monday’s meeting wondering what Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry wants.

While the Mayor’s Office has had some conversations, we talked to five delegation members who had yet to hear from staff ahead of the conclave.

No matter: Curry’s team was confident going into the event. They generally have had good luck navigating Tallahassee on wishlist items, ranging from a vote to change the city’s pension system to getting state money to revamp the off-ramps of the Hart Bridge.

And in the green room ahead of the meeting, smiles and good vibes abounded between Curry chief of staff Brian Hughes and state Reps. Cord ByrdKim Daniels, and Wyman Duggan.

After the delegation elected Rep. Jason Fischer as chair and Daniels as vice-chair, Curry made his pitch.

Curry noted “success even before (he) was sworn in,” lauding the Hart Bridge and pension reform pieces, before passing the mic to senior staffer Jordan Elsbury for specifics.

Elsbury noted that the administration would reach out in the coming weeks with priorities related to “public safety and infrastructure,” with all bills tied into that “narrative.”

Elsbury also noted that delegation members could, as Chairman Fischer did, move their offices into City Hall.

Council President Aaron Bowman continued the narrative, discussing his body’s strategic plan that should help guide potential “state partnerships.”

Crime and safety are high on our list,” Bowman said. “We know where there’s poverty, there’s crime.”

Bowman noted job training and “mentorship” could help.

“Resiliency … Matthew and Irma came through and put some hard hits” on Jacksonville, Bowman said, hoping to “partner with the state.”

Bowman also noted the homelessness issue, pointing out the need for “affordable housing.”

School Board chair Warren Jones wanted a half-mill increase for the property tax, to pay for “hardening of our facilities … desperately needed.”

Jacksonville Bold for 12.6.18 — Wrap it up

Wrap it up

The year, in terms of Jacksonville city government, is nearing an end.

Next Tuesday sees the final City Council meeting of 2018. For those interested in getting autographs, a Holiday themed meet-and-greet will also be held Wednesday afternoon.

Hors-d’oeuvres will be served at the latter event. Reminder: keep gifts under $100 in value.

When local political types look back at 2018, what will they recall?

The turbulence at JEA?

The push for a challenger for Lenny Curry?

Or something else?

There is a belief that just because a challenger manifests, there will be a groundswell of support.

Social media, via likes/retweets, may reflect that. But as has been said before, and reported in that off-record way that doesn’t attach names to quotes, the oppo awaits any challenger that jumps in against the machine.

Third time the charm?

For a third straight Legislative Session, Aaron Bean, the Republican Senator from Fernandina Beach, seeks in 2019 to make Secretary of State an elected position, elevating the position to what would be the fifth Cabinet slot.

Third time’s the charm? Aaron Bean hopes so.

The question is one of whether this bill has more traction this year than previous sessions.

Bean has pushed this concept twice already, contending that an odd number of Cabinet members is better for state business. The current SJR 118 would put the measure on the 2020 ballot, spurring a reorganization of Cabinet duties and a 2022 election for the position.

Hutson pushes financial literacy

Late last week, St. Johns County Republican Sen. Travis Hutson filed legislation that would help Florida students with their financial literacy.

Fitting tribute: Travis Hutson is carrying on Dorothy Hukill’s legacy.

Hutson’s bill would “will amend Florida Statute to require all students entering the 9th grade beginning in the 2019-2020 school year complete one-half credit dedicated to personal financial literacy and money management.”

Students will learn how to balance checkbooks, figure out local and federal taxes, and manage personal debt.

Hutson named the bill after a recently-passed Senate colleague, Dorothy Hukill, who advocated for this legislation.

“Senator Hukill understood that all students need adequate instruction in financial literacy to be successful, Hutson said, saying he was “proud to continue [her] legacy in the Florida Senate and ensure that all of our students are prepared for life after high school.”

The bill already has a House companion and sponsor.

Drone bill on

State Rep. Clay Yarborough, a Jacksonville Republican in his second term, has for the third straight Legislative Session filed legislation pertaining to drones.

Another drone bill for Clay Yarborough in 2019.

The 2019 iteration: HB 75, would allow law enforcement to use unmanned aircraft as a “tool in the toolbox” to get perspective on traffic accidents, to collect evidence at a crime scene, and to assist in crowd control at public events such as concerts.

Yarborough, in conversations with law enforcement, has heard support of the concept.

The bill would add language to Florida Statute 934.50 (“Searches and seizure using a drone”), which contains verbiage banning “surveillance” violating a person’s “reasonable expectation of privacy without his or her written consent.” That protection of privacy, Yarborough says, guards against potential overstretch.

Drones, says Yarborough, “are not going to be chasing a guy around his neighborhood.”

Williams launches re-election

Expectations are that the re-election campaign for Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams, launched last weekend, will have less drama than his first campaign four years ago.

Mike Williams launches his bid for another term.

Whereas he had six opponents in 2015, he has one (Democrat Tony Cummings, who got under 5 percent of the vote last March) this year.

Despite media reports that the murder rate is up and the clearance rate is down, Williams was undaunted in comments Saturday.

“We’re headed in the right direction. We are always going to have the bad day. The bad weekend. We have to stay focused on the work. I think that’s the important thing. Staying consistent in the work and consistent in that is what will get us over these challenges overall,” Williams said.

No sale, JEA says

Yet another valuation report for Jacksonville’s public utility was released this week, with the Jessie Ball duPont Foundation releasing a study that values the utility at somewhere near $7.5 billion.

That is the low-end of the value range posited earlier this year by another valuation study put forth by JEA, which said the utility could fetch anywhere between that and $11 billion.

No sale, no sale, no sale: JEA’s message is clear, but not everyone has ears for it.

All of this is hypothetical, asserted JEA spox Gerri Boyce, as there are no plans to sell.

“JEA’s board and management are not pursuing or analyzing a sale of JEA. JEA and the City have a contribution agreement in place through 2021 and have taken steps to extend the agreement through 2023. The JEA Board voted in May to cease any discussions around privatization in order to focus the enterprise on developing a 10-year strategic plan. And recently, Duval County residents voted to make their voice heard should the discussions resume in the future,” Boyce asserted.

Even people close to the Curry administration, widely perceived as the energy beyond exploring privatization, pointed out caveats including contracts, land use agreements, and other thorny issues that could complicate a sale.

The push to privatize had a time-sensitive narrative, noting that with liquidity reigning in the equity markets, investors may want to buy tangible assets, such as municipal utilities.

With yet another reassurance that privatization won’t happen soon, the window may have been missed for this business cycle.

Health plan changes for cops, fire

Jacksonville City Council committees Monday and Tuesday approved changes in collective bargaining for fire and police employees that could change health plans.

Former CFO Mike Weinstein negotiated the deal, then sold it to Council.

Ordinances 2018-756 and 2018-757 would allow the unions to separate from the city health care plan in 2020. They were passed without opposition in both committees of reference.

Former Jacksonville CFO Mike Weinstein, who helped to negotiate the plan while still in an official capacity, noted Monday that the health changes were of “paramount importance” to the unions, but ultimately were a Council decision.

Weinstein also noted that public safety may have a negotiating advantage on insurance rates, given the overall health of police and fire being better than that of city employees. With defined benefit plans not available for new hires after 2016’s pension reform, better health plans can help with recruitment.

The full Council gets its shot next week. Due to unanimous committee votes, this bill will likely pass on the Consent Agenda.

Ethics reform ahead?

A bill up for a vote next week by the Jacksonville City Council would tighten ethics provisions for employees, officials and board members.

Ordinance 2018-822, filed by Council President Aaron Bowman at the request of the Jacksonville Ethics Commission, would mandate that officials and employees avoid leveraging their positions or resources for personal gain.

Jacksonville City Council President Aaron Bowman (seated) is pushing for stricter ethics guidelines.

The ordinance also sets up limits for personal loans: $100 between subordinates and supervisors on the same team, and $500 for intra-departmental loans.

Carla Miller, the city’s ethics director, offered some insight as to this legislation Monday, as an attempt based on national models to reform legislation from decades ago.

Some of those reforms, including the provision about the misuse of property and campaigning, used to be in the ethics code.

Miller described the bill as an attempt to define in “plain English” codes that often have been esoteric.

Brown defense takes shape

Suspended and indicted Jacksonville City Councilwoman Katrina Brown will look to undermine defense witnesses in her 2019 trial, the Florida Times-Union reports.

Katrina Brown had been on the Council Finance Committee before her fraud rap.

Brown’s lawyer wanted 60 days before the trial an order requiring personnel files of investigators and “witnesses’ addiction histories and grudges against Brown,” the T-U asserts.

The defense will get it, but five days before the trial.

Katrina Brown and likewise suspended/indicted Council colleague Reggie Brown are accused of a 38-count conspiracy to defraud, say federal prosecutors. The pair is accused of extracting hundreds of thousands of dollars for personal use from a Small Business Administration-backed loan provided for Katrina Brown’s family’s barbecue sauce plant.

The total list of charges: 13 counts of wire fraud, another 13 of mail fraud, five counts of money laundering, and charges of attempted bank fraud for Ms. Brown and failure to file a 1040 from Mr. Brown.

They have petitioned to separate their cases, but no ruling has been rendered yet.

Quid pro quo?

A former Duval County School Board member charges that two of his former colleagues were hired as a payoff by the new Superintendent.

Scott Shine is off the board, but still in the headlines. (Image via WJCT)

Former board member Scott Shine told the Florida Times-Union that board members Becki Couch and Paula Wright were appointed by Superintendent Diana Greene after voting for Greene’s hire.

Wright’s job has already been approved by the district. Couch is up for board approval next month.

Shine calls the hiring a “colossal conflict of interest,” saying he was “shocked” by the hires.

Superintendent Greene lauded the new hires’ “tremendous knowledge base of our schools and our community.”

Shine was an advocate for Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, who is in Detroit now.

Shine may be isolated here. Jacksonville Mayor Curry is working well with Greene, and with shared initiatives afoot, Curry likely won’t wade into this mess.

Shine chose not to run for re-election this year. But clearly, he can’t stay away.

Wayfair is here

The slogan is “Wayfair, you’ve got just what I need.” This week, that’s truer than ever: the online shopping outpost will ramp up its operations on Jacksonville’s Westside.

The million square foot facility at Cecil Commerce Center will employ 250 people by the end of 2021.

More jobs for the Westside. (Image via Jacksonville Daily Record)

“We are delighted to welcome Wayfair to Jacksonville,” Curry said. “Their entry adds hundreds of jobs to our community and contributes economic value that bolsters our statewide growth in job creation and demand.”

“We are excited to join the Duval County community as we continue to scale our logistics operations in the state of Florida to support the incredible growth of our business,” said James Savarese, chief operating officer of Wayfair.

 “With the opening of our new distribution center in Jacksonville, we know we will benefit from a strong talent pool and we look forward to contributing to the growth of job opportunities in the region as we welcome hundreds of employees to our world-class team,” Savarese added.

The Jacksonville Daily Record covered the economic incentives package “Project Empire” approved by the Council in October. They reported an average wage of $33,000 for the positions, which will largely be furniture warehousing and delivery.

JTA rolls out micro-transit, rapid bus line

On Monday, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority launched its Red Line service, a nearly 19-mile bus rapid transit line servicing downtown and the beaches.

According to the Jacksonville Business Journal, the new Red Line is the third PRT line since introducing The Green Line In 2015. Half the Red Line’s nearly $34 million price tag was picked up by a Federal Transit Administration grant. Nineteen compressed natural gas-powered buses — Wi-Fi enabled — will service the line, arriving at 15-minute intervals, increasing to 10 minutes during peak hours.

Rapid transit continues to get federal funding in Jacksonville.

Another feature is “traffic signal priority,” where buses can communicate with traffic signals to get more frequent green lights. The start-to-finish time for the Red Line is about an hour, depending on the time of day and traffic conditions.

JTA Chief Executive Officer Nathaniel Ford Sr. praised the new service as a way to provide transit alternatives, connect Jacksonville’s Florida State College campuses and offer additional workforce mobility throughout Arlington. The service also foresees Jacksonville’s anticipated population growth, particularly with millennials.

“Younger people are not buying cars,” Ford told the Journal, noting that millennials expect cities to have mobility solutions. “A transformation is occurring right now across the nation.”

In addition, the Journal reports that the JTA also rolled out a number of new services: Nassau Express-Select, a weekday bus service between Yulee and downtown and unveiled ReadiRide, a shuttle service offered through Owl Inc. that connects five zones — the Beaches, Highlands, Northside, Southeast and Southwest — with JTA’s fixed-route lines. ReadiRide customers schedule through Owl; service within the zones cost $2, while service to connect with JTA’s BRT lines cost 50 cents. JTA also opened the Avenues Walk Park-n-Ride for the Blue Line.

Transit head in Jax

Star power arrived Monday from Washington D.C. to christen the new bus rapid transit line to and from the Jacksonville beaches.

The Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) Acting Administrator K. Jane Williams was in town, lauding the “new East Corridor BRT Red Line,” predicting that it “will connect Jacksonville residents to education and jobs, and improve the quality of life in the region,”

Federal Transit Administration Acting Administrator K. Jane Williams visits Jacksonville, joins JTA Chief Executive Officer Nathaniel Ford Sr. to launch new rapid bus line.

“We appreciate the Federal Transit Administration’s support for the First Coast Flyer BRT project,” Ford said. “Already the largest BRT network in the Southeast, the new 18.5 mile Red Line nearly doubles the footprint of the existing First Coast Flyer Blue and Green lines and connects more people to jobs, education, health care and entertainment.”

ZOOLights returns

The Seventh Annual ZOOLights event is returning to the Jacksonville Zoo & Gardens.

Featuring thousands of LED lights, ZOOLights transforms the zoo into a winter wonderland of moving sculptures, lighted trees, and animal silhouettes.

Guests can walk among lights laced throughout the Zoo, listen to holiday music and enjoy a unique view of ZOOLights by boarding the Zoo’s lighted train (the train only runs from the back of the Zoo to the front). There will also be carousel rides, the 4-D Theater, marshmallow roasting, and more activities for an extra charge.

Jacksonville Zoo becomes a winter wonderland of lights for the holidays.

The dates are Dec. 7—9 and Dec. 14 — Jan. 5 (Closed Christmas Day) Sunday — Thursday 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Friday & Saturday 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

The Zoo closes at 5 p.m. and will reopen for ZOOLights at 6 p.m.

Prices are $10 for Non-Members; $8 for Zoo Members, with a special of $5 for Zoo Members, Dec. 17 — 20 only.

ZOOLights Value Tickets includes train rides, 4D Theater and Carousel (Children 12 and under): $15 for Non-Members, $12 for Zoo Members.

For more information, visit JacksonvilleZoo.org.

Locker room talk

Stories about former President George H.W. Bush abounded after his death last weekend, but one of the more interesting was from Jacksonville sportscaster-turned-scribe Sam Kouvaris.

Everyone, including at least one Jacksonville sports journalist, had a Poppy Bush story.

Kouvaris was in the locker room at Marsh Landing when Bush 41 came in.

“Conservatively dressed in a blue Ban-Lon shirt, blue slacks and white basketball socks, he was getting ready to go to lunch in the main dining room at Marsh Landing.”

The two exchanged small talk before the President went to the event that (alas) Kouvaris was not invited to.

Kouvaris speculated that his close ties locally were a reason that he was not pushed by Secret Service to clear the locker room before the President’s arrival.

Kessler looking to do more with Jags offense

The good news is, Cody Kessler is 1-0 as a starting quarterback. Despite that fact he did not lead the Jaguars on any touchdown drives they came away with a 6-0 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. With that in mind, there is no bad news.

Kessler threw the ball 24 times and 18 of those were caught — none by the other team — for 150 yards. Numbers like that do not normally lead to wins unless a strong ground game compensates for a lack of air cover.

The good news: Cody Kessler is 1-0 as a starting quarterback, but he needs to do more with the Jaguar offense.

But with Leonard Fournette sitting out a one-game suspension, Kessler became the team’s second-leading rusher with 28 yards. He had the day’s longest run with an 11-yard effort.

That meant the once-vaunted Jaguars’ defense had to step up and it did, holding the Colts to 41 rushing yards. All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey and his teammates kept Pro Bowl quarterback Andrew Luck and his talented stable of receivers out of the end zone.

“Obviously, it wasn’t pretty, and there’s a lot I left out there, but at the end of the day it feels good,” Kessler said after the game. “Especially for me to get the first one.”

In winning for the first time since Sept. 30, Jacksonville knocked off a hot team. To break their 7-game losing streak, the Jags had to beat a Colts team that had won five in a row, including a 29-26 win over the Jags in Indianapolis in November.

As the Jaguars traveled to Nashville Thursday night to face the Tennessee Titans, they knew they would be facing a team against whom they also failed to score a touchdown at home. That came Sept. 23, when they came up on the short end of a 9-6 score.

The Jags have had a world of problems with Tennessee. Going into the game, Titans’ quarterback Marcus Mariota was sporting a 5-2 record against them, his most wins against any NFL team.

Jacksonville was hoping they would not be swept in both games as they were last season.

Lenny Curry challengers: all talk and no action?

The qualifying deadline for Jacksonville city elections in 2019 is Jan. 11. And as of now, Mayor Lenny Curry is the prohibitive favorite for re-election.

Curry has drawn seven opponents as of Thursday morning. But the first-term Republican Mayor has somewhere over $3 million on hand. And his nearest opponent, independent candidate Connell Crooms, has just over $3,000.

That bodes well for Curry, endorsed by the political committee of the Jacksonville Chamber, backed by a wide swath of the city’s power elite, well-connected in Tallahassee with his “brother from a different mother” as Governor.

However, there are still rumblings of a challenge to Curry yet from a politician with a portfolio. And to that end, interested Jacksonville residents have an opportunity to have a “conversation” with one potential opponent Thursday evening.

Councilman Garrett Dennis, a first-term Democrat, already has a statewide political committee (though one with just $7,000 raised).

Dennis has beefed with the Curry team, including documenting alleged physical threats on the record.

“Standing up is not easy. I’ve been threatened by this administration. I’ve been told that I’m a ‘walking dead man,’” Dennis said in January. “It’s unfortunate that I’ve had to go get a concealed weapon permit and carry a gun on me because I’ve been told by this administration that I’m a walking dead man.”

At the same time, one former Curry staffer has claimed that Dennis intimidated her during a closed meeting.

Commentators, such as former Folio Weekly editor Claire Goforth, wondered where the hell the Democratic candidate for Mayor was six months ago.

While Yolanda ThorntonHoward Barnes, and Doreszell Cohen are filed as Democrats, there are questions about the political viability of a trio with $500 cash on hand between them.

Enter Dennis? Who knows.

On Thursday, the Councilman’s “conversation about the future of Jacksonville” will be “part of [the] decision-making process.”

He wouldn’t answer questions directly about running for Mayor against not only Curry but Council ally Anna Brosche, who also is rumored to be jumping into the mayoral race. Nor about a potential run against Supervisor of Elections Mike Hogan.

It’s all but a given he won’t run for Council. Recent meetings of the Rules Committee have been toxic, with members finding reason to complain about Dennis’ filing bills they consider specious, half-baked, or otherwise non-starters in the current political environment.

For Democrats, time to build an operation that can counter the road-tested and donor-approved machine behind Lenny Curry is rapidly running out.

Democrats having a conversation with Garrett Dennis tonight should, at minimum, urge him to be definite about next steps.

To even get Curry on a debate stage, Dennis (and Brosche for that matter) will have to satisfy some polling thresholds. Such as filing and demonstrating traction in time for it to show up in surveys.

Time is being wasted, meanwhile, when one considers what the Curry operation was doing this time four years ago, when polls showed popular incumbent Democrat Alvin Brown up big against him and the rest of the field.

It was pretty clear even then what Curry’s path to victory would look like. Discrediting Brown with key elements of the Democrat base. Bringing suburban Republicans back to their natural home. Reminding voters of the bumps in the news cycle during the Brown administration.

It helped that Council stalled out the pension vote until Curry was elected, sure. But Curry, who wasn’t a great candidate in terms of presentation at this point, already had the infrastructure going. He had staffed up and he had gotten key endorsements from Pam Bondi, Jeff Atwater, and Adam Putnam.

Other endorsements were to come, of course, such as Jeb BushMarco Rubio, Rick Perry, and Rick Scott. The only Republican of note to come through and not say kind words: Sen. Ted Cruz, in town with Duval Republicans in February.

Curry had also gotten a friendly chair in the Duval Republican Executive Committee: Robin Lumb, now a policy director for the city, ensured that the party’s endorsement went as smoothly as it could given the idiosyncrasies of the group conferring it.

Oh, and there was fundraising. As David Chapman, current spokesman for 4th Circuit State Attorney Melissa Nelson, wrote for the Jacksonville Daily Record in December 2014, Curry raised almost a quarter-million in November.

Alvin Brown, meanwhile, was trying to figure out the optics of messaging about a fundraiser in New York City with “embattled comedian” Bill Cosby.

Curry took the high-ish road, saying he would leave it to others to “question the integrity of [Brown’s] donors. What’s important to me is that this reminds people he was hanging out with movie stars in New York while budget priorities like police, libraries, and services most important to Jacksonville were being decided on.”

Perhaps there is just some massive groundswell of people who are ready to march to their polling places and vote Lenny Curry out. Perhaps they won’t respond to an endorsement a day for Curry starting soon after the holidays. Or to the oppo troves waiting on opponents to drive down their vote.

Perhaps Jacksonville voters are now so sophisticated that they recognize an oppo dump for what it is, standing by their candidates nonetheless. Recent history suggests otherwise.

Other questions for Dennis (and Brosche for that matter) include what happens if they win.

Do they expect a smooth transition from the current senior staff of Curry’s office? Do they expect a cooperative City Council?

2018 has been a year of hypotheticals.

The sale of JEA. A potential insurgency taking aim at the machine.

2018 is almost over. Christmas decorations have been up for weeks. Winter is coming.

In fact, the chill is already here.

Curry challenger(s): It’s time to show and prove.

Jacksonville City Council panel moves to tighten ethics rules

A bill approved Tuesday in the Jacksonville City Council Rules Committee would tighten ethics provisions for employees, officials, and board members.

Ordinance 2018-822, filed by Council President Aaron Bowman at the request of the Jacksonville Ethics Commission, would mandate that officials and employees avoid leveraging their positions or resources for personal gain.

The ordinance also sets up limits for personal loans: $100 between subordinates and supervisors on the same team, and $500 for intra-departmental loans.

As well: “City officials and employees should make an honest effort to use official time and City property only for official business and should not misuse property, time or resources for their own benefit or for campaigning.”

The bill also prohibits city employees and officials, as well as board appointees, from appearing in an adversarial position against the city or an independent authority.

The city’s lawyers and office of employee services support this legislation, per the bill summary.

Carla Miller, the city’s ethics director, offered some insight as to this legislation Monday, as an attempt based on national models to reform legislation from decades ago.

Some of those reforms, including the provision about the misuse of property and campaigning, used to be in the ethics code.

Meanwhile, barring board appointees from appearing before a panel against the city or independent authorities is intended to address potential conflicts of interest, including an employee of a law firm profiting from a judgment against the city.

Miller described the bill as an attempt to define in “plain English” codes that often have been esoteric.

A second ethics bill (2018-710) deferred by the committee repealed a $100 cap on one-time gifts and a $250 cap on cumulative gift giving over the course of a year. Lobbyists and city vendors, however, still have to abide by that cap.

Miller described the bill as a product of “consensus” from the Council, the administration, and city departments. But even a self-described “reasonable champion of ethics” questioned the process, which saw the Ethics Commission approve the bill the same meeting it was introduced.

“I don’t think this bill is ready for prime time,” observed Councilman John Crescimbeni, who described the legislation as “sloppy.”

 

Health care plan changes loom for Jacksonville fire, police

Jacksonville City Council committees on Monday and Tuesday approved changes in collective bargaining for fire and police employees that could change health plans.

Ordinances 2018-756 and 2018-757 would allow the unions to separate from the city health care plan in 2020. They were passed without opposition in both committees of reference (“Neighborhoods, Community Services, Public Health and Safety” on Monday, and “Finance” on Tuesday).

But not without some intrigue.

Ahead of Monday’s meeting, the Council Auditor had concerns about the deals the Mayor’s Office negotiated with the unions. Allowing this separation would “erode” consolidated government, with the city on the hook for costs of the plan but divested of bargaining authority, the office asserted.

“Assuming the separate plans occur, the City’s actuary projects that in calendar year 2020, the current healthcare plan costs for all other City employees/retirees will be $15.6 million (or 40.3%) more than what will be paid in by the City and other City employees/retirees,” the auditor’s comments contend.

Other concerns: Those costs would go up every year, and there is no dedicated funding source. Added costs could be imposed by retirees rejoining the city plan. Meanwhile, the city would lose its ability to audit the plan.

Former Jacksonville CFO Mike Weinstein, who helped to negotiate the plan while still in an official capacity, noted Monday that the health changes were of “paramount importance” to the unions, but ultimately were a Council decision.

Currently, the unions are with Blue Cross Blue Shield, and are obliged to stay with BCBS until 2022. There are clauses to protect the city through that point, Weinstein said.

Weinstein also said the program could be audited by the city, via a separate trust account that will be set up for the city contribution.

Weinstein also noted that public safety may have a negotiating advantage on insurance rates, given the overall health of police and fire being better than that of city employees. With defined benefit plans not available for new hires after 2016’s pension reform, better health plans can help with recruitment.

“They’re going to go out and they’re going to have their own program,” Weinstein said Monday, noting that Council would get to review this every three years.

Councilman Garrett Dennis, a Democrat, wondered Monday if unions could be “pulled back” into city health care plans “for the betterment of the city.” Weinstein said that could happen during re-negotiations at three year intervals, and that the unions may decide not to make changes after review.

Tuesday’s discussion involved more of a drill down, but the fate of the bills were never in doubt, with Council members and union heads all saying kind things about how easy the process was compared to previous years with different heads and a different mayoral administration.

The full Council gets its shot next week. Due to unanimous committee votes, this bill will likely pass on the Consent Agenda.

2019 elections a referendum on Jacksonville’s strong mayor government

Duval’s December begins as most months have begun the last four years: Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and his ever-expanding political machine standing strong, even as political enemies recover from their latest rout.

Last Tuesday saw a doubleheader: back-to-back events illustrating the futility of, as the phrase once went, raging against the machine. An older phrase (“Sound and fury … signifying nothing”) aptly sums up the Curry Crew’s perception of its critics.

First: the “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” moment, when the JEA Board selected in-house interim CEO Aaron Zahn as the local publicly owned utility’s permanent CEO.

The media and the cynics said the fix was in, and maybe so. But, as our review of scoring worksheets suggested, not every board member was in on the fix. Zahn was not the first choice by the numbers of three voters, with the board chair actually giving the edge to San Antonio’s Cris Eugster.

However, neither Eugster nor the other outside candidate knew the game. Curry frequently talks about politics being a “relationship business.” Who had relationships in this scenario except Zahn?

Board members slammed Eugster, who was qualified on paper, for not wanting the gig enough to say or demonstrate it was his first priority. Hill coasted through her interview as if there was some realization that not only did circumstances dictate that Zahn merited a leg up, but that the case could be made, in a quasi-empirical fashion, to give him the role.

When Curry came into City Hall, he soon enough moved to reconfigure boards and commissions, with the JEA Board being a primary example.

Curry got his board. He got his CEO. And in terms of the vision of the administration, a construct that sees a strong mayor atop a dynamic city, that’s exactly what the Chamber and other key supporters of the mayor will want.

What that means, regarding the future of the utility, is unknown. Zahn has said that “capital conversations” are precursors to discussion of changes of the business model. Will JEA privatize? With a new City Council in play, there could be more appetite toward manufacturing consent in that direction.

Curry scored a second victory Tuesday night when City Councilwoman Anna Brosche saw her transparency bill mauled by her colleagues in a 3-16 vote.

The bill, written after a task force on open government and transparency during Brosche’s Council Presidency earlier this year, included a number of reforms.

The legislation would have required anyone doing more than $1 million worth of business with the city to disclose local political donations over the last five years. It would have also required emails and text messages between councilmembers and registered lobbyists to be posted to an online portal as the public record documents they are.

Curry was not in the house, but his senior staffers were, watching the carnage from their vantage points in and near the green room. Sushi, we are told, was served up inside. But the real feast was on, yet again, those who diverge from the Mayor’s agenda.

The effectiveness of this Mayor’s Office in manufacturing consent on this Council has been a common thread of the last few years, even as the personnel and the tactics have changed. Those on the Mayor’s side will say that his team has to grind for every vote.

And there are examples of Curry positioning favored legislators to succeed. Consider the United Arab Emirates funding, much of it going to District 10’s Ken Knight Road; that money will help appointed Republican Councilman Terrance Freeman, who has reportedly said that Curry won’t let him fail.

Or consider the microgrants being given to non-profits to help stop gun violence in Jacksonville. Currycrat Reggie Gaffney, facing a crowded field for re-election, was helped by the buy-in that creates with the community.

Why would a Council member go against that? Most never do. They learn it’s a bad idea.

Consider Danny Becton, who made noise about wanting to spend more money retiring the city’s $3 billion-plus unfunded liability on the pension debt.

Becton talked a good game of brinksmanship, got smacked down, and since then has toed the line. Except for Brosche and Council gadfly Garrett Dennis, everyone pretty much figures that out.

The open question going into the 2019 elections: will Curry face a real challenger?

Brosche hasn’t filed yet. Dennis hasn’t filed yet. The rest of the field lacks portfolio or capital.

Complaining about Curry’s political operation is a popular game, but it’s about as useful as complaining about the Jacksonville Jaguars if there is no challenge to the Mayor worth mentioning.

Curry and Chief of Staff Brian Hughes enjoy the brinksmanship and the combat. Their opponents don’t seem to in the same way. They seem to take the personal attacks personally, rather than as a mechanism of negotiation.

Most of the political talent in this town (specifically, the younger talent) is either in the administration or signed up to lobby for this administration. There is a vision of continuity that is being set up for the long haul, and some of the behind the scenes players we see now are people who will have more prominent roles in the years and decades to come.

The tree has deep roots, and most of those outside the process just see the top branches.

The 2019 elections will offer a referendum on the last four years.

Curry promised decisive, “bold” leadership; he’s provided that.

He’s brought confident, hard-charging people into most roles of import, and though it may look like a boys’ club to some, that doesn’t seem to worry anyone on the inside.

Longtime observers of the local scene who align with Curry expect, even if Brosche gets in, to see her around 30 percent of the vote, with Curry around 50 percent and the minor candidates on the ballot getting the rest.

While there may be a path for Brosche, that path will be laden with landmines: establishment endorsements for Curry, oppo dumps for the challenger.

And if she doesn’t run?

Curry will be popping bottles Jan. 11, with qualifying in the rearview mirror and a cakewalk to four more years.

Safety first: Lawsuit challenges Duval County school guard plan

In an effort to comply with SB 7026, the school safety bill passed after the Parkland massacre, Duval County decided to use “school safety assistants.”

A group of plaintiffs including the League of Women Voters filed a legal challenge Thursday, arguing the plan is illegal and discriminatory.

The LWV suit says the plan puts “thousands of students at risk — especially students of color and students with disabilities — but also violates Florida law that prohibits carrying guns in schools.”

Central to the claim: School safety assistants are not law enforcement officers, an exempt class from that requirement.

The suit contends that unarmed school personnel “could develop emergency-response plans with law enforcement, create and promote comprehensive mental health services, serve as the point of contact for local child-serving agencies and first responders, ensure that entrances and exits are properly secured, train school staff and students in emergency preparedness, and undertake other safety-related functions.”

The qualifications for school safety assistants include a high school degree and a driver’s license, being over 21, being able to pass a drug test, and 144 hours of training total.

School safety assistants have been criticized in the press since they came into fruition this fall.

One assistant was found to have pawned his school-issued revolver twice.

The program was instituted as a budget measure. The state provided $3.6 million of “safe schools” money, which allowed the district to fund 107 positions at $12.50 an hour. Jacksonville police officers would have cost over $10 million to fund for a similar role.

Jacksonville Council members won’t blame Sheriff for low crime clearance rates

On Thursday, a Jacksonville City Council subcommittee continued what is billed as a “comprehensive crime reduction inventory.”

However, crime reduction may not be the only law enforcement concern for the legislative panel: A Florida Department of Law Enforcement report this week revealed that Duval County ranks 66th in terms of crimes solved.

Its clearance rate hovers just over 17 percent, meaning five of six crimes go unsolved. This is below the statewide rate of 20 percent.

In recent years, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has seen more funding and restoration of staffing, which their own messaging has lauded.

The department is using technology for a “Real Time Crime Center,” incorporating ShotSpotter and other tools. JSO has gotten its wish list, which includes 180 new officers, 80 new community service officers, upgrades in equipment, raises for employees amounting to 20 percent over a three-year period.

But the clearance rate is still a concern.

We asked council members their thoughts, but many would not respond to requests for comment.

Councilwoman Ju’Coby Pittman, a Democrat appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to fill in for suspended Katrina Brown, is new to the Council, and seemed willing to give the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office the benefit of the doubt for the most part.

Pittman said that “JSO works very hard.”

“When crime happens, we all expect for things to be done immediately. And we’ve had a lot of crime,” Pittman said. “Perhaps if we can do things out of the box.”

“Over time, and as we strategically plan for our community, we may need to look at things out of the box. For crime,” Pittman said.

She noted that she’s not in the Sheriff’s position, “only a colleague and a City Council member.”

“Being new to this position,” Pittman said, “I would prefer … one thing I’ve done since I’ve been here is gone along on the ride alongs. You can never plan when crime is going to happen.”

“The rate is not acceptable,” Pittman said, adding that “because of the type of crimes [in her district], an increase of gangs, of younger kids, people are afraid” to cooperate with police.

“They’re afraid to say something,” Pittman added. “We’ve got to continue to work as a community to engage individuals so they don’t fear retaliation.”

Committee chairman Tommy Hazouri, a Democrat and former Mayor of Jacksonville from 1987 to 1991, has a different perspective on public safety than most.

Clearance rates when he was Mayor weren’t much better than now, hovering just over 19 percent.

Hazouri notes that a deeper dive into the numbers points to some relative successes and adds that big counties and smaller counties have different thresholds.

On the “bigger crimes,” Hazouri notes that clearance rates exceed that low-water 17 percent.

“Murders … 59 percent were solved. Rapes … over 50 percent. Robberies … over 30 percent were solved. None of them are 100 percent. You can’t be satisfied … but the major crimes are much better and cold cases are more readily resolved” than burglaries and larcenies.

We asked if there needed to be resource reallocation toward solving more of these cases.

“I don’t think it’s fair to the JSO to compare us to Columbia County or St. Johns County … counties that don’t have [as large a] population,” Hazouri said. “Their percentages are much better in clearance. I think that’s attributable to Miami-Dade being a large county, us being a large county.”

Jacksonville consolidated its city and county government 50 years ago, and in light of woeful clearance rates, the question was asked: When it has come to public safety, has consolidation failed?

Or are people here just more criminally minded?

“The larger the county or city, the more crimes you’re going to have … less solved ones than you’re going to have in the smaller counties,” Hazouri said.

“The question is are we doing the best we can,” Hazouri said. “Can we do better? Of course we can. Does JSO think they can do better? Of course they do.”

Councilman Garrett Dennis, meanwhile, is an outlier on many issues, and that was the case on this one. He was blunt (and alone) in laying the problem at the Sheriff’s feet.

“He is the leader of the organization,” Dennis said.

There likely will be no political repercussions at all for low clearance rates.

Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams faces underfunded Democrat Tony Cummings as his only competition in the March election.

Expect public safety rhetoric to dominate the political ads. Whether crimes actually get solved or not is ancillary to the larger message, a perception of safety not borne out by FDLE numbers.

Jacksonville Bold for 11.29.18 — Payoff pitch

Baseball terminology may be out of season, but no matter: this week’s developments show that all the work Northeast Florida lawmakers have done in recent months has paid off.

For the second straight year, Fleming Island Republican Rob Bradley will helm Senate Appropriations. This year, a close ally is also handling the House budget.

Gov. Ron DeSantis: as much as he belongs to anywhere, he’s a Jacksonville guy.

2019 will see Jacksonville political types keeping one eye on Tallahassee and the other eye on local elections. Mayor Lenny Curry is on the ballot and though there is no formal slate of backed candidates, it looks from here like the best funded and organized operations have the Curry stamp of approval.

Sure, there are concerns. There always are.

But what’s clear: at least at this moment, Northeast Florida got its groove back.

Now, the real question: can they somehow transfer that mojo to the flailing Jacksonville Jaguars?

Below, some less depressing news than provided by the NFL.

Bradley back as budget chair

For the second straight year, Northeast Florida Republican Bradley will chair the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Another year with the gavel for the Fleming Island Republican.

With Rep. Travis Cummings chairing the House’s budget panel, that means Clay County has two lawmakers overseeing statewide spending decisions for the 2019 Legislative Session. And both have a direct line to the executive branch.

Both he and Cummings endorsed Governor-elect DeSantis weeks ahead of the primary, part of the first wave of elected leaders willing to break from DeSantis’ primary opponent, Adam Putnam.

Late last year, Bradley described his approach as “getting the job done with as little drama as possible.”

And given the ideological and temperamental alignment he shares with Clay County colleague Cummings, it’s hard to imagine too much rancor in the process.

Garden party

It’s not all budget for Bradley. though.

He is renewing for the second straight year his quest to protect Floridians’ vegetable gardens, local ordinances notwithstanding.

Front yard gardening is a debate across the country. (Image via TreeHugger)

SB 82, filed by the Fleming Island Republican, would basically eliminate as “void and unenforceable” local jurisdiction over front yard gardens.

The goal: to facilitate “the development of sustainable cultivation of vegetables and fruits at all levels of production, including for personal consumption.”

The bill cleared the Senate 36-1 late in the 2018 Legislative Session when Bradley was appropriations chair. However, it died in the House without a committee hearing.

Bye bye, bundling?

The days of “bundled” constitutional amendments would end under a bill filed by Bradley.

Could 2018 be the end of amendment ‘bundling?’

Per the Fleming Island Republican, bundling “terrible way to amend the constitution” and “unfair to the voters who are asked to consider these changes.”

The measure (SB 74) offers a single-subject limitation for the Constitution Revision Commission (CRC), a legislative fix for the grouping together of unrelated measures into the same amendment.

The CRC won’t meet again till 2037-8, which certainly will give the body’s next iteration time to process the changes proposed in the current bill — should it become law.

Health care budget runs through Bean

Sen. Aaron Bean, a Fernandina Beach Republican, will hold a key position in 2019: chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee for Health and Human Services.

Aaron Bean has four more years, and an agenda to push.

Bean was just elected to his second term in the Senate, and the chairman of the full budget committee is someone he knows very well: Fleming Island Republican Bradley.

On Monday, Bean told us of his “excitement” to chair the committee. He found out Monday morning via phone from Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano.

Bean noted that since his time in the House, he has chaired a number of health policy committees, and as in previous years, this year will see “challenges.”

“There’s not going to be enough money in the health care world,” Bean said.

His goals: “to improve access, affordability, and quality” via “free market” solutions. He does not see a pathway to Medicaid expansion but does see that there could be ways to improve on past and present performance.

“Could we look at what we’ve done and do it better,” Bean asked rhetorically. “The way things were done five or 10 years ago may not be the best way now.”

On the table for “discussion”: Agriculture Commissioner-elect Nikki Fried’s proposal to move medical cannabis functions to her department and away from the Department of Health.

DOH “dragged their feet” on implementation, and there may be a “more efficient way” for “delivery.”

Telemedicine is another priority of Bean’s: He filed a bill to expand it last year, and this year he wants to ensure that there is a House champion for the “non-controversial” legislation.

Bean also has a bill that would ratchet up criminal penalties for those who kill police animals, such as the K-9 “Fang” from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office who was killed this year by a criminal. And he also is again pushing legislation to make the Secretary of State an elected position.

Memorial marker

Bean’s bill isn’t the only priority legislation for LEOs, however.

Bills filed this week propose to honor Lance Whitaker, a 48-year-old police officer who died in May while responding to an accident.

A memorial is planned for Officer Lance Whitaker, who died on duty in May. (Image via WJXT-TV)

Whitaker, an 18 year veteran of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, died in a single-car crash on 295, responding to another accident. His vehicle hit a tree.

SB 64/HB 43, filed by Jacksonville Democrats Sen. Audrey Gibson and Rep. Tracie Davis, will honor Whitaker’s memory with a marker near where he perished.

Steve Zona, who helms the local Fraternal Order of Police, lauded the filing.

“Senator Gibson was amazing when I talked to her about this, she immediately agreed to help,” Zona said. “I went to [Gibson] and she didn’t blink an eye. Ran with it. A true stateswoman and friend of public safety.”

Zona called the bill a “fitting tribute to a man who dedicated his life to public service and the citizens of our community.”

Beyond this bill, Gibson and Davis are teaming up again: on legislation to bring financial relief to those impacted by the toxic grounds of the Fairfax Street Wood Treaters, which contaminated the area over the course of three decades.

2020 vision

The 2018 elections are in the books. And after competitive elections, local state Reps. are already planning for 2020.

Clay Yarborough is just one of many incumbents already planning for 2020.

Republican Reps. Jason Fischer and Clay Yarborough opened their campaign accounts ahead of Thanksgiving. As did Democrat Rep. Tracie Davis. And Rep. Wyman Duggan opened his just after the holiday.

Of the four, only Davis went without a challenge in 2018.

Fischer defeated Democrat Ken Organes 59-41 in his re-election bid in Mandarin’s HD 16; Yarborough earned 59 percent of the vote against Democrat Timothy Yost in Arlington-centric HD 12.

Duggan, meanwhile, is in his first term after a two-point win over well-funded Democrat Tracye Polson in the increasingly-swingy Westside HD 15.

Sen. Travis Hutson, likewise, has already filed for four more years on the 2020 ballot.

Candidates cannot fundraise during the Legislative Session. However, we are months away from that, so expect movement.

Case closed

Earlier this year, Gov. Rick Scott said he wanted to appoint Duval County Judge Lester Bass to succeed Judge Robert Foster on the 4th Judicial Circuit.

On Monday, the outgoing Governor (and now Senator-elect) got his wish via the Florida Supreme Court.

Newly appointed circuit judge Lester Bass (Image via Jax Daily Record)

Bass’s appointment to the 4th Circuit came after considerable legal wrangling regarding whether Scott had the right to appoint at all.

Jacksonville lawyer David Trotti filed to run for the seat before the qualifying deadline, as an unopposed candidate. The case went ultimately to the Florida Supreme Court.

On Monday, it dismissed the case on jurisdictional grounds.

The 55-year-old Bass, a county judge since 2014, was previously a General Magistrate and Hearing Officer in the circuit, and before that stints as both an assistant public defender and district attorney.

Meet the new boss, etc.

On Tuesday, the board of Jacksonville public utility JEA voted to make interim CEO Aaron Zahn permanent.

In it for the long haul: Aaron Zahn gets the permanent gig.

Mystery shrouded the process for some observers, leading JEA board chair Alan Howard to decry notions that the board was not independent of the Mayor’s Office.

A review of the seven-person board’s scoring matrices backs up at least part of that claim. Each candidate was scored on a 70 point scale (10 per category), and Zahn didn’t win on everyone’s score sheet.

Chairman Howard had San Antonio utility executive Cris Eugster ahead of Zahn by one point (61.5 to 60.5). Board members Husein Cumber and Kelly Flanagan, each of whom verbalized concerns about Zahn during the meeting, had the in-house candidate tied with Eugster in total.

The win came from two places, one aggregate and one categorical.

Zahn outscored both Eugster and power industry veteran Pamela Hill by almost 40 points, and those margins came from the four other board members. And across the board, Zahn outperformed his competition in three intangible categories: “financial acumen,” “stakeholder management,” and “interpersonal skills/influence/gravitas.”

Read more here.

Election reform call

Jacksonville attorney Chris Hand, formerly chief of staff for Mayor Alvin Brown, had a front-row seat to Duval County’s part of the relatively uneventful election recount process this month. And he has some suggestions for reform.

Chris Hand with a mentor and friend, Bob Graham.

Among them: removing conflicts of interest by making Supervisors of Elections a nonpartisan office, replacing superannuated and worn-out voting equipment, standardizing ballot design to avoid Broward-style outliers, moving primaries to May, and moving to a “top two” voting system that would blunt the current fever for base appeal in the primaries.

“The bipartisan adoption of common-sense election reforms would make the 2019 legislative session one of the most consequential in recent memory. If Republican and Democratic leaders follow through on their stated plans, Florida could for once be in the national election spotlight for positive reasons,” Hand wrote.

Read the whole thing here.

How Dems won Jacksonville

An editorial in Folio Weekly by Democratic activist Luis Zaldivar offered his insights on Democratic candidates like Andrew Gillum and Bill Nelson winning Duval (even as they lost their elections statewide).

Duval Democrats have been gaining ground for years, though not without a struggle.

“With this election, we can also definitively turn the page on a long list of assumptions about the city — assumptions that those of us on the ground have known for a while to be false,” Zaldivar wrote.

Among the party’s moves: “a yearlong effort to target Democrats who usually vote in presidential elections but skip the midterms … issue-based, grassroots campaigns” and “extraordinary” candidates who lost their state House races but energized turnout for the party overall.

Duval, says Zaldivar, “delivered a win because a lot of work was put into it. As we reorganize for the big presidential contest of 2020, Democrats in the rest of the state need to take a look at what has happened here in the last two years.”

Time will tell if they do.

Underdog story

Jacksonville Democrat Yolanda Thornton wants to be Mayor.

And she’s made her move, opening a campaign account in which there is room to grow.

Yolanda Thornton joins a crowded field.

Thus far, she’s raised $100.

She’s never held elected office before. Never been appointed to a city board or commission. And she moved back to town recently.

“I haven’t been back long enough to be involved with the party the way I’d like to be,” Thornton said.

And, as compared to candidates urged to run by one group or another, Thornton arrived at the decision without such urging.

Despite all those factors, Thornton sees a path.

Winning, Thornton told us, will take an “underdog ground game.”

“Stranger things have happened,” she said.

Read the whole thing here.

Eco-friendly Crowley

Fans of the environment have a friend in Crowley Maritime.

Per media release: “The Chamber of Shipping of America (CSA) has awarded 109 vessels owned and/or operated by Crowley Maritime Corp. with Certificates of Environmental Achievement in recognition of their strong safety records and environmental protection … vessels include container ships, tankers, articulated tug-barges (ATBs), tugboats and more, representing a combined 1,171 years without an environmental incident. Forty-nine of these Crowley-owned and/or -operated vessels have gone at least 10 years without an incident.”

Some good news from Crowley Maritime.

“The safety of the environment is crucial to our operations in every place where we work,” said Capt. Boren Chambers, Crowley’s director of marine operations.

“It should be clear to the American public that we in the maritime industry take our stewardship of the marine environment very seriously. Safe and environmentally responsible operations is a culture fully embraced by the maritime industry as a whole and as evidenced by the performances of the award recipients,’ asserted Chamber of Shipping President Kathy Metcalf.

Jacksonville Aviation Authority names CEO

Jacksonville Aviation Authority’s Board of Directors unanimously chose Mark VanLoh as the agency’s next CEO, reports WJCT. He is replacing Steve Grossman, who ran the JAA for nine years.

Newly appointed JAA CEO Mark VanLoh. (Image via Tulsa World)

VanLoh has served as president and CEO of the Tulsa Airports Authority since February 2017, before which he spent 12 years as Director of Aviation for the city of Kansas City, Missouri, and three years as president and CEO of the Chattanooga Airport Authority. He will take charge of Jacksonville’s four airports on December 3.

JAA operates Jacksonville International Airport, Jacksonville Executive at Craig Airport, Herlong Recreational Airport and Cecil Airport.

Zoo offers ‘Toast To Conservation’

Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens held its second “Toast To Conservation” event Nov. 17, a fundraising effort that focused this year on great ape conservation.

Highlights of the event — which raised more than $60,000 for global wildlife programs — include the inaugural Champion of Conservation Award granted to conservation curator John Lukas and presented by Joseph M. Hixon III, the recently retired chair and president of Hixon Properties.

Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens goes ape for great ape conservation, raising $60,000. (Image via the Jacksonville Business Journal)

The Zoo also donated to the Okapi Conservation Project in Lukas’ honor, reports the Jacksonville Business Journal.

Keynote speakers were Sonya Kahlenberg, the executive director for the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center, and Claudine Andre, founder of the Lola Ya Bonobo Sanctuary in 2002.

Since 2013, the Zoo has been donating a portion of its gate receipts to field conservation efforts — raising more than $1 million for projects worldwide.

“This is the second year we’ve held the ‘Toast To Conservation.’ (The first was in April 2017.) It was really gratifying to see the event grow significantly from the first year; not just because we were able to raise more money for conservation, but, because it shows that our supporters are excited and engaged by the great conservation work being done by our dedicated conservation team,” said executive director Tony Vecchio in a news release.

Jaguars offense takes double punch

Two key components in the Jaguars’ offense will not be on the sideline Sunday, but for different reasons. Star running back Leonard Fournette will sit out for throwing a punch, while offensive coordinator

The Jaguars offense took a figurative punch to the gut after firing offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. (Image via Getty)

took a figurative punch when head coach Doug Marrone fired him following Sunday’s 24-21 loss in Buffalo.

Fournette has played in only 5 of the team’s 11 games due to injury this season. He struggled in the first two, both Jaguars victories, but has racked up more than 100 yards from scrimmage and scored all 5 of his touchdowns over the last three weeks, all losses by a combined total of only 10 points.

Following his “engagement” with Bills’ defensive end Shaq Lawson, where both players were subsequently ejected, the Jaguars’ fell apart. Had they somehow managed to win the game, Hackett would likely still be employed.

Hackett became the scapegoat for a team mired in a 7-game losing streak that has struggled on both sides of the ball. He told NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport that his firing was “a total shock” and added: “I guess (Marrone) didn’t think I was good enough, that’s the only thing I can think of.”

The two had been together since their days at Syracuse nearly a decade ago.

A healthy Fournette and a semi-healthy offensive line might have produced more victories, but quarterback Blake Bortles has clearly regressed. Did Hackett argue with Marrone to keep Bortles as the starter, thereby creating friction?

Not according to Marrone, who said after Sunday’s game he “never considered” benching Bortles. After firing Hackett, Marrone benched Bortles in favor of Cody Kessler.

On Sunday, the Jaguars will try to break their losing streak against Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts at TIAA Bank Field. They lost to the Colts 29-26 two weeks ago in Indianapolis.

Is there any pressure on Marrone? Apparently not, as Rapoport says his sources tell him the head coach will be back in 2019.

‘Underdog story’: Yolanda Thornton‘s longshot bid for Jacksonville Mayor

Jacksonville Democrat Yolanda Thornton wants to be Mayor.

And she has made her move, opening a campaign account in which there is room to grow.

Thus far, she has raised $100.

She has never held elected office before. Never been appointed to a city board or commission.

And she moved back to town only recently.

“I haven’t been back long enough to be involved with the party the way I’d like to be,” Thornton said.

And, as compared to candidates urged to run by one group or another, Thornton arrived at the decision without such urging.

Despite all of those factors, Thornton sees a path.

Winning, the candidate told us Monday, will take an “underdog ground game.”

“Stranger things have happened,” she said.

Thornton took a look at the field of candidates (cash-flush incumbent Republican Lenny Curry and a group of hopefuls who have not prioritized fundraising as yet) and noticed that she didn’t see anyone who reflected her “issues and concerns.”

When we noted that Democratic City Councilman Garrett Dennis was teasing a run, Thornton noted that she was “looking to see if he was going to run” but “he’s not there.”

But Thornton is.

She’s concerned about economic development, asserting that Jacksonville’s wages are 10 percent below the national average, and that many of the jobs coming here are “warehouse jobs.”

Though that is a debatable proposition, Thornton (a designer by trade, with a focus on product development) wants to see more “innovation” focused jobs targeted.

Thornton has lived in several other places in recent years, due to being a military spouse. She draws lessons from those experiences, including an increased need for “community” and promotion of “local businesses.”

Beyond her “underdog story,” Thornton sees an opening against the incumbent and his “political machine.”

“Some people are unhappy with how Curry is leading the city,” Thornton said.

Yet, she added, there has been a “silence in the Mayor’s race.”

Thornton intends to “reach out and connect with organizations” to make the case for her candidacy in the coming weeks.

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