Jake Godbold cements legacy by opposing sale of JEA

True to himself, the former mayor was outspoken in his golden years

Say what you want about Jake Godbold, but no one ever accused him of being timid.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Say what you want about Jake Godbold, but no one ever accused him of being timid.

As mayor of Jacksonville, Godbold wasn’t shy about his ambitions of putting the city on the map. He kicked off efforts to build the Jacksonville Landing, tried to woo an NFL franchise into relocating to the River City and oversaw the development boom now known as “The Billion Dollar Decade.”

But it was his activism after leaving office that will perhaps be the cornerstone of his legacy – challenging Mayor Lenny Curry to let the public decide the fate of the Landing as its popularity faded and taking an unabashed stand against efforts in recent years to put JEA up for sale.

“He physically had slowed a little bit, but mentally he was sharp as a tack,” former Mayor John Delaney said of Godbold. “And he was energized about this JEA fight. But you just can’t find somebody that loved the city more than Jake. He was kind of a relentless and perpetual cheerleader for the town, and he wouldn’t listen to anybody criticize the place.”

Godbold was critical of Curry’s staff during a May 2019 interview with News4Jax, saying that city officials had not been transparent with the public about their plans for the future of the Landing.

“I think we all need to be involved in that decision because this land belonged to the public then, it belongs to the public now, and they have a right to have a say-so in the next step,” Godbold said. “I want to be on board with whatever that next step is, but I, like the public, don’t know what the next step is.”

He expressed concerns that officials wanted to raze the landmark. In the end, those fears were founded – the space where the once-popular riverfront mall stood now sits vacant and littered with rubble.

But where Godbold’s plea over the Landing fell on deaf ears, his opposition to a sale of JEA found an audience that listened. When the issue made headlines in 2018, he spoke up. And he did not mince words in a letter to Curry airing out his concerns.

“I like you and believe that you have generally done a good job as mayor,” Godbold wrote. “But I think this issue is hurting you. It has been botched since the beginning. Your credibility is being damaged and your motives are being questioned.”

He doubled down on that criticism a year later in a guest column he penned for the Florida Times-Union. He took aim at Curry and then-JEA CEO Aaron Zahn, who was painting a portrait of a stark future for the city-owned utility if it weren’t sold. He called Zahn a “huckster” and compared him to a snake-oil salesman.

“There was no doubt (Zahn) was put there to peddle the nonsensical snake-oil notion that to save the JEA from a pending ‘death spiral,’ the City Council and the community need to swallow what he is hawking: sell the utility to the highest bidder,” he wrote at the time.

Godbold didn’t back down as the secretive process to find suitors for the utility carried on. In fact, in November he took out a full-page ad in the Times-Union to make his point crystal clear.

“For those of you who are either supporting the sale or sitting on the proverbial fence, you need to really pay attention to what JEA’s customers – your constituents – are saying,” he warned the City Council. “If this charade continues much longer, I predict there will be a citizens revolt.”

Two days later, he addressed the City Council in person. He recalled how during his tenure as mayor he was approached about selling JEA. Suitors tried to persuade him with the thought of all the money a sale could bring in. But after holding dozens of public meetings, he said, the public had made up its mind.

“The recommendation was not to sell it,” he said. “It was a good recommendation then and it’s a good recommendation today.”

It might have taken a month, but the mayor and JEA’s board ultimately reached the same conclusion.