JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A trail of documents obtained by the I-TEAM on Wednesday night that seemed to show that Jacksonville city leaders were working on plans to sell JEA three months ago are not what they seem, Mayor Lenny Curry said Thursday morning.
News4Jax received an email sent by the City Council auditor who was asking why the city was seeking bids, or a request for proposals, late last year that were seeming looking find a company to field offers to privatize city assets. JEA is owned by the city, but it wasn't until last week and a report was released last week showing what the utility might be worth if sold, as well as the pros and cons of a possible sale.
The auditor got wind that the city was seeking these proposals and alerted City Council President Anna Lopez Brosche. The mayor said the documents weren't about the JEA at all.
"(It was) not a JEA RFP," Curry said during an appearance at News104.5 WOKV. "The executive branch has in its purview, and should be looking at any and all opportunities (for) the value of the assets. That had nothing to do with that JEA. The suggestion that it did is both erroneous and a political hit job made by somebody."
The mayor and his staff said the council auditor jumped to the wrong conclusion. But City Council Auditor Kyle Billy, who wrote the emails to the mayor's staff at the request of Brosche, isn't backing down.
"I think if you or anyone reads the RFP and reads the responses to the RFP, they can form their own conclusion and that question will be answered," Billy said.
Later Thursday, a City Council committee appointed to review the idea of selling JEA held its first meeting and said that the council will consider a bill to change the city charter to let voters decide if the city should sell the utility.
Sparks are continuing to fly between council members and the mayor's office over the potential sale. Despite repeated denials by Curry, members still question whether this plan was hatched behind their backs.
"It may be perfectly legal, but it doesn’t seem transparent," Broshe said.
"It definitely circumvented the normal process, in my opinion," Councilman Garrett Dennis said. "It was not in the open where it should’ve been. We had a meeting on (Feb.) 14th. This wasn’t mentioned at all, and I think that’s very troubling."
Council auditor's alert
What drew red flags were the dates on the front pages of the requests for proposals that went out on Dec. 21. Responses were due Jan. 15, one month before JEA released its final report on how much cash JEA is worth, which is between $2.5 and $6 billion.
Big financial firms, including JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs. What caught the eye of the Billy was the unusual procedure of going through an Orlando business instead of the city. Billy believes the report is specifically for selling JEA.
Billy's email obtained by the I-TEAM reads in part, "For the last 2 years, the Administration has been approached by private equity providers and affiliated operating companies interested in either monetizing our City public infrastructure or entering into public/private partnerships for new City infrastructures. Infrastructure such as parking garages, airport, seaport, bridges, roadways and various other City public infrastructure have been presented for consideration."
Mike Weinstein, the mayor's finance director, and the mayor's chief administrative officer, Sam Mousa, responded to the auditor and City Council members, saying in an email that the auditor's conclusion is not correct.
Curry on Thursday continued to strongly deny that his administration is taking steps to sell JEA before it was discussed with the public or the City Council.
"I am telling you with great clarity that (the RFP the auditor found) had nothing to do with the JEA, and the suggestion by anyone that says they have information on that, let’s come and have this conversation together. It’s erroneous. It’s a political hit job."
The I-TEAM has made a public-records request to see what items or plans have been discussed about a possible sale by the city.