Interim JEA CEO doesn't put to rest questions about sale

Jacksonville mayor meets with executive as council looks to change rules

Aaron Zahn
Aaron Zahn

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Mayor Lenny Curry met with the newly hired interim chief executive of the JEA Wednesday morning to talk about the future of the utility.

Aaron Zahn, who Curry appointed as a JEA board member in February, was elected interim CEO on Tuesday, replacing Paul McElroy, who suddenly step down earlier this month.

Questions have been asked about Zahn's qualifications to lead the JEA because he has never worked at a large utility.

"Very simply, I have been chairman and CEO of a company, so I understand the intimacy of dealing with policymakers and external stakeholders and gaining consensus on a path forward," Zahn said. "Our No. 1 focus right now is getting back to our customers and taking care of our employees."

Zahn was previous the chief executive of Pascal Parners, a Jacksonville Beach company. Prior to that he ran a wastewater treatment company that employed fewer than 50 employees. The JEA has more than 2,000 workers.

At Tuesday's board meeting, Zahn said he wanted to take a pause on discussions of privatizing the city-owned utility, but after his meeting with Curry on Wednesday, that subject still dominates the conversation.

Tension between the mayor's office, the JEA and City Council members was one of reasons cited in McElroy's abrupt resignation.

Former Mayor Jake Godbold has now weighed in on the controversy. In a two-page letter hand delivered to Curry's office, he wrote he said the public is skeptical that Curry's administration is not behind the idea of privatizing the utility. 

Despite your frequent statements that you've not made up your mind on the JEA's future, I am one of a whole lot of people in Jacksonville who are having a hard time believing you.

"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."

READ: Jake Godbold's full letter to Lenny Curry

"We operate under the law and in accordance to the law. We are transparent," Curry said. "Godbold) delivered a letter that said it was personal and confidential to him. You guys had it maybe before I had it -- I'm not sure. So he is entitled to his opinion. I would look forward to a conversation with him, if he wants to return my call."

Tom Wills interviewed Godbold on Wednesday, who said he thinks the discussion of selling JEA and the hiring of Zahn as the interim CEO has hurt the morale of the employees and said the idea of selling JEA is alarming, especially the city losing control of its water and sewer service, which could "leave Jacksonville high and dry."

Also Wednesday, News4Jax learned that City Councilman Garrett Dennis has introduced a bill that would change how the JEA board members are selected. Rather than all seven members being appointed by the mayor with City Council approval, the bill calls for the mayor appoint three and the other four elected by Council. The bill would also increase the residency requirement for board members from a minimum of six months to three years.

Curry's reaction was to say this was just a way for Denise to make headlines.

A special City Council committee looking into the possible sale of the utility will meet again Thursday.

About the Authors: