City Council members question decision to accept UAE donation

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Two Jacksonville City Council members are questioning their own votes and the push by the mayor’s office to accept charity from a foreign country.

The questions come months after city leaders decided to accept nearly $3 million from the United Arab Emirates to help the city recover from Hurricane Irma damage. When the UAE ambassador to the United States was in Jacksonville last week presenting the gift, reporters questioned the city accepting money from a country accused of human rights abuses.

That's one of the reasons why City Council members Garrett Dennis and Anna Lopez Brosche said they are changing their minds. They now want to give the money back and look for funding elsewhere

The $2.7 million foreign aid donation to Jacksonville is part of a larger relief effort from the UAE that will award a total of $10 million to storm-ravaged communities throughout Florida.

A majority of the $2.7 million would go to helping rebuild parks and housing in a neighborhood off Ken Knight Drive on Jacksonville’s Northside, which was struck hard by Irma. 

DOCUMENT: UAE grant fact sheet

That plan was all approved by the City Council in September. Dennis and Brosche now have second thoughts and have started working on legislation to give the money back. They held a special meeting Friday to hear from others about what should be done, with many on hand asking why the city needs to take the money from the UAE.

That was the question News4Jax put to Mayor Lenny Curry and Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the U.S., when they were in the Northside neighborhood last week, showing how the money will be spent.

“We are accepting money in order to invest in our children and invest in vulnerable populations and invest in those that were damaged by the hurricane,” Curry said Oct. 15.

Al Otaiba said that day the money comes with no strings attached.

“This is actually in a very different way a way to introduce ourselves to the people of Jacksonville and to see what those relationships develop in common," Al Otaiba said. 

Brosche, who called Friday's meeting, was City Council president when the legislation was first introduced last spring. In September, she voted in favor of the grant. 

On Friday, News4Jax asked her what's changed. 

News4Jax reporter Jim Piggott: "It was in May when I get a story that this was happening and brought up the same questions back then. How come you didn’t question it during committee?"
Councilwoman Anna Lopez Brosche: "I was not in committee."
Piggott: "You had seen the bill. Why now? There’s a lot of concern that this is all politics that’s going on. We question this. We’ve been questioning this for some time. So why do it now after-the-fact?"
Brosche: "I am so glad that you were and what I was concerned about were the questions that were being asked but were not being answered." 
Piggott: "Why didn’t you ask those?"
Brosche: "You see we are here today."
Piggott: "I mean during council. I mean this was in May. You were president then. Why didn’t you ask those questions?"
Brosche: "I'm asking those questions now."
Piggott: "It’s a little late, isn’t it?"
Brosche: "No, obviously the discussion today -- it’s not too late."

Brosche was joined Friday by Dennis. He, too, was in agreement on how the money should be spent but now is questioning the efforts by the mayor's office and wants to know if there are strings attached.

News4Jax reporter Jim Piggott: "These are questions we were asking back in May. The media was asking why are we doing this? The answer we were getting is, 'Everything is fine.'"
Councilman Garrett Dennis: "It is not fine, and it’s not too late, and I want to put out a message that it’s not too late. It is not too late. Nothing is too late. We give the money back and we use the money that we have right here in our coffers. We are a rich state. We are a rich city. We are a rich country. We don’t need foreign money to take care of the needs of our citizens."
Piggott: "Is this a political feud between you and the mayor’s office?" 
Dennis: "It has nothing to do with about me and the mayor. It has to do about the security of our city and the security of our vulnerable people on the Northside."

Brian Hughes, the mayor's chief of staff, sent the following statement Friday:

Public safety and neighborhood improvement have consistently been, and continue to be, major priorities for Mayor Curry and his administration. The United Arab Emirates presented our city with an opportunity to address challenges in a historically underserved, vulnerable Jacksonville community created by one of the worst natural disasters in Jacksonville history, with no strings attached.  The funding opportunity also addressed ongoing community needs through projects and partnerships designed to make our city stronger. Acceptance of these funds required City Council support, which was received unanimously at both the committee and full City Council levels. The funds, received by the City of Jacksonville on October 19, will support Jacksonville families and citizens in need." 

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