JEA selects interim leader as new CEO

Utility's board members hear from 3 finalists before picking permanent leader

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. –  After hearing one last pitch from the finalists for the job, JEA's board voted Tuesday to hire interim leader Aaron Zahn as its permanent chief executive officer.

The choice was not a surprise and the board made efforts throughout the meeting to assure the public his selection was not pre-determined.

Zahn has come under fire for lack of experience but had the unwavering support of Mayor Lenny Curry.

After a nationwide search, the board's list of finalists were narrowed to three last week.

Prior to hearing one last pitch from each of the candidates, JEA board Chairman Alan Howard said he is upset by reports that decision on the new CEO was already made and denied that Curry has pressured the board about its selection.

The finalists considered for CEO of the city-owned utility (click to view resume):

Eugster, who runs the country largest municipal utility, received the highest score from the search firm and outlined to the board what he would bring to the utility if selected. But he also said if he were offered the job, he would need a week or so to decide. The board was concerned by his reluctance to immediately accept the position a major drawback.

Hill told the board she had extensive experience with the operational and regulatory sides of public utilities, but not so much on the transmission and generating aspects of the job. She outlined how she could help the JEA with problems.

DOCUMENTS: Notes taken during JEA interviews with finalists

Zahn laid out five ideas for the future of the JEA and predicted that within a couple of years, its water business would be larger than its electric generation. He also talked about the perception that he was preselected for the job and how he would work to gain the trust of the employees and the public.

In discussions before the vote, Zahn's lack of traditional experience running a utility and lowest grade from the search firm were acknowledged, but his commitment to the community was cited by several board members as his strongest attribute.

DOCUMENT: JEA board members scores of CEO candidates

After the unanimous vote to hire Zahn, board member Husein Cumber noted that operations are not Zahn’s strength and proposed that would require board approval of the utility's chief operating officer. The motion failed by one vote after members expressed concern that that oversight might be seen as a lack of confidence in their newly hired CEO.

When Zahn was hired from outside the utility after previous CEO Paul McElroy's surprise resignation last spring, Melissa Dykes, the JEA's chief financial officer at the time and passed over as interim CEO, was named COO and given a raise.

News4Jax records show that Zahn’s seven-month tenure, the utility's bond rating was not without controversy. The JEA's credit was downgraded by bond agencies and a JEA employee union reported morale issues. A search firm hired to screen the finalists graded him last when it came to qualifications and leadership. According to the Florida Times-Union, it is unclear if JEA conducted thorough background checks on the finalists.

In an interview with news partner WJCT-FM last week, City Councilman Matt Schellenberg, who is Jacksonville City Council's liaison with JEA, slammed the selection process, saying it appeared to be rigged.

After the meeting, the board's chairman insisted the process was fair and they picked the best candidate.

"If anyone takes the time, goes through the CEO search ... which is a publicly available document, and sees all the work that went into this effort, and if anybody took the time to sit through a four-hour board meeting to see how open and transparent this process was, then I challenge them to come to a different conclusion," Howard said.

After Tuesday's vote, Curry issued a statement supporting the board's choice:

The JEA Board has undertaken a comprehensive search and considered a diverse pool of applicants. Their continued confidence in the innovative leadership of Mr. Zahn matches my own confidence in him as a leader. I thank the board for their hard work and continued commitment to keeping JEA responsive to taxpayers, customers, and employees.”

Before the meeting, Zahn told News4Jax he might talk after the board made its decision, but he was not available with the meeting ended.

As interim CEO, Zahn's was paid at a rate of $300,000 annually. His contract as the utility's permanent chief executive is yet to be negotiated.

About the Authors:

Jim Piggott is the reporter to count on when it comes to city government and how it will affect the community.

Ashley Harding joined the Channel 4 news team in March 2013. She reports for and anchors The Morning Show.