Letter requests 'cone of silence' in JEA privatization talks

Can city leaders talk about what's happening with Jacksonville's public utility?

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Are city leaders allowed to talk about what's happening with Jacksonville's public utility?

It's the heart of a question raised by City Councilman Garrett Dennis following the discovery of a letter calling for a "cone of silence" in communicating about JEA's possible privatization.

"We are very concerned about that memo," Dennis said. "Are you saying that no one in the city can talk about this deal that's being dealt with or being negotiated right now? It's a bunch of crock."

The letter is from the Jacksonville firm Foley and Lardner and is addressed to the board chair and CEO of JEA. It calls for limitation on communication as JEA solicits "strategic alternatives" through an "invitation to negotiate."

The attorney's letter says the invitation to negotiate prohibits "ex parte" communications between potential bidders and JEA and its representatives, referring to that as a "cone of silence."

It got Dennis to organize a meeting Monday, asking for a legal opinion on what can be discussed and what cannot.

"We have JEA that's going on, the privatization, and we're saying that the City Council cannot interject themselves, cannot ask any questions. Then we have another major issue here in our city, the sales tax. In the City Council, we're interjecting ourselves and asking questions. So there's some hypocrisy here," Dennis said.

Leadership at JEA has said it wants a "very deliberate conversation about what is effectively a policy conversation." Aaron Zahn, the utility's CEO, spoke a week ago on This Week in Jacksonville.

"There is no right or wrong here. The policy question is very simple. Do we design JEA to shrink and not compete in what is now a competitive market, or do we design JEA to grow and start competing in the market?" Zahn said. "Ultimately, if that requires City Council or your vote as a voter, then that'll be your choice."

The letter said limiting communication between potential bidders and JEA can "ensure that JEA runs a fair and proper procurement process."

Dennis said he's waiting for an opinion from the Office of General Counsel.

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