JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – JEA board member Henry Brown has informed the city-owned utility’s managing director and CEO Aaron Zahn that he will ask the board at Tuesday’s meeting to terminate him.
“Given the emotional and personal nature of this discussion, it is my recommendation that you do not attend Tuesday’s board meeting, although it is certainly your choice. I am sure that either myself, another board member, or the appropriate officer of JEA will inform you of the board’s decision,” Brown wrote to Zahn on Sunday. (Read Brown’s full letter to Zahn.)
Brown is proposing that Melissa Dykes, the JEA’s chief operating officer, who had applied to be CEO when the board hired Zahn, be named interim managing director and CEO.
Zahn responded Monday morning with a statement:
“I serve at the pleasure of the board of JEA. I understand and respect board member Henry Brown’s decision and will abide by any decision of the Board,” Zahn said.
Mayor Lenny Curry, who has backed Zahn’s strategic plan to restructure JEA, issued a statement about Zahn late Monday morning.
“The JEA board consists of dedicated community leaders who volunteer their time and expertise. Each board member was appointed by me and confirmed by the City Council. As a result, I will support any action this board takes when it comes to a decision on the future of CEO Aaron Zahn,” Curry said in the statement to News4Jax.
City Councilman Matt Carlucci and some community leaders have called for Zahn to be removed, but Brown is the first on the JEA board to make the suggestion. In response to previous calls for Zahn to go, the chairman of the board released a statement last week that the board had placed “our full faith” in Zahn.
The latest call for Zahn to be replaced come hours before Jacksonville City Council is to hold a special meeting to question JEA executives about several issues, including a controversial plan to allow employees to buy what amounted to stock options in the government authority that could pay off handsomely if the utility was sold. Zahn attended the meeting and answered council members’ questions and admitted he made an error in judgment when proposing the plan that, by some estimates, could cost the JEA $3 million.
“I think everybody needs to take a reset,” Council President Scott Wilson said Monday morning. “Let’s pause let’s get through the Christmas holidays and then, in January, let’s have a conversation about the path forward to make sure our lawyers are up to speed and understand where we are prior to this counsel taking any action.”
The JEA is in talks with nine companies that have expressed interest in negotiating to buy all or party of the electric, water and sewer provider for most of Duval County’s residents.
“This entire ‘conversation’ on selling the JEA has long lost credibility and fatigued our citizens and stalled our city’s progress on so many other important issues that affect all of Jacksonville’s citizens,” said Carlucci, who over the weekend called for a grand jury investigation of JEA.
Zahn has become a target for the public in recent months as JEA continues to explore the privatization of the city-owned utility. A recent UNF poll found that only 33% percent of respondents approved of the job he is doing while 47% disapproved.
“Of all the public figures polled in this survey, Aaron Zahn is the only one with a net negative job approval,” said Dr. Michael Binder, director of the University of North Florida’s Public Opinion Research Lab. “Clearly, the Invitation to Negotiate and potential sale spearheaded by Zahn has impacted the public’s view of his job performance.”
Zahn was selected by the JEA board to become the interim CEO in April 2018 and was named permanent CEO in November 2018. Zahn came under fire for lack of experience, but his commitment to the community was cited by several board members as his strongest attribute. Zahn also had the unwavering support of Mayor Lenny Curry.
Earlier this month the JEA replaced all four members of the negotiations team evaluating proposals to buy all or part of the city-owned utility with non-JEA employees to avoid a state ethics probe of conflict of interest. Despite being controversial, the JEA’s plan to give employees performance bonuses to retain them a pending sale were approved through collective bargaining and by City Council. A Performance Unit Plan that would have allowed employees to buy invest $10 in order to earn a share of future profits of the utility is in the process of being withdrawn.
Ultimately, the sale of JEA would have to be passed by City Council, signed by the mayor and approved by the voters of Jacksonville prior to the sale being finalized.