JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It’s been an explosive week in JEA’s exploration of privatizing.
On Tuesday, members of the Northside Coalition called on city leaders to end discussion of a potential sale of the utility, chanting inside City Hall as the City Council was meeting. One day earlier, former Mayor Jake Godbold called for the board of directors and CEO Aaron Zahn to resign over the process of a potential sale, crying out in an open letter published in the Florida Times-Union, “Enough is enough!”
Pastor R.L. Gundy of the Jacksonville Leadership Coalition is among those believing the FBI or a state or federal grand jury should investigate the circumstances surrounding the proposed JEA sale.
"There are too many questions going on in this community right now about money and JEA.” Gundy said told News4Jax on Wednesday.
A spokesman for State Attorney Melissa Nelson was checking to see if there is a comment from her. The staff of Mayor Lenny Curry and JEA officials said they have no comment regarding Gundy’s request.
News4Jax political analyst Rick Mullaney said there hasn’t been enough fact-finding on a proposal to give king-sized profits to JEA employees and executives.
“This is such a magnitude and is so significant that this is the kind of thing you would see a federal grand jury investigation or U.S. Attorney’s Office or the State Attorney’s Office,” Mullaney said pointing out that a grand jury can investigate a mismanagement in government.
“First of all, it’s important that we get to the bottom of this, whether an investigation by the City Council issuing subpoenas, whether it’s by the city inspector general, whether it’s by a council auditor, whether a grand jury investigation who often look at these kinds of numbers -- whether its federal or state,” Mullaney said as he broke down his concerns during an interview scheduled for “This Week in Jacksonville.”
Gundy also pointed out there have been other federal investigations that led to convictions in Jacksonville involving politicians like former U.S. Rep Corrine Brown and former City Council members Katrina Brown and Reggie Brown.
“I think if they can look closely at other people, they need to look closely and themselves,” Gundy said.
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. The JEA has also postponed plans to give employees performance bonuses to incentivize them to stay during a pending sale.
JEA executive Kerri Stewart told News4Jax a plan proposed in July to reward long-term employees by allowing them to invest the long-term financial health of JEA. She also said the eye-popping numbers reported, which include $600 million dollars to “unit-holders” if JEA sold for a net profit of $5 billion, sound inflated.
Stewart added she would have been interested in participating if the plan was available, she said leadership recognizes it’s not the right time.
“It really wasn’t the right thing to do when there’s so much uncertainty about what the company is, what our value is, and so, to put forward a plan without the current value or a real or perceived potential value while we’re going through strategic planning didn’t seem like the right thing to do,” Stewart said.
Mullaney said several times that it’s important to be fair and allow JEA to explain things.
News4Jax also asked Stewart what customers should expect in terms of rates, with the uncertainty surrounding JEA.
“That’s what strategic planning is all about is to understand where JEA is financially, how we are meeting our corporate measures of value -- and that’s customer, community, environmental and financial -- and how do we meet those needs in those areas of value in the future for our customers?” Stewart said. “We know that there are financial struggles on the horizon. Rate increases are being looked at as a way to solve for that, so it is something that we will add or will add to this already very difficult discussion in the coming months.”
Stewart said the utility asks that customers stay engaged and go to jea.com or whatsnextjax.com for more information.
“There’s lots of information about the current finances of JEA, what we believe the projections are and the multiple ways to get at that, of which rate increases are a tool in the toolbox,” she said.