The future of JEA remains uncertain after the decision to remove CEO Aaron Zahn brings even more questions to the table.
Michael Ward is just one member of the Jacksonville Civic Council -- a group of about 75 business leaders -- that has been very outspoken concerning JEA and Zahn. Ward said the group agrees with recent calls for a grand jury to look into Zahn’s actions, but he believes others should investigate as well.
“We believe there should be a special investigative unit on the City Council to look into the same issues so the public can be fully informed as to what transpired,” Ward said.
It is among five things that the Civic Council wants to see happen with JEA. They include:
- That, in the spirit of transparency and full disclosure, Mayor Lenny Curry and the Jacksonville City Council direct the JEA Board of Directors to (1) engage the City Office of Inspector General, an appropriate City Council committee, or other external entity, to conduct an investigation into the actions of JEA CEO Aaron Zahn in the execution of his duties as a public employee; (2) make the results of the investigation available to the public and the City Council; (3) reconsider its vote and move to terminate JEA CEO Aaron Zahn for cause. Further, that the JEA Board should not execute or agree to any severance package, waiver, or other covenant of confidentiality with Mr. Zahn before the conclusion of the investigation. Releasing him without cause is not enough. Mr. Zahn should not be able to profit in any way from his actions as JEA’s executive leader.
- That the JEA Board of Directors initiate a search for a highly qualified CEO; considering only candidates from outside the organization with proven records of success in the utility industry.
- That the Jacksonville City Council convene a Special Investigative Committee, fully utilizing its subpoena power to conduct a transparent investigation on the actions of Mr. Zahn, other JEA executives, and board members, with regard to efforts to sell JEA, as well as the utility’s recently-abandoned “performance unit plan”.
- That State Attorney Melissa Nelson convene a grand jury to investigate the actions of the JEA Board and senior management with regard to the legality and appropriateness of: the decision to conduct the ITN and potential sale of JEA; the conduct of city officials, employees, contractors and lobbyists involved in the potential sale or recapitalization of JEA; the performance unit plan; and any related matters which may lead to actions by the grand jury, including a presentment or report on the behavior of public officials and others engaged in the matters involving JEA.
- That the current ITN bid process be halted completely, and all activity to sell JEA be stopped, until the above-requested investigations are complete and a new CEO is in place.
As the Civic Council has previously stated, JEA is in no immediate danger of collapse or insolvency, and there is time to strategically evaluate the options and take action in a thoughtful, transparent manner.
The Civic Council joins the ranks of the local NAACP, the Northside Coalition, other groups and City Council members that have demanded a grand jury investigation into the talks of a potential JEA sale and Zahn’s involvement in a controversial and somewhat secretive bonus plan that would have benefited top JEA executives.
News4Jax requested comment from State Attorney Melissa Nelson. A statement from the State Attorney’s Office reads:
“We have heard the concerns of the community over the past several months. This office is — and has been — looking into matters involving JEA. We will not be commenting further.”
News4Jax political analyst Rick Mullaney is familiar with grand jury investigations. He explained that a grand jury can indict for crimes but that it can also go further and look at the dealings of government and whether an agency is skirting the law.
“Their conduct can be reviewed by the grand jury to see if they are fulfilling the public trust, if there is wrongdoing, if there is inefficiency, if there is waste, and they can file a report known as a presentment,” Mullaney said.
A request for comment from Mayor Lenny Curry about Zahn was not immediately returned Wednesday. Curry selected Zahn to serve on the JEA board before he became CEO. Curry issued a statement Tuesday supporting the board decision. A spokesperson for Curry said he won’t comment further until city attorneys finish their investigation.
News4Jax also requested comment from Aaron Zahn. A spokesperson said he would not be commenting at this time.