JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry on Monday called on the JEA Board of Directors to end the invitation to negotiate, or ITN, process to find potential suitors to purchase all or part of the city-owned utility.
After the mayor’s request, JEA Board Chair April Green called a special meeting for Tuesday morning to discuss the future of the process. JEA declined to make Dykes or Green available for comment before the meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday. But on Monday night, JEA posted a video on YouTube, during which interim JEA CEO Melissa Dykes discusses the decision to hold the emergency board meeting.
“It has become clear that trust has been lost in the ITN process. As a result, April has called an emergency meeting of the JEA Board of Directors to discuss the cancellation of the ITN," Dykes says in the video. “When the ITN process began in July, it began for the right reasons -- to figure out how we can best serve our community long into the future. Since that time, it has, unfortunately, become the single most divisive issue in our community. Our role as a commuity-owned utility should be to unite our commmuity around essential services that touch all our lives, not to divide. So the process must now end for the right reasons.”
The video statement continues: “I would like to extend my sincere thanks to all team members who have worked so tirelessly on the ITN process itself. I hope you’re able to get some rest and refocus."
The process has come under fire from City Council members, with one saying the city could be left open to a lawsuit if the process continued on its current path.
“The public’s view of that (process) has been eroded due to missteps over the last few months," the mayor said Monday. “It’s time to stop. I hope everyone goes home and has a happy holiday, and that we come back and get JEA back to doing the business that it’s done for its ratepayers all along.”
Curry said he’s spoken with Dykes, the board chair and council members and asked the board chair to call a meeting to put an end to the ITN process.
The mayor said he wants all information surrounding the process to be made public as soon as possible.
“We’ve got too many big things we’ve got to do in this city,” Curry said. “We can’t be singularly focused, as a city, on one issue, and this has become a one-issue conversation in this town.”
On Saturday evening, City Councilman Matt Carlucci issued a statement, warning the utility company’s board to stop the ITN process or else the city could be sued if the City Council stops it.
“If JEA board ends this process to privatization and or recapitalization they are immune to lawsuits from the bidders per the ITN contractural agreement,” he said, in part. “However, if the JEA board of directors passes this ITN on to the Jacksonville City Council, if we the Council stop the process, we are opening our city to serious lawsuits as the ITN contract does not exempt the council.”
Only the JEA can stop the ITN (privatization) w/o reprisal of lawsuit(s). If the JEA passes this to the council and we shut it down, then the city can be sued by the bidders.JEA must pull the plug.— Matt Carlucci (@matt_carlucci) December 21, 2019
Carlucci said he plans on attending the next JEA meeting, which is scheduled for Jan. 28 and bringing this up during public comment.
City Council members say they are done discussing the potential sale but will continue to dig into how top city and JEA officials conducted themselves while courting businesses to buy the utility.
“The way that the process unfolded, there were missteps, and the public’s view is just eroded,” Curry said. “I see that, I feel that, I hear that, and it’s time to stop it.”
The push to end the controversial talks of selling the city-owned utility is part of the ongoing turmoil at JEA that resulted last week in the removal of CEO Aaron Zahn and the departure of JEA’s top legal adviser. They had come under fire over their involvement in a controversial bonus program that could have netted top executives hundreds of millions of dollars if the city-owned utility was sold.
That total was much more than the $3.4 million estimate provided to board members, according to the City Council auditor.
“Clearly, that raised a whole lot of flags. All of us, when we saw that, it appeared outrageous,” Curry said of the bonus plan.
Incoming City Council President Tommy Hazouri said that while the sale -- in the eyes of the City Council -- is over, the investigations into the process of the sale are still happening.
“We’re not stopping. We’re digging to see what lies beneath,” Hazouri said. “But while we are doing that, we are not dealing with any sale of the JEA.”
The City Council is proposing a resolution that would require officials to go through the council auditor during any other sale process. It also calls for JEA to stop the sale.
“It’s a great Christmas present for the citizens of Jacksonville,” Hazouri said. “It’s long past due.”
The State Attorney’s Office is also looking into the situation at JEA.