JEA: Zahn floated hiring Curry adviser for potential sale of utility

Utility’s chief administrative officer says CEO wanted to hire mayor’s campaign strategist


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Former JEA CEO Aaron Zahn floated the idea of hiring one of Mayor Lenny Curry’s top advisers to consult on the since-scuttled plan to sell the city-owned utility, News4Jax learned Friday.

In a statement obtained by the Florida Times-Union, JEA Chief Administrative Officer Herschel Vinyard acknowledged that Zahn expressed an interest in enlisting Tim Baker through one of the law firms hired to help find suitors interested in buying or running all or part of the utility.

“Aaron spoke of hiring Tim Baker as a consultant," Vinyard said. “He wanted to hire Mr. Baker through one of the law firms associated with the ITN process. He was told that no consultants could be engaged via any of these contracts — engaging third party consultants through a law firm’s contract requires approval by both JEA and OGC. Approval was not granted and when asked by members of the senior leadership team directly, Aaron said that JEA was not paying Mr. Baker — directly or indirectly.”

Baker is a Jacksonville-based political consultant who has worked on both of Curry’s election campaigns.

“I have never worked for JEA,” Baker said Friday. “I did have a conversation about ways we could possibly work together on public relations matters but it was not a conversation that went anywhere and, again, I did not work for JEA.”

In response to a question about whether the mayor was aware that Zahn considered hiring Baker, a city spokesperson said Curry and Baker are not currently under contract.

“Tim Baker is a private business owner and does not discuss his private business interests with Mayor Curry,” the spokesperson said.

Efforts to explore a sale of the utility were halted Dec. 24, one week after Zahn was placed on leave, in response to public backlash and increasing scrutiny from City Council members. Zahn remains in limbo as JEA’s board and city attorneys determine if he will be fired with or without cause.

City Council Member Rory Diamond, who has been critical of decisions made by JEA under Zahn’s leadership, said hiring Baker would have been a no-brainer for any political campaign in Jacksonville.

“If you were going to have a campaign in Jacksonville, if you were attempting to sell something to the voters, Tim Baker is the guy you would hire,” said Diamond, who noted that he worked with Baker in the past.

It’s not the first time Zahn’s choice in consultants has made headlines.

As the Times-Union previously reported, Deno Hicks received a $120,000 consulting contract from JEA despite his business ties to Zahn. It was not disclosed that they co-own a Westside property, an apparent conflict of interest. Hicks’ firm, The Southern Group, pulled out of the contract after their partnership became public.

Vinyard's statement (Courtesy of Jaxdotcom/Twitter)

About the Authors:

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.

Jim Piggott is the reporter to count on when it comes to city government and how it will affect the community.