Severance at agencies under microscope in wake of JEA contracts

Utility estimates former JEA Aaron Zahn has been paid $2,000 a day while on leave

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – As the Jacksonville City Council scrutinizes employment contracts for JEA executives, the News4Jax I-TEAM has learned that contracts at other city agencies are now coming under the microscope.

As News4Jax previously reported, the so-called “golden parachute” contracts for 14 senior executives at JEA had the potential to cost the city more than $3 million if each of them was fired without cause.

Since then, the I-TEAM has found that the council auditor collected salary data for six other agencies, which show that JEA’s executives stood to make much more money than their counterparts.

On Wednesday, City Council members expressed frustration that those contracts were awarded in the first place. Now, they’re hoping to make changes to prevent that from happening again.

“I think now we are going through the process of making sure this doesn’t happen again,” Council Member Ron Salem said Wednesday. “I think that’s the wise thing to do at this point.”

The JEA contracts promised to pay out millions to senior executives in the event the utility were sold, but they’re still in line to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars if they’re fired — even after sales talks were called off.

These contractual questions are being raised as city attorneys try to determine if former JEA CEO Aaron Zahn can be fired for cause, which would strip him of an extravagant severance package.

“I’m disappointed that Aaron Zahn can get money while he’s still waiting,” Council Member Tommy Hazouri said. “We still have somebody from the Kids Hope Alliance who is suspended that has already gotten $70,000 because he wasn’t fired and it wasn’t for cause.”

Based on a salary estimate provided by a JEA spokesperson, the I-TEAM found that Zahn has collected $2,000 a day since he was placed on leave Dec. 17.

That’s compared to the $73,000 that Kids Hope Alliance CEO Joe Peppers has received during the five months he’s been on leave while under investigation by the city’s inspector general. The nature of that investigation has not been made public.

The city’s now looking into how much leaders at JaxPort, Duval County Public Schools, the Jacksonville Aviation Authority and Jacksonville Transportation Authority stand to make if fired. Records show some executives have severance packages in their contracts ranging from $95,000 to $149,000.

While the City Council’s finance committee voted down a measure that would have directed JEA’s board to rescind its executives’ employment contracts, the topic is expected to come up for discussion when the board meets next week.

“I am developing legislation that will limit the number of employee contracts for authority and the terms of those contracts, so that they are consistent across the city of Jacksonville,” Salem said.

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