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City lawyers recommend former JEA CEO be fired for cause

JEA Board of Directors will decide the fate of former CEO Aaron Zahn today

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Will former JEA CEO Aaron Zahn walk away with hundreds of thousands of dollars or nothing?

That’s the question that will be decided today at a JEA Board of Directors meeting.

Following public comments, the Office of General Counsel recommended that Zahn be fired with cause, citing 24 reasons why Zahn was guilty of either local misconduct, gross negligence of his duties or breach of fiduciary obligations.

If the Board follows the OGC recommendation, Zahn won’t get a lucrative severance package.

Zahn has been in limbo since the board voted Dec. 17 for his removal and placed him on paid leave. JEA’s board has been weighing whether his employment should be terminated without cause or for cause -- the difference between him walking away with severance pay or mostly empty-handed.

A city attorney presented the OGC’s lengthy and thorough investigation to the board, an investigation that suggested Zahn should be fired with cause. That means he will not be allowed to receive a bonus and no longer collect the nearly $2,000 a day he’s been getting since he was suspended with pay in December.

After a City Council workshop Monday on the future of JEA, News4Jax asked City Council members about what they think will happen. Most said they expect Zahn to be gone.

But councilmember Brenda Priestly Jackson isn’t so sure because she said it’s been hard to predict the actions of the JEA board in the past.

“I honestly don’t know,” she said. “I’m going to be very honest because I just don’t know that we can say. We got guidance from the last board meeting I don’t know what we can say based on the history.”

Councilman Matt Carlucci on Monday also weighed in on the issue.

“With regard to Aaron’s Zahn I’m quite sure he will be terminated with cause at the JEA meeting this week,” Councilman Matt Carlucci tweeted Monday. “It is my opinion that he should refund any and all compensation he has collected since he was put on administrative leave to the rate payers.”

News4Jax political expert Rick Mullaney of Jacksonville University’s Public Policy Institute has been following the JEA saga.

He believes Zahn will be let go with cause. The primary reason, he said, will more than likely be that controversial bonus plan that would have cost millions of dollars and netted upper-level management and others big bucks if the city-owned utility was ever sold.

“I strongly believe the JEA Board has all the cause in the world to terminate Aaron Zahn and he shouldn’t get another penny of taxpayer money,” Councilmember Rory Diamond said. “I think the entire community would be shocked and outraged if the Board did anything less than terminate for cause.”

News4Jax reached out to Zahn’s attorney John Mullen on Monday and he provided a copy of a letter that he sent to the Office of General Counsel on Sunday.

In the letter, Mullen defends his client saying “the underlying facts and evidence demonstrate that there is no legitimate basis for terminating Mr. Zahn’s employment for ‘Cause’ under the terms of the Agreement dated July 23, 2019.”

“In summary, concluding with any other outcome than a termination ‘without cause’ would be the epitome of ‘political interference’ in the affairs of JEA and the decisions of JEA’s Board,” the letter states. “Mr. Zahn continues to desire an amicable and swift separation that will allow JEA to move forward on its new direction and for Mr. Zahn’s family to begin to heal. Thank you for your consideration.”

Mullen also writes that Zahn has tried to “take a high road relative to political and media rhetoric." Earlier this month Mullen said Zahn is being scapegoated in the wake of the controversial bonus plan.

The fate of senior leadership contracts at JEA will also be discussed at the meeting Tuesday and the board is expected to take some type of action on them.

About the Author:

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