When the dust settles, who will run JEA?

Interim CEO Melissa Dykes doesn’t want to keep the job, but new board must be in place before search can begin

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – After most of the JEA Board of Directors resigned Tuesday following the termination of former CEO Aaron Zahn for cause, how will the city-owned utility find a new chief executive?

Before announcing her resignation following the Board’s meeting, Chairwoman April Green assigned the task of searching for a permanent CEO to the Board’s compensation committee, citing a desire to focus on transparency. But after four other Board members also resigned Tuesday, new members will need to be appointed by Mayor Lenny Curry and approved by City Council before that process can be completed.

A lack of transparency while the JEA courted potential buyers for the utility eventually prompted Zahn’s removal and led to investigations by the state attorney, City Council and FBI.

The Board voted unanimously Tuesday that Zahn should be fired with cause, meaning he walks away without the six-figure golden parachute he would otherwise have been entitled to.

“I listened to the meeting on the web, and I heard 24 reasons for cause, and from what I’ve heard and from what I’ve listened to, it sounded like cause was the right decision to make," said City Council President Scott Wilson.

Councilman Reggie Gaffney told News4Jax that he agreed.

“Given what we all know and the mistakes that he made as the leader, yes I think that was the right decision," he said.

Zahn was initially appointed as the interim CEO in April 2018 after Paul McElroy’s surprise resignation during preliminary discussions over the proposed sale of JEA.

Melissa Dykes, JEA’s chief financial officer at the time, was passed over as interim CEO then, but was named chief operating officer and was given a raise.

Months later, despite more qualified candidates on the shortlist, Zahn was named the permanent CEO. According to the search firm retained by JEA, Zahn ranked lowest among three finalists for experience and leadership ability.

But he had the unwavering support of Mayor Curry and several Board members cited “his commitment to the community” as a reason he got their vote for the permanent job.

Just over a year later, the Board apologized for that decision and ousted Zahn after details came to light of a controversial bonus plan that had the potential to pay out hundreds of millions to executives enrolled in the plan in the event the city sold JEA.

Dykes was named interim CEO in December when Zahn was removed, but she said earlier this month she would not seek the permanent CEO position.

In a statement, Dykes said withdrawing her candidacy was a difficult choice but necessary to give the utility a fresh start in the wake of recent controversies, which include the abandoned plan to explore a sale of JEA.

On Tuesday, Jon Kendrick, JEA vice president and chief human resources officer, predicted the search process to find a permanent CEO could take anywhere from five to six months, but the process of getting a new Board in place may slow the search.

The first step will be the compensation committee reviewing the job description and qualifications for the position and then bringing the language back to the Board for approval before the search gets underway.

Kendrick recommended bringing in a search firm again, rather than do all the work in house, and said that JEA has a firm on retainer, but the Board held off on any decisions on that front for now.

Dykes said she will continue in her interim role until a new CEO is selected by the Board.

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