Ex-JEA CEO let his wife help evaluate top JEA employees

Former assistant to the JEA CEO Aaron Zahn details a toxic work environment at the city-owned utility

Transcripts of under-oath testimony of former CEO Aaron Zahn and senior JEA leaders paint a picture of what it was like for some to work for their former boss.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A toxic work environment.

That’s how the former assistant of embattled former JEA CEO Aaron Zahn described her time under Zahn at the city-owned utility.

Melissa Charleroy quit in December 2018 after working close to seven years with JEA. Most of that time, she told News4Jax, was spent as the executive assistant for former JEA CEO Paul McElroy.

“I would have walked to the end of the earth for Paul," she said.

Charleroy said when Zahn came on as permanent JEA CEO in April 2019, one of the first things he did was ask Charleroy to go to lunch with him and his wife.

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"I told him I didn't feel comfortable doing that. I asked him it was mandatory, and he said it was,” Charleroy said.

Later, Charleroy said Zahn told her she would be responsible for his relationship with his wife and that she would “grade” her.

“I told him ‘I can’t get you to behave at work, so how can I get you to behave at home’" said Charleroy. “I thought he was joking, but then he kept saying it, eventually in front of other senior leadership team members. And I heard after I left that he mentioned that at the listening tour.”

One piece of evidence collected during the city of Jacksonville’s investigation into Zahn indicates he allowed his wife to weigh in on his assistants’ work performance.

City records show Zahn wrote a note on the bottom of a sheet detailing his executive assistants’ evaluation. The note read: “Family balance for CEO wife grade: 9-10 E, 6-8 M, <6 B.” E was believed to stand for excellent; M for medium and B for bad."

When asked by the city’s Office of General Counsel if it was his handwriting, he told attorneys, “It looks like it.”

According to Zahn’s attorney: “The feedback from Mr. Zahn’s wife was an informal way of helping Mr. Zahn’s assistant and him understand how scheduling was impacting work-life balance. Mr. Zahn and his wife have three young children and he wanted to make sure he was being a good husband and father. Mr. Zahn’s assistant, who controlled his very hectic schedule, had the ability to have a direct impact on his home life. Ms. Charleroy’s job was not adversely affected by this informal feedback.”

Charleroy said she quit before ever receiving the ‘wife grade.’ Zahn also told Charleroy she was in charge of making sure he “closed the exercise rings on his Apple watch.”

Charleroy described working for Zahn as “unprofessional and toxic.”

She remembered one incident at a strategic planning meeting at White Oak where Zahn asked her to set up a date for his wife. Charleroy said he never made the date because of a heated exchange he had with JEA’s former chief legal advisor, Jodi Brooks, that night.

Charleroy, who attended the meeting, said Zahn ‘verbally attacked’ the attorney.

"At the end of the meeting in White Oak, Jodi reminded him the pictures of the post-it notes were all subject to public record. He verbally attacked her with offensive language. It was a full-on attack,” said Charleroy. "He called me afterward. He really regretted what happened. He didn't like the way it went down and we talked about him apologizing to her."

Charleroy is not the only person who was at the meeting who recalls this incident.

JEA’s spokeswoman Kerri Stewart testified under oath that she witnessed the former CEO being ‘orally abusive’ to JEA workers.

Stewart told city attorneys about Zahn yelling at the chief legal officer at the same meeting at White Oak.

“Aaron said something along the lines of, ‘Why the F can’t you just’ -- I can’t remember if it was ‘relax’ or, I can’t remember exactly what it was," Stewart testified. “It was very heated in front of the entire team."

Stewart also told investigators Zahn used a ‘tone and delivery, loud […] and sometimes obscene. Rarely, but sometimes obscene.”

Zahn’s former assistant described the ousted CEO as “like Jekyll and Hyde.”

“At times he was very kind, he was generous, he had a big heart, he was joyful, but in a moment, he could switch gears and become angry and defensive, hostile,” said Charleroy.

The former assistant said she was also placed in a difficult position as the assistant reporting to Zahn and to the entire JEA board.

“I was kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place because I worked for the board and Aaron," she said. "I wanted to maintain integrity on both sides. If something was disclosed in a CEO search committee, I couldn’t go back and tell Aaron. If there was something being released publicly, I wanted him to know.”

Melissa ultimately put in her two weeks on Dec. 7, 2018.

"It got to the point where I was just tired of fighting to keep him honest. Once he became the permanent CEO, I knew his behavior would only get worse,” said Charleroy.

Councilman Rory Diamond, who leads a special committee investigating the JEA, weighed in on the verbal abuse allegations.

“I don’t think being verbally abusive is a crime but it’s certainly not what we want to have as far as a culture in our city government,” Diamond said. “You don’t get the best out of your people when you treat them that way.”

About the Author:

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