Special meeting on Lot J project filled with finger-pointing, name-calling

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It was supposed to be a meeting where the City Council could learn more about Lot J, the proposed downtown entertainment center, which, if approved, would be one of the largest most expensive public-private partnerships in Jacksonville’s history.

Instead, nothing happened at a special meeting Thursday night except finger-pointing, name-calling and what some members say was a big embarrassment for government.

From the start, it didn’t go well. Those on hand say they were at the meeting to get answers from the City Council auditor about Lot J. They learned the auditor hadn’t been given all of the information she needed.

Things took another turn, and that’s when it started to get ugly as City Councilman Aaron Bowman told Council President Tommy Hazouri that Hazouri wasn’t ready for the job.

Bowman: “Our rules tell us how we operate.”

Hazouri: “I don’t need to hear you yelling as you always do. I’m asking you to explain what you say there.”

Bowman: “You are not prepared for this job.”

Hazouri: “You’re welcome you’re still not president.”

That was just the beginning. Later in the meeting, Hazouri and Brian Hughes, of the mayor’s staff, got into it, with Hazouri slamming the mayor and staff and saying they are not giving them the needed information about the project.

Hughes: “You just discouraged my team, my staff and my mayor. And I just want to take a minute to tell you your characterizations are wrong. You said things not correct, that are not correct, not correct.”

Hazouri: “I don’t want to sit here. My opinion is my opinion.”

One plan was discussed to put the brakes on Lot J and turn it over to the Downtown Investment Authority, which would then come back with suggestions that would spell out what would be required from the city and the Jaguars. No vote was taken by the City Council about that, but apparently, the DIA has already started that process.

Jaguars President Mark Lamping was on hand to try and give answers. Instead, he heard the bickering and he also heard that some council members wanted to start the whole process of Lot J negotiators over again.

“I have no interest in going back to square one,” Lamping said.

Other council members spoke up, saying they were surprised about what happened and how nothing came out of what was to be an important meeting.

“Tempers got out of control. It’s just one of those things,” said City Councilman Ron Salem.

And now it’s not known what will take place.

At the end of the meeting, News4Jax talked with Hazouri, who said he has never seen anything like this, but said the deal presented by the mayor’s office and the Jaguars is lacking information and not acceptable yet.

“What they handed us again was the shaft,” Hazouri said.

Jordan Elsbury, the mayor’s chief of staff, said: “We came here to engage and answer questions. The council president was not interested in that. We will continue to work with members, as we have for months.”

The complex proposed by Jaguars owner Shad Khan in Lot J of TIAA Bank Field has received some pushback from the public, but a group of influential businessmen said it will support the plan if certain conditions are met.

In a letter sent Monday to Curry and each City Council member, the Civic Council outlined the conditions it believes need to be satisfied before morning forward:

  • Time: The council auditor and the public must have adequate time to vet the plan.
  • Transparency: All the documents and cost breakdown should be made available to the public.
  • Accountability and contract protection: Make sure the city would be protected if the Jaguars or Khan pulls out of the city.
  • Financial terms: The return on investment must be reasonable for the taxpayers

Mayor Lenny Curry has been clear that he wants the project to go through.

The $445 million complex would include bars, restaurants, housing and offices. The price tag would be split between the city and the Jaguars.

There is another special meeting planned for Dec. 3, but Hazouri isn’t sure that will happen.

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