Emails detail timeline of permitting process for Donna Foundation’s Mother’s Day 5k

Discussion of “unintended public perception” related to mayoral race sparked controversy

Mother’s Day 5K permit in question: Donna Foundation asked to move date away from election

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Newly-obtained emails from City of Jacksonville employees reveal additional details about the permitting process for an upcoming 5k road race organized by the DONNA Foundation, the non-profit founded years ago by now-mayoral candidate Donna Deegan.

As News4JAX first reported last week, the foundation was asked to delay the race from its scheduled May 13 date, because of the possibility of an “unintended public perception” related to the fact that Deegan was on the ballot for mayor in the city’s May 16 election. Deegan, a Democrat, faces Republican Daniel Davis in the runoff. Two days after the issue became public, the city granted the permit for the originally scheduled date.

The foundation submitted its permit application on March 24, a Friday. The following Monday, a staffer in the city’s special events office sent an email to several other city employees stating that the permit had been received and that it was less than 90 days before the scheduled event. Under city ordinance, four people had to sign off to waive the 90-day requirement for permits: a chief from JSO, a chief from JFRD, the city’s chief financial officer, and the city’s chief administrative officer, Brian Hughes. By late morning on March 27, emails show JSO and JFRD had already signed off on the waiver.

Three days later, on March 30, the city employee who initially sent the email seeking the four signatures sent a follow-up email to check on the status of the remaining signatures. At that point, the waiver still only had the signatures from JSO and JFRD.

On Tuesday, April 4, Hughes sent an email to Chandler Fussell, the city’s chief of sports and entertainment, directing Fussell to send the message on to the DONNA Foundation’s contact for the event:

“As you know by ordinance within a 90-day window, the application requires an affirmative sign off by certain local officials including myself. At this point, rather than a denial, I wanted to make a suggestion to the organization and offer my thoughts behind the suggestion.

In recent years, COJ has been a proud supporter of the cause to raise awareness of breast cancer in our community. In addition to providing uniformed public safety personnel at the organization’s expense, COJ has also provided taxpayer funding support. In addition to a $10,000 direct support payment in 2018, Mayor Curry and then-Council President Tommy Hazouri, approved a $60,000 Covid relief grant in 2020.

Under normal circumstances, approval of the permit, presence of COJ public safety, and past financial support would never be seen in any other context. The timing of this event, however, and the fact the namesake of the organization will be on a ballot for the city’s highest elected office mere days after the event may cause an unintended public perception.

It would be unfortunate for the timing to lead citizens to question COJ involvement in the election process. For that reason, I wonder if the organization would consider a date change to the Saturday after Mother’s Day rather than the Saturday prior. It would still be the week of Mother’s Day but would then come after the conclusion of the election, ensuring no confusion of COJ involvement related to the election.”

The following morning, April 5, News4JAX and other local media outlets began to learn that the permit was in question, and began making inquiries of the city and the foundation. Over the course of the day, Hughes exchanged numerous emails with Amanda Napolitano, the executive director of the DONNA Foundation. From the emails, we know that the two spoke by phone Wednesday afternoon, and Napolitano told Hughes that for many reasons, rescheduling the event “would not be fiscally responsible” for the foundation.

On Thursday, April 6, Hughes emailed Napolitano, telling her the city’s review of the permit should be done by the end of the day Friday, the following day. Also, Hughes sends an email to all members of the city council, regarding the permitting situation. He also included the exchanges between himself and Napolitano.

READ MORE: Emails between Brian Hughes and Amanda Napolitano

Friday morning, emails show that the permitting process was now moving forward. Around 11 a.m., the city’s risk management department gave its approval, and soon after, Hughes puts his signature on the form waiving the 90-day rule, clearing the final hurdle for the permit. Word of the permit’s approval became public that afternoon.

The emails obtained by News4JAX do not give any notable details of what may have happened in the permitting process between March 30 and April 4.

The public records request did include two emails to the city from citizens concerned about the status of the permit. One email to councilmember Randy Defoor, whose district includes Riverside, was forwarded to Hughes, called the permitting holdup “the silliest thing.” Another email, sent to Hughes, asked, “Why is the City of Jacksonville in any way involved in, or concerned with, the 5k Mother’s Day run? Obviously, because it is sponsored by an organization founded by Donna Deegan, a candidate for mayor.”

Hughes responded to that email, and included what he had sent to council members earlier that day, detailing the status of the permit.