JEA controversy not affecting Curry's approval ratings, yet

1st Amendment Foundation says mayor may be 'thwarting transparency'

By Lynnsey Gardner - Investigative reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - For weeks, City Hall has been embroiled in a political firestorm between Mayor Lenny Curry's office and certain members of City Council over the potential sale of JEA.

Wednesday night, the I-TEAM reported that a City Council auditor was accusing the mayor’s office of not being transparent. In emails, the auditor uncovered that the mayor’s chief financial officer, Mike Weinstein, was soliciting a request for proposals (known as an RFP). It was on city of Jacksonville letterhead, but not through the city’s procurement office but rather a private company in Orlando.

The RFP was trying to find a company that could field offers for city assets to see what they are worth financially. JEA is owned by the city, and several major financial institutions like Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan Chase responded to the Orlando company working on behalf of Jacksonville leaders. The companies' responses included words like “energy” “sewer” and “water,” raising questions for some City Council members about whether the mayor’s office was working behind the scenes on a possible sale months ago, as opposed to what the mayor has said publicly: that the sale is being pursued solely by JEA and he is open to hearing pros and cons.  

Curry again denied all of the allegations again Thursday.

"(It was) not a JEA RFP," Curry said. "The executive branch has in its purview and should be looking at any and all opportunities (for) the value of the assets. That had nothing to do with that JEA. The suggestion that it did is both erroneous and a political hit job made by somebody."

The I-TEAM wanted to get third-party insight on these developments and reached out to the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee. Its president, Barbara Petersen, relayed concerns.

“It seems to be thwarting transparency. But we don’t have a legal right to transparency. We have a legal right to the records and meetings of our government," Peterson said. "Transparency is what government decides to give us. Access is what we have a right to demand that government give us.”

Essentially, they are two very different sides of the same coin and since Curry doesn’t have voting power, Petersen said that his position is more so relegated to a chief administrative position, making him not subject to state Sunshine Laws.

It is also not illegal for a member of the mayor’s staff to go around city council and the city of Jacksonville’s procurement department in soliciting a request for proposals. City Council President Anna Brosche said that while it's not illegal, it is unusual.

Petersen agrees.

“City Council is elected and they are supposed to be working with the mayor to protect and promote the interest of the city and its residents. If the mayor is circumventing the city council, that’s an issue, certainly. It doesn’t look good right now. It does not pass the smell test when you have the mayor’s CFO contracting with a company out of Orlando and the city council is clueless. Whether they mention JEA in the RFP is immaterial.”

Petersen said that's especially true if the responses included verbiage around JEA’s potential valuations.

News4Jax also reached out to Dr. Michael Binder, an associate professor of political science and public administration at the University of North Florida. Binder also runs the UNF polling unit that regularly conducts surveys concerning local and state issues and leaders. 

Has the recent turmoil at City Hall affected Curry’s popularity within the city?

“I suspect that this isn't impacting the mayor's approval very much, if at all at this point," Binder said.

Binder pointed to several factors that him to that conclusion. First, the attention level that gets paid to local politics is limited. And, by and large, the community doesn't see and do much with local government.

“Because it hasn't reached the point of partisan polarization, in the sense that Republicans haven't split on this. It's currently just infighting  (between the City Council president and the mayor)," Binder said. "It looks like inside baseball at this point that outsiders don't understand. The JEA sale is so complicated and the average voter hasn't even had it explained to them.”

However, Binder said, there are two developments that could have an impact on the mayor’s popularity in regards to JEA.

“If it looks like some of his supporters and donors stand to gain from this economically, that's a different story; that could paint this in a very different light," Binder said. "Also, if it looks like the meat of the money in the city budget is being put under pressure because of the up-front cost of the pension deal he (Curry) put forward. Suddenly the great deal he pitched a year ago comes up short economically and we find ourselves in a hole, that could also be seen in a very different light.”

In October 2017, a UNF poll found that Curry was enjoying “sky-high” approval ratings, with 69 percent of respondents approving of the job he did, and just 13 percent disapproving. The sample size was 512 registered voters in Duval County. 

Binder plans to conduct more polling this summer, but hasn’t decided if his work will research the mayor or not.

Rick Mullaney, director of the Jacksonville University Public Policy Institute, who also serves as a News4Jax political analyst, had previously worked in the General Counsel’s office at City Hall. Based on his experience, Mullaney is urging caution before anyone jumps to any conclusions about what the mayor and his staff may or may not have been doing behind the scenes with regard to a JEA sale. 

“This will all play out in the weeks and months ahead.” Mullaney said “This is the beginning, not the end, and this will be a part of a much bigger review and analysis.”

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