Questions remain for Kids Hope Alliance board about CEO's suspension

Joe Peppers was suspended Aug. 14 amid an ongoing city investigation

By Jim Piggott - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - The fallout from a city investigation into the man in charge of Jacksonville's children's programs grew Wednesday as Kids Hope Alliance board members aired concerns about being left in the dark.

The Kids Hope Alliance board of directors met Wednesday for the first time since CEO Joe Peppers was placed on paid leave last week amid an investigation by the city's inspector general, and it was clear board members were upset that Mayor Lenny Curry's office did not tell them about it.

Attempts to reach Peppers on Wednesday were unsuccessful. No one at City Hall is willing to discuss the investigation, the details of which have not been released.

Peppers, who was suspended last Wednesday, made headlines last week when the Florida Times-Union published a memo he authored saying the mayor's staff pressured him to steer grant money to certain groups. The mayor's office denied the allegation, saying staffers followed the law.

At Wednesday's meeting, board members were asked to approve Peppers' suspension. Vice Chair Dr. Barbara Darby, who was acting as chair in the absence of Kevin Gay, had trouble with that because members were not told ahead of time about Peppers' suspension. She laid out several questions:

  • When did the investigation into Peppers begin?
  • How long will the investigation carry on?
  • Who will receive the investigative report and take action?

Dr. Darby did not get many answers, though. The board was told by Jon Phillips, an attorney with the city's general counsel's office, that the board would be responsible taking action in response to the report, along with Mayor Curry's administration.

Afterward, the board voted to recognize the investigation and suspension as an informational item on its agenda. But the board did not vote to formally endorse the suspension. Phillips said that made no difference because the disciplinary action would stand.

Speaking with News4Jax about her concerns, Darby said it's the board's responsibility to handle issues with the Kids Hope Alliance's leadership and that the board should have been informed about any action taken against Peppers before it happened.

"I think so because we're being asked to ratify the action," she said.

The board also approved extending the Stop the Violence grants awarded last year. Those grants are the same ones at the center of Peppers' memo. Despite what Peppers said, Darby was confident that no one group received special consideration for grant funding.

Notably, Bill Hodges was at the meeting. Hodge, who was a member of the Jacksonville Children's Commission, the group Mayor Curry replaced when the city launched the Kids Hope Alliance, has been critical of Curry and backed his opponent in the last election.

Hodges told News4Jax the entire saga involving Peppers should lead to additional investigations and suggested the board would be wise to look into the matter.

"There needs to be less interference by the mayor's office," he said. "More independence by the board and truly caring about the children of our community."

Brian Hughes, chief of staff to Curry, said he's not surprised by Hodges' comments, but said he's glad to see the Kids Hope Alliance is continuing its work without its CEO.

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