by Max Marbut
With 89 days left in Mayor John Peyton’s second term in office, the City’s Chief Administrative Officer, Kerri Stewart, visited the Downtown Council of the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce at its meeting Friday at the Hyatt Downtown.
Stewart has a background in helping a new mayor transition into office. Peyton asked her to join his transition team when he was elected, then named Stewart policy director after he was sworn in.
Two years later, Stewart took over the City’s Housing and Neighborhoods Department and later became deputy CAO and then CAO last year upon the departure of Alan Mosley.
Stewart said she was qualified to speak about the last eight years in terms of Peyton’s time in office and the next 90 days in terms of preparing the next mayor to govern when he’s sworn in June 30.
“After July 1, I have no prognostications,” she said.
The past eight years, Stewart said, have been “tiring, humbling and frustrating, but rewarding.”
Through it all, the administration has concentrated on several areas, including job opportunities, quality of life, public safety and Jacksonville’s financial future.
Stewart said Peyton is proud of the City’s “reputation as one of the most business-friendly cities in Florida.”
Since 2003, she said, 81 companies have relocated to Jacksonville or expanded their operations here, creating more than 25,000 jobs with an average salary above the state average.
When Peyton took office, Stewart said, Cecil Field was empty.
“Now, with the master developer agreement with Hillwood, the Westside can realize its full potential,” she said. “While government doesn’t create jobs, it can provide an environment where companies can prosper.”
She also pointed to the growth of the port, particularly opening trade lanes to Asia and accounting for 65,000 jobs and a $19 billion economic impact annually.
Jacksonville has also established itself as one of the “top sports cities in America,” said Stewart.
She cited the Gator Bowl, the Florida-Georgia game and the Jacksonville Jaguars improving from blackouts in 2009 to selling more season tickets than any other NFL franchise and no television blackouts last year.
Cleaning up and protecting the St. Johns River is also part of Peyton’s legacy, said Stewart.
“And there’s no greater place to celebrate the river than Downtown,” she said.
“Downtown is the smartest investment we can make. We have to focus on the public spaces Downtown to spur private development,” she said.
“Bay Street is coming into its own as Downtown’s nightspot. We’re making Laura Street the most walkable, perhaps not the most drivable, street in Jacksonville.”
Stewart also listed:
• The average Jacksonville worker makes 32 percent more income now than in 2000, a larger increase than Atlanta and the North Carolina cities of Charlotte and Raleigh.
• 148 child care centers have been converted from custodial care to learning centers.
• The Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office has 168 more sworn officers than in 2003 and there was a 23 percent reduction in violent crime last year.
“We want to make sure the new mayor and his staff will be ready for the budget,” Stewart said about the transition to the new administration.
The City’s chief executive, who will be elected May 17, will have just two weeks from his first day in office, July 1, until he has to present a budget to City Council.
The transition team is preparing 40 “issue papers” that Stewart said “aren’t John Peyton’s history of the world” but “a record of how we got where we are.”
An operations manual is also available, covering information from revenue sources to costs of services to personnel.
“Filling potholes, putting out fires and catching stray dogs – how do we do it and how much does it cost?” said Stewart.
The staff will move out of its offices and into the large conference room on the fourth floor of City Hall two weeks before Peyton’s successor takes the oath of office in order to give the new administration time to move into its new surroundings.
“We’ve tried to create an environment where, we hope, the new mayor’s staff can work with us,” said Stewart.
Stewart was asked what’s next in her career.
“I don’t know. It’s hard to let go, but I’ve got 89 days to figure out where I’ll go next,” she said.
To learn more about the Downtown Council, visit www.downtowncouncil.org.