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Clay Yarborough

The transformation of Clay Yarborough from Dr. No to Mr. President

By David Chapman, Staff Writer

He was once known as “Dr. No.”

A first-term, late 20s Clay Yarborough had a penchant for hitting the red button on some of the higher-profile issues of the day.

Former Mayor John Peyton’s budgets. Taxpayer incentives for companies. Nonprofits seeking public funds, though he often lauded their work.

No, no, no.

The unaffectionate moniker named after the James Bond villain drove him to research the topic. For three years, he voted “no” on fewer than 10 percent of the 2,500-3,000 votes. Still, he knew the perception was there.

During that first term, he had aspirations to become council president. He says now he knew it wasn’t time to try. He wasn’t prepared — he still needed an education, of sorts.

“I didn’t see then that I needed to learn more, listen more and have a better handle on things,” he said. “I didn’t see it then like I do now.”

Now, it’s time. In his early 30s and entering the last of his eight years on council, Yarborough will be sworn in Friday to serve as president for the 2014-15 term.

The vote by his peers? Not a single “no.”

Behind the lens

His time with council didn’t actually start on the dais — it started behind the camera.

While finishing high school and getting into college, Yarborough worked as a TV cameraman filming meetings for WJCT TV-7. It was a position that allowed him to develop some informal relationships, including one with current state Rep. Lake Ray.

At the time, Ray was on council representing the Arlington area, which he did from 1999-2007.

“I thought he was a fine young man who had an interest in the political process,” Ray said.

Ray said Yarborough came to him to watch how to work campaigns, how he interacted in the community and stayed involved. He served as Ray’s council liaison to the Citizens Planning Advisory Committee representing the Arlington and Beaches area.

Ray said that unlike other eager young people who just exit school, Yarborough didn’t immediately file to run for council. Instead, at 19 years old, Yarborough was elected to the Duval County Soil and Water Conservation Board.

Ray was term-limited heading into the 2007 election year. With some election experience now in tow, Yarborough filed to succeed Ray, defeating an opponent who outraised him in money.

The first term

Yarborough admits he had a hard stance on several issues during his first term that coincided with Peyton’s last.

“It’s no secret Mayor Peyton and I disagreed on several things,” Yarborough said.

Economic development projects that have companies receiving taxpayer dollars are common in governments across the country, but Yarborough continuously voted no on them during his first term.

The negative votes weren’t against any individual company, he said. Instead, it was a philosophical matter — the private market should determine where and how to conduct business, not taxpayers.

Likewise, he didn’t agree with Peyton’s annual budgets.

Three of the four final budgets council approved during those four years had “no” votes from Yarborough, including the 2010-11 budget that featured a millage increase. The 2009-10 budget was the only one of which Yarborough didn’t register a nay vote — because he was excused from the meeting.

There also were disagreements on extending Craig Airport’s runway, appointments the mayor had made and other issues.

“I didn’t believe our priorities were aligned,” Yarborough said.

Stepping back

Sometime during re-election for the 2011 vote, Yarborough said he visited a businessman who supported him for his first run.

His perception as Dr. No was a concern, though.

“There a lot of good things that you need to spend money on,” said developer Bill Cesery, founder of Cesery Cos. “I was worried he had preconceived notions before he heard both sides of an issue … that he wasn’t going to listen.”

Ultimately, Cesery said he supported Yarborough, but it still made Yarborough think.

Ray said he also knew of the Dr. No perception and offered his advice.

“I encouraged him to spend a lot of time looking and understanding all pieces of legislation that come through,” Ray said. “There are almost none that are perfect. There’s always something you can find that you don’t like.”

Focus on the greater good, Ray said.

Yarborough listened.

“I took a step back,” he said.

For instance, he softened his stance on those economic development deals he once constantly rejected.

Competing cities used similar incentives to lure jobs and economic development. And, for the most part, constituents weren’t up in arms over such deals.

“I started looking at every bill on its merits,” he said. “If it’s not a good deal, I could still vote no … but if not, why not support it?”

He said he’s taken that stance for other bills, as long as it wasn’t a moral issue.

While he disagreed with Peyton at the time, Yarborough said the former mayor did a good job in the position. As for those no votes on his budgets, Yarborough said while there still might be concerns, which button he pushed “may be different now.”

With time and experience came a better understanding of city finances and functions, which has further shaped the way he looks at bills.

Listening without preconceived notions is part of that.

“What I realize now is I still reserve the right to disagree in the end, but I’ll be respectful, listen and give them an opportunity to speak,” he said.

The year ahead

Entering his final year on the council, the city’s largest issue still looms. It’s the same one that hung over his predecessors.

“The single biggest issue is going to be pension,” Yarborough said. “It affects all of us.”

There’s a deal currently on the table that still needs council approval, but Yarborough said he won’t rush it.

“I want something done and approved as quick as everyone else, but I want it done right,” he said.

While Mayor Alvin Brown’s administration hopes the July 22 meeting, the first of the council year, will be the time for approval, Yarborough isn’t so sure. It will be the first meeting of the year, Brown will have just handed over his budget and committees will be new.

Still, Yarborough said he’d like it done by the end of the year and certainly done before current council members cycle off and fresh faces emerge.

“New members that come in, while a bright group, won’t have that knowledge and experience,” he said.

As an individual, Yarborough said he still has concerns over “the $40 million question” — the source of the extra annual payments the city has committed to pay down the plan.

The possibility of outgoing council members doing and saying things they might not otherwise do — “senioritis” as Yarborough calls it — is possible, but he’s confident in the group.

“I hope momentum continues … I hope they continue to serve and be engaged for the people in this city,” he said.

The man who will hand over the gavel said he’s confident in Yarborough’s ability to lead.

“Clay’s a very smart young man,” said Bill Gulliford. “I think his dealings will continue to be deliberative … he’s not a knee-jerk type of guy and his strengths, for sure, are on the procedural side.”

The balance

During his time on council, Yarborough has continued his employment at UPS, married and had two children.

Gulliford said he hasn’t offered specific advice, but warned Yarborough of the time demand the leadership role places on an individual.

Performing that balancing act is something Yarborough said he noticed in a colleague during his first term.

During a Jacksonville Port Authority tour for new council members, Yarborough sat near Daniel Davis.

The former Westside council member was president at the time, had a young family of his own and was executive director of the Northeast Florida Builders Association.

“How in the world do you do this? You’re sitting here as calm as can be,” Yarborough recalled.

Davis’ answer was prayer, because “nothing would work at all” without it.

For Yarborough, a First Baptist Church member, the advice rang true.

Davis, the current JAX Chamber president and CEO, said his career has paralleled some with Yarborough’s.

Even when it came to growing and eliminating his own version of Dr. No.

“If you look at my career, where I started to where I ended up … we all do,” Davis said “That’s the telling of a good leader, someone who is willing to listen and look at different points of view. You have to grow and understand positions. That’s the sign of a good elected leader.”

dchapman@baileypub.com

@writerchapman

(904) 356-2466

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