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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Jan. 9, 202005:20 AM EST

20 Jacksonville leaders form nonprofit to scrutinize JEA

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Mike Hightower, Michael Ward and David Miller to lead OurJax focused on transparency in city government.
by: Mike Mendenhall Staff Writer
Mike Hightower

Former JEA board member and lobbyist Mike Hightower has joined a group of 20 Jacksonville leaders to create a nonprofit resource addressing transparency at JEA.

In an interview Jan. 8, Hightower and OurJax member Mike Tolbert said the group’s website, OurJax.com, is expected to go live Jan. 9. 

“Mike (Tolbert) and I’ve been doing politics a long time and, candidly, we and the group of us who are putting this together, we’ve never seen anything like this in our town. We are concerned,” Hightower said. 

Hightower said OurJax is designed to be a “one-stop shop” for news articles, original documents and information about JEA’s strategic planning process and, eventually, other transparency issues in city government.

According to Hightower, the website will be a public portal and the group will provide assistance to people requesting information or documents from JEA and other city government entities.

The OurJax nonprofit has three directors: Retired CSX Corp. CEO Michael Ward, Brightway Insurance Executive Chairman David Miller and Hightower. Donors' names will be confidential.

As the registered agent, law firm GrayRobinson filed OurJax Inc. as a not-for-profit corporation with the state Jan. 7, listing Ward, Miller and Hightower as directors.

Hightower said OurJax is a response to diminished trust in government in Jacksonville.

Hightower served 16 years on the JEA board and retired in June 2019 as the utility’s chief public affairs officer. 

He’s been involved in Duval County politics for nearly 50 years, working as a lobbyist for Florida Blue, a senior policy adviser for the Holland & Knight law firm and he ran John Peyton’s mayoral campaign. 

Tolbert is a long-time political strategist and aide to former Mayor Jake Godbold.

As a nonprofit, the group will be able to raise money. Hightower said some of those resources will be used to help people or organizations that cannot afford the costs involved in large public records requests. The group also plans to retain an attorney.

Tolbert said OurJax began to organize during the JEA sales process before the utility’s board voted Dec. 24 to end bid negotiations with nine private companies.

The group’s original objective was to stop the invitation to negotiate at the City Council level, fearing a political messaging campaign against a voter referendum to sell JEA would be too costly to wage. 

“We believed that if it got beyond that (City Council approving putting the proposal on the November ballot), there would be so much money involved in a referendum process that anything could go off the rails,” Tolbert said. “Once the ITN processes ended, most everybody involved believed it was not over.” 

Tolbert and Hightower point to other JEA strategic planning scenarios, such as converting JEA into a community-owned cooperative or a publicly traded company, that have not been formally presented to the JEA board.

Hightower said if a lack of transparency at JEA continues, any merit those options could have will not matter. 

Hightower said OurJax has four goals it wants to achieve related to JEA:  

• transparency

• integrity in the process

• accountability

• local control  

“There’s a rage and an outrage in Jacksonville right now that I’ve never seen,” Tolbert said. “It’s broad and it’s wide.”

“There’s suspicion, too,” Hightower added.

According to the IRS Code, the 501(c)(4) would allow OurJax, as a social welfare organization, to lobby and seek legislation related to its goals. 

But Hightower said, despite Tolbert’s and his background in politics, the group is not a political action committee and will instead focus on public policy, advocacy and education. 

OurJax will place advertisements and take stands on issues that members believe will further transparency in Jacksonville’s city government. 

Tolbert said the group would support State Attorney Melissa Nelson should she decide to convene a grand jury to investigate what led to JEA’s invitation to negotiate a possible sale.

He said OurJax also opposes Florida House Bill 653, which would prohibit municipally owned utilities in the state, including JEA, from contributing to their municipalities’ general funds.

Hightower agrees that power and water utilities are facing financial headwinds driven by new and improving technologies. 

But he and Tolbert said Jan. 8 that it’s not the “death spiral” that was characterized by JEA officials.

“Until everything is out, until everything is transparent, until we all know the facts, this is going to be an open sore that will not heal until all the questions have been answered,” Hightower said. “It’s really in everyone’s best interest to get the facts out as soon as possible.”(904) 356-2466

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