The 17-2 vote came after debate about the Jacksonville-based law firm's qualifications.
The City Council on Dec. 10 approved an emergency bill hiring Jacksonville-based law firm Smith Hulsey & Busey to advise members on the public utility’s possible sale.
Council approved the bill to hire Smith Hulsey & Busey in a 17-2 emergency vote, with members LeAnna Cumber and Aaron Bowman voting no.
Council President Scott Wilson, with guidance from city General Counsel Jason Gabriel and Carla Miller, director of the city’s Office of Ethics, chose the firm after Council approved a decision in October to hire outside counsel.
Cumber said Smith Hulsey’s lack of water utility and energy expertise caused her to vote no.
Thirteen firms applied for the job to advise the Council. Cumber distributed their applications and proposals at the Council's Dec. 10 agenda meeting, encouraging members to defeat the emergency so the applications and legislation could go through committees.
That led to several Council members, including Ron Salem and Rory Diamond, to express reservations in Wilson’s selection of Smith Hulsey.
The Council president said he felt like his leadership was being questioned, and he told Council members if they “had heartburn and didn’t like one of the choices” they should have come to him sooner.
“It’s really frustrating. I’ve really tried to put this process together. I’ve tried to be as fair as possible,” Wilson said.
Cumber said she had “never gone against our president,” but added her pushback is because of “a difference of opinion” with Wilson.
“People have harped on how many attorneys they’ve (JEA) hired. They have seven firms, not because they like paying people money but because what they are looking at is so complex. And they have international firms with 1,000 attorneys,” Cumber said.
“This was not a slam on your leadership. I have always supported you, but I have grave concerns about this,” she said.
Wilson said in addition to Smith Hulsey’s knowledge of the Jacksonville Charter, he selected the firm because it was the only applicant that presented a financial cap of $1.85 million — the amount Council appropriated in October for the hire.
Gabriel called each applicant a solid firm, but told Council members all four had varying abilities to fill the scope of services, and some could bring in additional attorneys from other firms to fill gaps in utility sector expertise.
Gabriel said Smith Hulsey is “a very good, long-term traditional firm for Jacksonville with a lot of historical roots.”
“(Smith Hulsey) has some of the scope of services but may need to engage and partner with others in the process,” he said.
Before the final vote, Diamond and other Council members, including Priestly Jackson and Council Vice President Tommy Hazouri, came to Wilson’s defense and support for his selection process.