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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Jan. 8, 200912:00 PM EST

A conversation with Mayor John Peyton


Since taking office in 2003 — yes, it’s been that long — Mayor John Peyton has endured the gamut of experiences. From getting married and having kids to battling Tallahassee over funding to a major landfill contract to a County Courthouse that’s still not out of the ground, Peyton has dealt with plenty.

Thursday morning, he came by the Daily Record and met with the editorial staff to talk about those things, and a few others.

How are you doing?

Things are going well on the job. It’s a tough environment right now. But, I am getting used to a tough environment. The economy has tested our ability to provide the basic services. But, I am getting used to things being tough. It will be a tough budget year next year, but we have good, smart people in City Hall and I am proud of their work. The team is performing at a high level on the fourth floor. We have a clear initiative for the next 40 months.

What are your initiatives for the rest of your term?

Public safety, protecting the river and growing good jobs. The implementation phase of the Jacksonville Journey is underway — we formed an oversight committee — and it is doing well. There is money behind it thanks to City Council. (Job wise) we are defying gravity. Where others are losing jobs, we are in a position to gain jobs and that has a lot to do with the port and Cecil Commerce Center. I have traveled extensively lately and will continue to travel. Representing the city outside the market is important. Our exposure in the international market has proven successful. Look at the recent announcements — they are all international businesses.

When you seriously started to consider running for mayor in 2001, did you know what you were getting into?

Has the job exceeded or been what I thought? I think we had more financial challenges than I thought we would. There were a series of hurdles I didn’t anticipate.

Do you enjoy the job?

It depends on what day you ask me. It’s a challenging job. But, I am glad I’m here, I’m glad I ran and I hope I am making the right decisions. I’d like to think we are making the right decisions. I think crime fighting is our biggest issue. I think crime fighting is the most important work we’ve done. We have taken a comprehensive approach that is second to none. Will it (the Jacksonville Journey) solve the problem? No, but it helps define what City Hall should do as it relates to the community. We do not want the costing of lives to inevitably define our community.

Regarding the Trail Ridge Landfill, what do you tell the people that are worried about not going with a RFP(Request for proposals)?

I know it’s counter intuitive to saving money without bidding. I view it as my responsibility to protect the taxpayer’s interest and bring forth recommendations to our Council that is the most prudent expenditure of taxpayer dollars. We have an unusual situation with the Trail Ridge Landfill. The dynamic is, we have a legal dispute over the terms of the existing contract that if not managed properly, could put the taxpayer at great risk. We think the best remedy moving forward is a negotiated contract that allows us to capture savings through the completion of this contract, which is seven years. It allows us to, hopefully, protect the taxpayer with closure costs and also indemnifies the taxpayer for the legal exposure as a result of the legal conflict with the contract.

We have negotiated for nearly two years a package that we think is that best deal. It lowers the tipping fee, allows us to capture immediate savings, addresses closure costs and protects us from legal exposure.

If the Trail Ridge Landfill vote was in front of Council today, would you have enough votes?

I think it would be close today. We have been negotiating this for two years, but Council just got it. It takes a lot of time to understand the proposal. It’s a complicated deal. Once the Council has the time to digest the complexity, they will come to the same conclusion and that is it will save the taxpayers money.

The other 800-pound gorilla is the new County Courthouse. Where does that project stand today?

I don’t view it as an 800-pound gorilla. It’s been planned, it will get built and I will walk through it before I leave office. There is more opportunity now than ever and the economy is such we need to take advantage of the low bids. Some are 20 percent under what they were. We need to get government off the river. It will generate thousands of jobs. The plans have been drafted and we are waiting for a guaranteed maximum price from the contractor. I think we will get that by early spring.

Once construction of the new Courthouse is well underway, will you begin to do anything about the current Courthouse?

I think the next mayor will have to wrestle with how that land is used. We will not vacate that building before it (the new one) is done. We will not be out of the Courthouse Annex or the old Courthouse before I leave office. Walking through it (the new one) before I leave is a stretch.

In past national economic recessions, Jacksonville seems to have recovered more quickly than other cities. Do you think history will repeat itself this time as well?

I think Jacksonville will fare better than most cities in the Southeast during this economic cycle. We’re different from the rest of the state. We have a diversified economy. We’re not dependent on any one sector. The rest of Florida largely depends on tourism and retirement and we don’t. We have a strong military presence here, which is a recession-proof business. We also have great prospects with international trade which we have not had before and we continue to have strength in the financial services sector. We are the low-cost provider in most scenarios so we could actually gain in a restructuring of the financial sector.

Health sciences is another emerging market that can really have an amazing impact. If you look at the huge concentration of leading medical facilities we have here – the University of Florida and Shands, the Proton Beam Facility, Mayo Clinic, Nemours – the list goes on and on. This is also a sector that has a lot of promise.

In terms of international trade, Cecil Commerce Center is poised for the growth of distribution centers. We have thousands of acres on I-10 that are perfect for distribution centers.

We have a lot of things working for us. Our unemployment will not go as high as other communities. It’s higher now in South Florida and even in the panhandle. I’m really bullish on Jacksonville’s ability to handle this kind of economy. We’ve got our challenges, but I think we’re really blessed in a lot of ways. We’re better positioned than other cities our size.

One of the key indicators of a community’s economic health is per capita income. How is that going?

We established the Blueprint for Prosperity early in my administration and we have made great progress in terms of per capita income. I’ll be surprised if we don’t exceed the national average in the coming years. We have changed the trajectory on that. When I took office, we were down and projected to go down further, but we have pulled the nose up on that.

What are your plans for when you leave office?

I’m going to take a long vacation with my family. I’d like to go to Montana or somewhere like that. I think my employer will define “long.” I’m going back to Gate and rejoin the family business. I’m looking forward to that. I told dad (Herb Peyton) that he has saved a lot of money because he hasn’t had to pay me for eight years. I think my father is very eager to retire. He wasn’t excited about me running for a second term. If it had been his choice, I would have gone back sooner. I’m looking forward to being part of the leadership team. It’s my background and it’s what I know. Gate is a great company with a lot of smart people. I enjoy working with smart people.

Any thoughts on the next mayor?

I think that is between the candidates and the voters. Certainly I’ll have an opinion, but I view my role similar to that of (former Mayor) John Delaney. He did not engage with the candidates. I think that’s the way I’ll do it.

What do you do to get away from everything?

I go home and roll around on the ground with a 1 year-old and a 3 year-old. They cause me to live in the present.

How did fatherhood change the job?

Fatherhood changed my perspective. My value system completely changed. The things I used to think were important, aren’t. When I get home, my day is erased. The boys give dad a big hug and that’s what I really enjoy.

For your first five-and-a-half years in office, we had a Republican president. Any idea what affect President-elect Obama will have on Jacksonville?

I don’t expect to ride in the presidential limo, which I did twice. I have a lot of optimism about this president. The country has serious problems and he will have to tackle those problems. I am sympathetic with him in taking the job. There are things he’s sensitive to that will help the urban core of Jacksonville. He has a tough road to hoe and I wouldn’t want to be in his spot.

Christmas has come and gone but cities across America are hoping for some gifts from the proposed stimulus package. Where does Jacksonville stand in that process?

I hand-delivered our list of shovel-ready projects that total about $700 million. I won’t be accused of not being there to sell it. I will be making another trip when the (Duval) Delegation lets me know I’m needed. We are going to do all we can to bring back dollars to Jacksonville. There is an enormous amount of competition for those funds, but we are optimistic.

What’s the best part of the job?

I enjoy the people I work with. I am surrounded by good, smart people who care deeply about this city. I enjoy the problem solving. I enjoyed picking my own team. I meet a lot of interesting people and get to interact with a diverse group of people. I have enjoyed learning about the city.

What’s the worst thing about the job?

The media, the media’s the worst. The challenge is the media doesn’t have the time or space to adequately cover some of the complexities we deal with. There is the desire to print headlines that are more sensational than reality. I am not sure the media has the city’s best interest at heart.

Are you looking forward to the Florida/Georgia game next year?

I always look forward to it. It’s one of the great traditions of Jacksonville that needs to be preserved. I plan on doing everything in my power to make sure it stays in Jacksonville. There will be an extension of the contract to host the game in Jacksonville before I leave office.

Who wins tonight between Florida and Oklahoma?

I’m a Florida fan. I grew up in Gainesville. I hope Florida wins. I think they will win. It’ll be a good game and fun to watch.

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