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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Oct. 8, 201905:29 PM EST

Council committee to hold hearings on privatizing JEA

Council also may hire outside legal help to represent it during the sale process.
by: Mike Mendenhall Staff Writer

City Council will form a special committee to hold a series of “fact-finding hearings” on the ramifications of privatizing JEA.

Also, Council President Scott Wilson said Tuesday he will begin compiling a list of private law firms to guide Council during the sale process.

District 6 Council member Micheal Boylan called the meeting Tuesday with Wilson the day after JEA announced 16 companies replied to its invitation to negotiate a possible sale. It was attended by 10 Council members. 

The goal of the hearings is to bring in expert witnesses to advise the Council. 

Boylan said the hearings would take place while JEA negotiators evaluate bids until late February.

Council Vice President Tommy Hazouri said he wants the Council Auditor’s Office to conduct an independent assessment of JEA’s financial situation, building on a Council report from February 2018 on the value of JEA compiled the last time a sale was considered.

Boylan said the hearings are not intended to attack JEA and he has not taken a position on the possible sale. 

“JEA has a timeline that they’re working from but, ultimately, the decision is ours,” Boylan said after Tuesday’s meeting. “If we move this further out than what they’re comfortable with, then so be it because I want to make sure we’re informed and educated in this process.”

An independent Council investigation into the JEA sale is allowed by Jacksonville’s City Charter.

Section 5.09 states the Council “may subpoena witnesses, administer oaths, take testimony and require the production of evidence” to investigate the affairs of the consolidated government.

Wilson said after the JEA board recommends a bid to Council, he wants utility officials to hold public hearings in individual Council districts to explain the decision and what is under consideration.

For legal representation, Wilson said he wants to move quickly with city General Counsel Jason Gabriel to develop the scope of services needed to guide Council.

Council member Al Ferraro asked Wilson not to limit the number of voting members on the committee. He said the hearings need to address what he’s hearing from constituents that the sale of JEA “is a done deal.”

“I can’t go anywhere without somebody asking me about this, and people throughout the community are really afraid, and really afraid of the unknown,” Ferraro said. “I’ve been overwhelmingly surrounded by people who don’t want the sale of the JEA.”

 Gabriel told Wilson and Council members that attorneys with energy, utility and environmental expertise are needed, focuses that could be found in one large national law firm or several attorneys.

Wilson said he wants the special counsel on board within two to three weeks. Hiring an outside attorney will require legislation. Ordinance 2019-0694, introduced by District 9 Council member Garrett Dennis, would earmark $1.85 million from the General Services District Investment Pool Earnings to pay for outside counsel if a JEA sale comes to Council for consideration.

Wilson suggests amending the bill to include approving engagement letters with outside counsel.

“I think $1.8 million is a lot of money, so what I suggest we do is put $300,000 up there and put the rest below the line where we can’t spend it,” Wilson said. 

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