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Jax Daily Record Monday, Jan. 6, 202006:00 PM EST

Council member wants to change how the JEA board is appointed

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Garrett Dennis wants to lessen the mayor’s influence on appointing all seven members.
by: Mike Mendenhall Staff Writer

City Council member Garrett Dennis wants to change how JEA board members are appointed.

During a noticed meeting Jan. 6 at City Hall, Dennis said he plans to reintroduce a bill calling for a Nov. 3 voter referendum to change the Jacksonville City Charter to give Council the authority to appoint three members to the JEA board, rather than all seven being appointed by the mayor.

The four remaining board members would be appointed by the mayor but still subject to Council confirmation. 

The legislation also calls for stricter qualifications to serve on the JEA board. The Charter requires an appointee to be a Duval County resident and registered voter for six consecutive months before being allowed to serve. A draft version of Dennis’ bill increases that to five consecutive years.

Dennis said he will file the bill by April 8, the latest date legislation can be considered and still make the November ballot.

The District 9 Council member is bringing back his proposal after the JEA board voted Dec. 24 to end its invitation to negotiate a possible sale of the utility to nine private companies. The board faced mounting public pressure.

Dennis said his bill’s genesis dates to the creation of the Kids Hope Alliance in 2018. The mayor appoints all seven members with Council confirmation to the city social services agency.

Dennis argues that without Council-picked appointees, Council members have no influence on independent authorities like JEA or the alliance.

After his election in 2015, Mayor Lenny Curry asked for the resignations of all JEA board members and he made new appointments.

“This gives us an opportunity for us to have our say, as far as appointments,” Dennis told Council members. 

The 11 other Council members who attended the Jan. 6 meeting asked Dennis not to file the bill until the Charter change could be fully vetted and considered with other recommendations the 19-member Council could make regarding the powers and structure of JEA.

Council President Scott Wilson said Jan. 6 that independent law firm Smith Hulsey & Busey will help with possible Charter changes related to JEA. The firm was hired for $1.85 million to advise Council members on JEA’s now-ended invitation to negotiate a possible sale of the utility.

Council member Brenda Priestly Jackson said the proposal should be considered along with other possible JEA-related amendments.

She said she was troubled by piecemealing proposed Charter changes. 

“I think there needs to be a comprehensive review of what Charter changes we’re going to recommend, and I know there’s going to be probably quite a number of them,” Priestly Jackson said. 

She said she would be more comfortable with the review and guidance from outside counsel.

“It will be an opportunity for us to look at the powers of all our independent authorities, how the boards are appointed, how do we truly reestablish a balance of co-equal branches of government,” Priestly Jackson added later in the meeting. 

Splitting board appointments for the city’s independent authorities between the mayor and Council is not uncommon.

The Council president appoints four members and the mayor appoints five of the Downtown Investment Authority’s nine-member board, a point made by Dennis Jan. 6.

Dennis first introduced the bill in April 2018 under the assumption the Charter change could be made by a two-thirds vote by Council. He withdrew the legislation after receiving what he said was conflicting advice from the Office of General Counsel that a change in the balance of power between the executive and legislative arms of the city government required a referendum.

Group 4 At-large Council member Matt Carlucci cautioned at the meeting against any branch of government seeking influence with members of the city’s independent boards.

“Although this has not been the rule perhaps lately, these authorities are supposed to exercise an independence and stay out of politics,” Carlucci said. “I’m not sure I want the mayor’s office or the Council trying to wield influence on the members we appoint once they are appointed.” 

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