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Jax Daily Record Monday, Dec. 9, 201904:30 PM EST

Council to consider hiring Smith Hulsey & Busey as legal counsel in possible JEA sale

“I just want to be clear. We’re hiring an attorney to hire other attorneys,” Council member LeAnna Cumber says.
by: Mike Mendenhall Staff Writer

The Jacksonville City Council will decide Dec. 10 if law firm Smith Hulsey & Busey is the best choice to represent its interests in the debate over the possible sale of JEA, the city’s utility.

Council President Scott Wilson said Dec. 9 that General Counsel Jason Gabriel will draft legislation to hire the Jacksonville-based firm.  He said it will be considered as an “in-and-out emergency” at the Council’s next meeting.

The bill would end a 1 ½-month search for outside legal advisers with the expertise Wilson thinks is needed to advise Council about JEA’s invitation to negotiate.

Smith Hulsey & Busey is one of five local firms that applied for the special counsel job by Oct. 25, Wilson’s original deadline. He decided to expand the search statewide and extended the application period through Dec. 5. 

Wilson said Nov. 12 the first round or replies did not have the utility merger-and-acquisition expertise he considered necessary.

Smith Hulsey & Busey doesn’t list energy or water utility expertise in its specialties on its website. The firm focuses on business growth from startups to Fortune 500 companies in the education, financial services, government, health care, manufacturing, sports and technology industries. 

At Council’s latest fact-finding workshop on the possible privatization of JEA, Wilson said the Jacksonville firm likely would hire additional attorneys to fill in any knowledge gaps.

District 5 Council member LeAnna Cumber argued that despite the firm’s local background, she thinks that to “become educated and be on equal footing” with JEA’s legal experts, the Council needs representation with utility industry knowledge. 

“I just want to be clear. We’re hiring an attorney to hire other attorneys,” she said. “They have no background in what we actually need utilitywise.”

The scope of service drafted by Gabriel includes: 

• Legal impact of the potential privatization of public utilities.

• Engagement of third-party consultants and experts to assist Council in its oversight function with regard to the potential privatization process.

• Attendance at public meetings.  

Wilson worked with Gabriel and Carla Miller, director of the city’s Office of Ethics, to select the firm.

If approved by Council, the firm will advise members in corporate transactions, mergers and acquisitions; environmental and regulatory matters; labor and employment negotiations; procurement; and local government and legislative public policy, according to scope documents.

The firm will coordinate with the general counsel’s office and attorneys representing JEA.

The city did not release a request for proposals to seek qualified law firms. Wilson relied on suggestions from individual Council members and the general counsel as well as paid advertisements and distribution of the scope of service document in Jacksonville’s legal community.

JEA has hired outside firms Foley & Lardner and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman and financial firms Morgan Stanley & Co. and JPMorgan Securities to advise its board and staff in the possible sale.

The Council voted 15-3 on Oct. 22 to set aside $1.85 million to hire special legal counsel.

District 3 Council member Aaron Bowman asked Wilson to provide Council with scoring criteria of the special counsel by Tuesday night’s meeting.

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