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Jax Daily Record Wednesday, Dec. 18, 201911:40 AM EST

Jacksonville Civic Council calls for grand jury investigation into JEA

The Northeast Florida CEO group also wants former CEO Aaron Zahn fired for cause.
by: Mike Mendenhall Associate Editor

The Jacksonville Civic Council is calling on State Attorney Melissa Nelson to convene a grand jury investigation into the potential sale of JEA and the city officials, employees and lobbyists involved.

The Civic Council’s Executive Committee sent a letter Dec. 17 to Nelson, City Council President Scott Wilson and Council members, JEA board Chair April Green, interim JEA CEO Melissa Dykes and city Inspector General Lisa Green requesting immediate action to investigate the activities and performance of fired JEA CEO Aaron Zahn.

The group also wants Nelson to investigate the utility’s invitation to negotiate with nine private companies to possibly sell the city-owned utility.

“As the Civic Council has previously stated, JEA is in no immediate danger of collapse or insolvency, and there is time to strategically evaluate the options and take action in a thoughtful, transparent manner,” the committee wrote.

The Civic Council, a group of about 75 CEOs from Northeast Florida companies and organizations, has become a voice against the process being used to research selling JEA.

Civic Council President and CEO Jeanne Miller testified on behalf of the executive committee in November at a City Council fact-finding hearing, advocating for more transparency in the invitation to negotiate.

The Civic Council also has a special committee dedicated to researching the actions of JEA and the utility’s value to the city.

The group says the scope of the grand jury investigation should focus on whether the JEA board and senior management’s actions regarding a possible sale have been legal and appropriate. 

The Civic Council committee also said the conduct of all city officials and contracted firms and lobbyists involved in the possible sale should be investigated, as well as those responsible for an abandoned Long-Term Performance Unit Plan that could have cost JEA ratepayers nearly $600 million were the utility to be sold. 

On Dec. 17, the JEA board voted 6-0 to rescind the plan.

JEA officials have not been able to answer who was responsible for conceiving the stock-option-style incentive plan for JEA employees. The consulting firm Willis Towers Watson drafted the plan’s framework.

The Civic Council wants Mayor Lenny Curry and City Council to conduct an investigation into Zahn and bring in the city Office of Inspector General “or other external entity.” 

The executive committee said City Council should use its subpoena powers in the investigation, which would put witnesses under oath with a penalty of perjury. The letter requests the results of the investigation be made public. 

The letter also asks the JEA board to reconsider its vote to fire Zahn without cause and move to fire him with cause.

JEA’s six-member board decided Dec. 17 to place Zahn on paid administrative leave while city attorneys and Zahn’s lawyer negotiate the terms of his termination. 

The board gave the negotiators a Dec. 30 deadline. At stake is a $842,925 severance payout, which includes a 12-month consulting contract worth $634,000, 20 weeks of pay and COBRA insurance compensation.

If JEA is sold, the General Counsel’s Office says firing Zahn without cause could make him eligible for a $520,000 retention bonus — a provision included in the invitation to negotiate that’s available for all JEA employees. 

 Zahn’s attorney, Jacob Peek, told board members his client is willing to reduce the consulting deal to a six-month term to reduce JEA’s financial liability.

The JEA board wants the consulting fee reduced to $52,833 —a one-month term— and the retention bonus eligibility removed.

The Civic Council says the board should not agree to any severance. 

“Further, that the JEA Board should not execute or agree to any severance package, waiver, or other covenant of confidentiality with Mr. Zahn before the conclusion of the investigation,” the executive committee wrote.

“Releasing him without cause is not enough. Mr. Zahn should not be able to profit in any way from his actions as JEA’s executive leader.” 

The Civic Council joins others who have called for an investigation into Zahn and the process that led to the invitation to negotiate.

City Council member Matt Carlucci said in a Dec. 15 letter that a grand jury should investigate. He called for Zahn’s termination in November.

The NAACP wants a federal criminal probe into Curry’s administration and senior JEA executives for their handling of the possible sale.

 Jacksonville NAACP Branch President Isaiah Rumlin sent a letter Dec. 11 with support of both the Florida State Conference of NAACP Branches and the National NAACP to five committee chairs in the U.S. House of Representatives requesting an investigation.

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