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Jax Daily Record Monday, Dec. 16, 201903:30 PM EST

JEA board member to call for vote on firing CEO Aaron Zahn

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The CEO, embroiled in controversy over the potential sale of the utility, says he won’t fight the decision.
by: Mike Mendenhall Staff Writer

JEA board member Henry Brown intends to call for the firing of utility Managing Director and CEO Aaron Zahn at the board’s Dec. 17 meeting.

Brown told Zahn in a conversation Dec. 15 that he intends to make a motion for the termination at the beginning of the meeting in accordance with section 3.1.5 of Zahn’s employment agreement. 

JEA Board member Henry Brown

Brown referred to the conversation in a letter he sent to Zahn dated Dec. 15.

“I have not reached this decision lightly,” Brown wrote. “However, I believe that it is in the best interest of JEA and the City of Jacksonville for us to move forward with new leadership.”

In an emailed statement, Zahn said he will not fight a board decision to fire him. 

“I serve at the pleasure of the Board of JEA. I understand and respect Board member Henry Brown’s decision and will abide by any decision of the Board,” Zahn wrote.

In a statement sent by a city spokesperson, Mayor Lenny Curry said he will support any JEA board decision about Zahn’s employment.

“The JEA Board of Directors consists of dedicated community leaders who volunteer their time and expertise. Each board member was appointed by me and confirmed by the City Council. As a result, I will support any action this board takes when it comes to a decision on the future of CEO, Aaron Zahn,” Curry said.

Zahn earns $520,392 a year. His contract is open-ended.

Curry appointed Zahn to the JEA board in January 2018. He became interim CEO in April, then was selected for the position permanently in November 2018.

The seven-member JEA board of directors is appointed by the mayor. Also on the board are April Green, Frederick Newbill, Camille Lee-Johnson, Kelly Flanagan and Dane Grey. One position is vacant after the resignation of Andy Allen.

Allen, CEO of Corner Lot Development Group, resigned from the JEA board last week. He said it was to protect his business from pressure he was receiving related the controversy at JEA. He served less than six months of a four-year term.

Brown, CEO of Miller Electric Co. and 2020 chair of JAX Chamber, is the first board member to call for Zahn’s removal, as scrutiny from Council and the public on the transparency of the city-owned utility’s push toward a possible sale to a private company grows.

Brown will call for JEA COO Melissa Dykes to be named interim managing director and CEO. The letter also said he supported Dykes to be permanently hired for the position. 

“She is a talented and experienced utility executive, and I would hope the board would give her the opportunity to earn the permanent role before exploring a wider search,” Brown wrote.

Green, the board chair, will hold a news conference at 12:30 p.m. Dec. 17  with JEA senior management in JEA’s Customer Center procurement office following the board’s 9 a.m. regular meeting.

Zahn also has received pushback from Council for a proposed Long-Term Performance Unit Program that would have acted as a stock-option plan for JEA employees and could have cost JEA up to $636.6 million if the utility was sold to a private company, according to a financial assessment from the Council Auditor’s Office.

The program was the topic of a hearing by Council members Rory Diamond and Ron Salem on Dec. 16 at City Hall attended by Zahn.

Diamond and Salem questioned Zahn and JEA officials for more than three hours about the origins of JEA’s Long-Term Performance Unit Plan and whether the program’s $10-per-unit buy-in would make it difficult for lower-level or mid-level utility employees to invest. 

Salem said “it becomes a plan strictly for higher paid people” at JEA.

JEA officials traveled to Atlanta last week with negotiators from Curry’s administration to meet with nine companies interested in buying the utility. Curry has since called for the JEA board to complete its invitation to negotiate by the end of January and send a slate of bidders to Council, giving city policymakers a more direct role in possible privatization.  

On Dec. 15, Council member Matt Carlucci called for a grand jury investigation into the alleged issues at JEA. He called for Zahn’s resignation Nov. 30.

Brown urged Zahn not to attend the Dec. 17 meeting as the board considers his motion.

“Given the emotional and personal nature of this discussion, it is my recommendation that you do not attend Tuesday’s board meeting, although it is certainly your choice,” Brown wrote. “I am sure that either myself, another board member, or the appropriate officer of JEA will inform you of the board’s decision. My understanding through our discussions is that you will respect the final determination of the board in this matter.” 

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