The Cawton Report: UAE grant highlights connection to Florida; JEA searches for CEO

City receives $2.775 million as part of Arab nation’s effort to help state in aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

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  • | 5:20 a.m. October 18, 2018
UAE Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba, second from left, and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry announced a $2.775 million grant for hurricane recovery efforts at the A. Philip Randolph Academies of Technology on Monday.
UAE Ambassador to the U.S. Yousef Al Otaiba, second from left, and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry announced a $2.775 million grant for hurricane recovery efforts at the A. Philip Randolph Academies of Technology on Monday.
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A $2.7 million grant from the United Arab Emirates is now available for use in Jacksonville, a year after Hurricane Irma hit North Florida.

The money, which will pay for restoration projects at North Jacksonville high schools, parks and neighborhoods, is the city’s share of a $10 million gift from the UAE to the state of Florida.

“These are things that really will have an impact on people’s lives and neighborhoods,” Mayor Lenny Curry said at a ceremony Monday at the A. Philip Randolph Academies of Technology in North Jacksonville.

The UAE ambassador to the United States, Yousef Al Otaiba, said the 46-year-old Mideast nation has historically aided areas damaged by natural disasters.

“The UAE has deep connections with Florida,” Otaiba said. “So, as friends do for each other in times of need, we asked how could we help some of the hardest-hit communities recover from the hurricane.”

Otaiba said the grant is a first for Florida, but not the U.S.

“We’ve done a lot in New York and New Jersey with Hurricane Sandy, we’ve done a lot in Joplin (Missouri),” he said. Joplin was struck by a tornado in 2011.

Otaiba said the UAE also is looking at the damage from Hurricane Michael in the Florida Panhandle this month.

The UAE’s interests in Florida go beyond wanting to help after natural disasters.

“Between business and trade, we have several long-standing relationships with Florida businesses,” he said.

Otaiba said embassy staff met with the JAX Chamber to speak about “other opportunities.”

“We talked about bringing a delegation from Jacksonville over to the UAE that will encompass various different parties from the communities we’ve met today and also from the chamber and the business community,” he said.

Florida is one of the largest exporters of goods to the UAE, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the Florida Port Council and Enterprise Florida Inc.

According to the Florida Ports Council, 11.1 billion tons of cargo was exported from Florida to the UAE from September 2017-18.

The Florida Ports Council lobbies at the state level on behalf of the state’s 15 ports of call.

The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates Florida exported $1.245 billion of cars, refrigerators, livestock and other items to the UAE in 2017.

In exchange, Florida imported about $136 million of goods.

JaxPort has several trade lines to send and receive cargo from UAE Ports at Abu Dhabi, Jebel Ali and Dubai.

The UAE estimates that trade relationship supports more than 7,400 jobs in the U.S.

Advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch have accused the nation of using storm relief donations to distract the U.S. from alleged human rights violations, including imprisoning political detractors in the country.

According to a 2017 HRW report, “UAE residents who have spoken about human rights issues are at serious risk of arbitrary detention, imprisonment, and torture. Many are serving long prison terms or have left the country under pressure.”

Otaiba declined to comment on those allegations.

JEA CEO search wrapping up

JEA, Jacksonville’s municipal electric, water and sewer utility company, soon will have a new permanent CEO, six months after Paul McElroy resigned.

The board’s search committee met with nine candidates last week including Aaron Zahn, the interim CEO and managing director.

Executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles led the search in recent months.

Candidates include energy consultants, high-ranking executives from utility companies and those with executive experience in connected industries.

Zahn stepped down from the board in April and later was installed as the interim CEO. He previously was CEO of an energy storage and waste solutions company.

The board will select a new CEO at the Nov. 23 board meeting.  Public interviews with candidates are delayed until Nov. 13.

Board Chair Alan Howard said he had a family emergency last week and was unable to finish his private interviews.

“Those will be concluded over the next few days,” Howard said after the meeting.

Board member the Rev. Frederick Newbill lauded Zahn and the senior leadership team for their work since April.

“I want to commend Aaron and (COO) Melissa (Dykes),” Newbill said. “In April, I really thought that we would have problems.”

After the board installed Zahn as CEO, he shuffled members of the senior leadership team into different roles. The former chief financial officer, Dykes was moved to chief operating officer. Ryan Wannemacher was named interim CFO.

Zahn also used time Tuesday to highlight his work and that of company executives and board members during the transition.

“We faced head-on, without paying attribution or blame, some significant issues as a company and as leaders of our community,” Zahn said. “Specifically, Vogtle, privatization and our corporate culture.”

Plant Vogtle is a nuclear power plant under construction in Georgia. JEA wants out of a 20-year power purchase agreement.