On The Ballot: Should Voters Have A Say If JEA Is To Be Sold?

Oct 11, 2018

In the November general election voters in Jacksonville will get the chance to tell the City Council whether or not they want their voices to be heard in any possible future discussions regarding the sale of the public utility company JEA.

If it passes, the straw ballot measure, which will be the last thing on the November ballot (second to last for voters in Atlantic Beach), would essentially tell the City Council that voters want to have a say in any sale of more than 10 percent of JEA.

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The measure was put forward by John Crescimbeni, At-Large City Councilman Group 2 and Chairman of the 19 member Special Committee on the potential sale of JEA, following extensive conversation early this year about potentially selling the company.

This is the third time in recent history that the City Council has held discussions about selling JEA, but the two previous instances, in 2007 and 2012, were very limited, according to Crescimbeni.

He said this year’s discussion went so far that former City Council President and current City  Councilwoman Ann Lopez Brosche created a five member special committee to look at the potential sale of JEA. That committee then morphed into a full council committee, chaired by Crescimbeni, with a revised charge of determining the future of the company.

During discussions about the potential sale of JEA, Crescimbeni learned that article 21 of the city charter, which is the equivalent of a constitution for the City of Jacksonville, states that if JEA’s board of directors decides to sell more than 10 percent of the company, that decision must go before the city council for a final up or down vote. It would then require a majority vote (at least 10 votes for) to move forward.

When he learned that there was no way for the public to participate in that decision making process without amending the charter, Crescimbeni started working on  the straw ballot measure.

“As a councilmember I’ve always believed that any conversation or any discussion or decision about selling the JEA should be made by the shareholders, the owners of JEA, and those are the citizens of Duval County,” Crescimbeni said. “I’ve had that position for more than a decade.”

What Crescimbeni proposed in the end, with full support from the City Council, is a measure that, if passed, would give voters in Jacksonville a say in any sale of more than 10 percent of JEA.

Credit Duval.ElectionsFL.org / Duval County Supervisor of Elections Office

“So if the JEA board were to decide to sell more than 10 percent of JEA and the council reviewed that and also decided they agreed with the JEA board of directors, this straw ballot measure is taking the temperature of the voters, asking ‘would you want the council’s decision to then come to the voters in a subsequent referendum for you to vote on?’” said Crescimbeni.

“In the event that JEA was proposed to be sold by the JEA board and the City Council agreed, then whatever those terms and conditions were would go before the voters as an up or down vote,” he went on to say. “We’ve done that in the past with other important issues like the Better Jacksonville Plan in 2000, certainly the pension reform plan in 2016. So I think voters are quite capable of making yes or no decisions on complex issues, just as they did with BJP and the pension sales tax proposal.”

But Crescimbeni stressed that this is not a binding referendum.

“This would simply send a message back to my colleagues, and then we would have to amend the charter to put this language into the charter as it relates to JEA,” he said. “But that would take a two-thirds vote. Changing the JEA charter requires a two-thirds vote of the council, and I have that ordinance pending before the council. Both of these got introduced at the same time earlier this year and the latter, the charter change, has just been held in abeyance until we actually conduct the straw ballot question on November 6.”

Crescimbeni wanted to make it clear to voters that this ballot measure doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not JEA should be sold. “This is a conversation about, if we decide to sell, should the voters be able to participate in that decision.”

“So the voters are going to be asked a question on November 6th, it’s a yes or no question. If they’re interested in participating in the final decision, in the event that there’s discussion about a possible future sale of JEA, they would want to vote yes” Crescimbeni summarized. “If they’re OK with the city council making that final decision, then they should vote no.”

Brendan Rivers can be reached at brivers@wjct.org, 904-358-6396 or on Twitter at @BrendanRivers.