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Investigation: JEA May Have Violated Sunshine Law

Ryan Benk

Jacksonville’s utility company is in hot water after emails revealed possible violations of  state public-records law.

A Florida Times-Union investigation found JEA’s board may have used prepared statements to discuss decisions made ahead of public meetings.

The possible infraction is the latest issue straining JEA’s relationship with the mayor’s office.

After noticing JEA Board Chairwoman Helen Albee was reading prepared statements at several public meetings, Times-Union reporter Nate Monroe requested internal emails. He said they show a possible violation of Florida’s Sunshine Laws, which require discussion on official business to take place at public meetings.

“Helen Albee, the CEO, Paul McElroy, and staffers in the utility’s marketing department had at least on one occasion, all coordinated a script for a board meeting,” Monroe said.

JEA is governed by an independent board appointed by the mayor. Monroe says JEA officials distributed talking points regarding McElroy's contract renewal and a pay raise.

But McElroy says JEA’s attorney assured him the distributed "talking points" did not violate the state’s Sunshine Law.

“Many of the boards and commissions, in order to make sure that the meeting process moves forward in accordance with Robert’s Rules and in accordance with the objectives of the board members, in what they’re trying to accomplish in a limited period of time, it’s just helpful to move the meeting along,” McElroy said.

Ultimately it will be up to a judge to decide whether JEA violated public records law. But Mayor Lenny Curry is calling the allegations “disappointing.” In a written statement, Curry said the Times-Union story points to potential legal issues that require a thorough review.

The possible violations further underscore already tense relations between the mayor and JEA. Curry created a council to determine whether the utility’s agreement with the city is fair after the utility said it pays too much.

On Monday, the Special Committee on the JEA Agreement said it would look further into the public-records issue at its next meeting. 

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.