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Jacksonville Mayor, Interim JEA CEO Present United Front Against Criticism

Ryan Benk
From left to right: JEA Interim CEO Aaron Zahn, JEA Board Chair Alan Howard, Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry

In his first press conference since becoming JEA’s interim CEO, Aaron Zahn recapitulated his immediate goals for the nation’s eighth largest municipal utility, and the short list doesn’t include continuing a debate about potential privatization. Yet Zahn wouldn’t say how long the privatization “pause” would last.

“The number one focus for our company going forward right now is getting back to our customers and taking care of our employees. The second thing that we’re going to do is that we’re going to start to build a consensus amongst the policymakers as to what is the expectation of … the public around the roles and responsibility of JEA in terms of in the community in Jacksonville,” he said. “And then the third is quite simple — I think I said this last night — we are going to set a strategic plan for how to move this vertically-integrated utility to a more decentralized utility to deal with the pressures of the market.”

One major sticking point in the privatization debate surrounding city hall has been the fact JEA has seen as much as a 14 percent decline in both water and electric sales and the utility is scrambling to find new revenue sources.

Zahn, who was on the board for less than two months, was selected by Mayor Lenny Curry to replace outgoing Curry appointee Tom Petway. Petway kicked off the raucous wrangle of public controversy over privatization by floating the idea on his way out late last year.

Zahn’s board colleagues voted Tuesday for him to occupy JEA’s highest office.

Although Zahn, who ran a wastewater company and was part of Curry’s transition team, has no experience helming a large, integrated public utility, the first-term mayor said he has the utmost confidence in Zahn’s leadership moving forward.

When questioned, Curry also forcefully pushed back against the idea that this close relationship with the newly-minted interim chief executive represents a conflict of interest.

“So are you suggesting that anyone that was on any transition team of the number of people, which include nonprofits that the city does business with — I could give you a list of names — are you suggesting that’s a conflict of interest?” Curry said.

Curry also continued to charge certain councilmembers, who’ve been vocal in opposing talks of a sale, with engaging in hyperbolic political theater. In a personal letter hand delivered to Curry’s office, former Mayor Jake Godbold backed suspicious councilmembers, writing that he was one of many that didn’t trust Curry on the privatization debate.

Curry said he’s never heard Godbold express those feelings in person.

“I’ve interacted with Jake since I’ve been mayor. I saw that was his signature on it. He’s certainly not expressed any of that to me in person. So, I’d be happy to meet with him if he certainly wants that discussion,” he said.

When asked whether he was suggesting someone had written the letter for Godbold, Curry would not answer directly.

“You heard what I said,” Curry said.

As first reported by our Florida Times-Union news partner, in the hand-delivered letter, Godbold wrote that his time in elected office compelled him to reach out.

“Despite your frequent statements that you’ve not made up your mind on the JEA’s future, I am one of a whole lot of people in Jacksonville who are having a hard time believing you,” he wrote to Curry in the letter dated April 9 and received April 11.

Godbold, who is 84, was a supporter of Curry’s pension sales tax plan and Curry said he’s tried getting a hold of his predecessor to no avail.

A special council committee exploring the potential sale of JEA will convene again Thursday, when the selection of Zahn as interim CEO is expected to take center stage.  

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.