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JEA’s Interim CEO Put Through The Wringer At First City Council Appearance Since Taking Charge

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For the first time since taking on JEA’s Interim CEO position earlier this week, Aaron Zahn felt the fire of a skeptical panel of city council members.

For a couple of hours he fielded questions ranging from the tense and awkward to the polite, but pointed.

At the outset of the meeting, Zahn made what amounts to probably the most direct indictment of the privatization discussion that began with the utility’s board of directors. The board, which he was briefly a member of after the departure of Tom Petway, was “wholly unprepared” for the initial conversation and the months of toxic fallout that followed.

Bedlam over whether to sell the city’s “largest asset” began after Petway, one of Mayor Lenny Curry’s biggest political donors, resigned and recommended the exploration late last year.

On Thursday, Zahn doubled down on assurances that as interim CEO, he would “pause” discussions on a possible sale and instead focus on creating a strategic plan for JEA’s future.

He said his goals are to return the utility to some semblance of “stability” and to mend fractures of trust between institutions with increased transparency.

“I plan to listen. I plan to understand and then I plan to speak and act. What I mean by this is I mean to communicate in a concise and deliberate manner the strategy and strategic decisions of JEA prior to action,” he said.

Most of the council members that sit on the special committee investigating the potential sale of

JEA seemed to agree with Zahn’s principal goals as the utility’s place-holding top executive, but his articulation of future plans did little to dissipate the cloud of suspicion that hung over his hiring.  

Zahn managed to leapfrog seasoned JEA CFO Melissa Dykes for the position. Dykes will stick around to serve in a role helping to manage day-to-day operations, while Zahn will carry the interim CEO title.

Councilman Tommy Hazouri asked whether Zahn, who served on Mayor Lenny Curry’s transition team in 2015, would have any role in crafting requirements for a permanent CEO as JEA begins soliciting bids for outside search firms.

“[The board] asked you if you were going to apply for the job and you said ‘if you’re qualified,’ are you a part of preparing those qualifications for the new director as the interim director?” he questioned.

“I generally don’t want to be in a position where I can’t be successful and if the skills and the requirements of the next CEO that’s going to lead the company on a permanent basis don’t match up to my skill sets then I’m perfectly well with [not applying],” Zahn replied.

Councilman Jim Love relayed similar concerns, asking Zahn why he would go to such lengths to create a strategic plan if he truly had not yet made up his mind about applying for the permanent gig.

“Don’t you think it would be smarter to wait for the permanent CEO? Because if he or she would benefit from the process of figuring the strategic plan,” Love said.

Zahn said he felt it his job to use a high-level strategic plan to set a foundation for an incoming permanent CEO and repeatedly told councilmembers he didn’t think there was anything suspicious about his hiring and that he’s perfectly qualified for the job. That’s despite the fact that his former colleagues on the board had little debate about the merits of hiring him over the then interim CEO Dykes.

Zahn also said he felt the board would take the lead on crafting a list of qualifications for hiring a permanent corporate leader and he reiterated his previous uncertainty about whether he wanted to make his new position a permanent one, saying he would only apply if his experience matched a forthcoming scorecard.

In an unsurprising move, considering months of acrimony between him and the mayor’s office, Councilman Garrett Dennis again emerged as the harshest questioner.

Using a rapid-fire method of interrogation, Dennis attempted to nail down a “yes or no” answer from Zahn about applying for the permanent top job, quickly moving to Zahn’s history as a CEO of wastewater and recycling companies BCR Environmental and NuTerra.

The company dredged up controversy after a solid waste recycling plant in Central Florida suffused a community’s air with the smell of feces that one resident described as resembling “dead rats,” the Florida Times-Union most recently reported quoting a series of stories from the Lakeland Ledger.

Though Zahn took responsibility, telling council members “ultimately we failed, and that happens in business,” he also took shots at the region’s paper of record. Zahn said the Times-Union had an “agenda.”

Dennis was unmoved as he went on to ask whether Zahn would support a measure he’s sponsoring that would allow the council to appoint four of the JEA board’s seven members. The remaining three will be nominated by the mayor and confirmed by council. Zahn wouldn’t speak on the bill directly, but said the council should do what it feels necessary.

“I think the policymakers have a number of really good heads and you guys will do a great job of determining what the best outcome for that is,” he said.

Zahn resigned his board position to apply for the interim CEO position late last week.

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.