‘All Roads Lead To City Council’: Q&As From The First JEA Fact Finding Workshop

Nov 6, 2019

City Council has the ultimate power to ask residents to sell JEA, but there was some debate at City Hall on Wednesday about whether legislation must be put forth for consideration once JEA leadership wraps its invitation to negotiate process, which will likely be early next year.

The workshop on Wednesday kicked off Council’s exploration of the future of JEA in a series of “fact finding” sessions. The first topic: the power of the Council over JEA and other independent authorities.

According to a presentation by the city’s General Counsel Jason Gabriel, “All roads lead to the City Council,” meaning a member of Council must put forth any legislation that would ultimately sell the utility — and voters must also approve by referendum the sale of any more than 10% of it.

Here are summaries of some of the questions raised and answers given during the presentation:

Q: Councilman Al Ferarro: Can Council bring JEA into the city as a department?

A: Jason Gabriel: “The quick answer to your question is yes, the City Council could do that. It could dissolve JEA and bring it back under the bosom of the city.” He said that would require a two-thirds majority vote because it amends the city charter, which is like the constitution of the city.

Q: Councilman Matt Carlucci: Can Council stop JEA from the ongoing exploration of a sale, which it began on Aug. 2?  

A: Jason Gabriel: No. Gabriel believes JEA leadership has the right to explore sales through its procurement process — an opinion that not all City Council members share. Gabriel said, if a City Council member wants to stop the train that’s already in motion, “I think one of the things you could do —JEA  is right down the street. Y'all are more than welcome, within the confines of sunshine [laws], to be talking to JEA management and others to talk about what you just said, and if that's really an issue, convince JEA to pull the plug.”

Q: Councilwoman Brenda Priestly Jackson: Can JEA even sell itself under its procurement process, as it’s doing?  “’Procurement’ means ‘acquiring,’ It means acquiring, not selling, in my understanding of it,” she said. “I mean, are they going to acquire another entity to buy them? That's a stretch of the term ‘acquired.’”

A: Jason Gabriel answered this with a hypothetical: “Imagine that water is 10% of the operations of JEA just for purposes of this exercise. If it is 10%, could JEA sell it under that provision? … And if they could, well, then certainly they could undertake a process to do so whether they want to undertake a procurement process or a direct solicitation or some other way of going about it. I'd submit that at a minimum, it would allow you to do that. And so how does one even figure out what 10% is of their assets? There's got to be a calculus. Who's in charge of doing the calculus? JEA. And so there's got to be some preliminary process that's undertaken at some point. And if JEA is charged with running the utility, they are certainly the first in line to be able to make that calculus, and hence the reason why they could make the calculus and then decide, You know what? Let's give this a shot and then we'll take it to Council and see what Council does.”

Q: Councilman Garrett Dennis: Once JEA has an interested buyer, can Council refuse to consider the deal? “JEA can put a package together and bring it over to Council, but if none of the 19 [councilmembers] introduces it, it is dead on arrival. Am I correct?” he asked.

A: Jason Gabriel: “There's a ministerial, operational duty on the council president that when any of the collegial bodies pass something, it's introduced, and it even goes on to say just because council president is introducing doesn't mean he's endorsing it, or she's endorsing it, but there is that in there.”

Q: Dennis: “So the council president is required to file legislation that is brought to — ?”

A: Gabriel: “I believe so, yeah, under the ordinance.”

Q: Dennis: “’Shall’ or ‘may’?” Dennis asked. He was referring to Gabriel’s recent written opinion supporting Council’s refusal to hold a sales tax referendum at the request of the Duval County School Board, another independent authority. Gabriel did not address the question further.

The second half of the meeting focused on the Civic Council’s assessment of JEA, as it outlined in a letter on Tuesday.

Related: Jax Civic Council Says JEA's Privatization Process Lacks Transparency

Civic Council President Jeanne Miller told councilmembers that the nonprofit group’s independent 18-month investigation could find no evidence that JEA is in a “death spiral” financially — partially because JEA refused to provide certain documents after its leadership changed last year.

Miller told Council members, “We would encourage you to take a step back and examine what are the needs of the city. If we need to sell an asset or consider other assets, then what are the right mechanisms for that?”

The Civil Council, made up of local CEOs, is encouraging City Council to get a thorough appraisal of JEA done before considering whether to sell it. Miller said such an effort could cost upwards of $1 million.

The next City Council fact finding session is slated for Nov. 25. The public will be allowed time to comment at the end of each session. Questions and comments for Council members can be submitted at this city web page, where documents from the meetings will also be posted.

Watch the entire video of Wednesday’s meeting here:

Contact Jessica Palombo at 904-358-6315jpalombo@wjct.org or on Twitter at @JessicaPubRadio.

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