City Council Poses The Question: How Much Time, Money Was Diverted To Canceled RNC?

Jul 24, 2020

A day after President Donald Trump announced it was canceled, the Jacksonville City Council is demanding details on how much staff time and city funding was diverted to the Republican National Convention.

Friday morning’s City Council workshop was originally scheduled to discuss proposed legislation on the planned RNC events in Jacksonville, but Council President Tommy Hazouri withdrew the bill, which he introduced as an emergency on behalf of Mayor Lenny Curry, in light of President Trump’s announcement on Thursday.

Related: President Trump Cancels Jacksonville Component Of Republican National Convention

“Due respect to the office of the mayor, I don’t want this dangling over us over the next several weeks,” Hazouri said. “We’ve got the budget to do, we’ve got other things to do.”

Though the RNC is no longer coming to Jacksonville, the controversy surrounding the event has not subsided.

Curry was not in attendance at Friday’s meeting to answer questions from the City Council. Chief of Staff Jordan Elsbury was there in his place and had warned Hazouri ahead of time that the mayor wouldn’t be attending because he wasn’t prepared to answer questions.

According to Jacksonville Daily Record reporter Mike Mendenhall, Mayor Curry had also said he would not be speaking to local media on Friday. Instead, he planned to make appearances on Fox News and CNN.

At-Large Councilman Ron Salem posed the first question to Ellsbury: “Is there a way that we can recoup any of the time and effort that we put into this from the federal government?”

According to Ellsbury, the mayor’s office had said from the very beginning that no city resources would be allocated for the event until Department of Justice funding was in hand.

“We did have notification from the DOJ that, should we get further down the tracks and the event not happen, those are still reimbursable expenses. So we'll obviously look at that. But at this point, I don’t believe we've spent any taxpayer money related to this event, just staff planning time that goes into any special event,” he said.

“Man hours are costly, and we can’t recoup that,” Hazouri replied. “If there were some dollars spent... we do not want to let this leave the city and not get reimbursed.”

District 9 Councilman Garrett Dennis shared similar concerns.

“I'm concerned that a lot of planning, a lot of resources went into putting this together when staff should have been focused on other things,” he said. 

“This wasn’t a normal situation. The administration actively went out and recruited this particular event to happen,” Dennis went on to say. “I would like a full accounting of what was spent.”

Related: Democrats, Republicans: Canceling Jacksonville RNC Was Right Decision

Dennis said he also wants to be sure that the city is never in a similar situation again and he is prepared to file legislation to make sure that no mayor can sign off on an event without first coming to the City Council.

Council Auditor Kim Taylor said staff will work to get the information being requested, but warned that it could be a challenge.

“The difficult part, I think, will be that a lot of staff members just diverted their time from normal projects like I did,” she explained. “Certainly, when the Vice President was here - and that was directly related to it - we will try to look for the records related to that. Special Event staff may record their time by events. Wherever possible, we will certainly look into getting a cost.”

When asked about the cost of security related to that visit, Elsbury said the city is required to cooperate in the protection of dignitaries like the Vice President of the United States. He didn’t elaborate on where funding for that security came from.

Peggy Sidman, Managing Deputy and Deputy General Counsel, said General Counsel does track time by clients and matters so they would be able to gather and release billing information related to the RNC.

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