JEA Postpones CEO Exit Package Meeting; Dems Call On Nelson To Recuse Herself

Jan 6, 2020

A special JEA board meeting to discuss the specifics of the firing of ousted CEO Aaron Zahn, which had been scheduled for Tuesday, has been indefinitely postponed at the request of the city’s Office of General Counsel.

That news comes as the Duval County Democratic Party calls on State Attorney Melissa Nelson to recuse herself from investigating JEA.

The public utility’s board voted unanimously to remove Zahn at its December 17 meeting, suspending him with pay indefinitely while the Office of General Counsel continues its investigation into Zahn.

Related: Archived JEA coverage

The board will be deciding whether Zahn will be fired with or without cause, which in turn will determine his exit package.

WJCT news partner The Florida Times-Union has reported if Zahn can be fired with cause, it would save the utility at least $842,000 in public money. That number includes the amount he would collect in severance pay and consulting fees that are a part of his contract. Zahn would get paid nothing after his last day if he is fired with cause, according to the Times-Union.

Deputy General Counsel Sean Granat requested the postponement, writing to JEA Board Chair April Green:

We have conducted numerous interviews and reviewed thousands of documents; however, there are several critical interviews that still need to be conducted and additional documents that need to be reviewed in order to complete a fair, adequate, and thorough investigation.  An additional two weeks should provide sufficient time.

Zahn was removed largely for how he handled the exploration of a sale of JEA and after the details of a controversial employee incentive plan became public. The board officially canceled the payout plan last month.

Northeast Florida State Attorney Melissa Nelson said last month she was “looking into matters involving JEA.” 

Monday the Duval County Democratic party called on Nelson to recuse herself to avoid any conflict of interest. The party is requesting Gov. Ron DeSantis instead appoint a state attorney from another judicial circuit to investigate JEA.

The Democratic party is pointing to a recent Times-Union report that Nelson's former political strategist Tim Baker also offered JEA advice on privatization and attended private meetings as the utility explored selling all or part of itself.

“The integrity of the ongoing investigation could be compromised if handled by Nelson's office because Baker played an integral role in her successful 2016 campaign and could consult for Nelson in her upcoming re-election bid,” the party wrote in an email to WJCT News, citing a story on Forida Politics.

"It's important for us - and I think it's important for many people in Jacksonville - that we can fully trust that there were no impropriety and no conflicts that could be accused of the office or the investigation," Duval County Chairman Daniel Henry told WJCT News.

WJCT News reached out to State Attorney Nelson’s office, requesting a response to the Democrats. Her spokeman, David Chapman, said the only comment she has relating to JEA is the comment issued in mid-December, in which she wrote: 

We have heard the concerns of the community over the past several months. This office is — and has been — looking into matters involving JEA. We will not be commenting further.

Last month, around the time Zahn was fired, JEA's board also voted to stop exploring the potential privatization of the utility after spending at least $10 million during the process, according to the Times-Union.

Bill Bortzfield can be reached at bbortzfield@wjct.org, 904-358-6349 or on Twitter at @BortzInJax.