Instead of going with a proven utilities professional with years of experience at JEA, the electric and sewer company’s board decided Tuesday to appoint a short-term former board member as the interim CEO.
The move follows CEO Paul Paul McElroy’s April 6 resignation.
The board approved former board member Aaron Zahn to be the interim CEO, while allowing current interim Melissa Dykes to serve in some other governing capacity.
Zahn shocked some observers when he resigned from the board after less than two full months to seek JEA’s top spot Friday.
Though Zahn doesn’t have experience running a large utility company, he said his plan is to modernize JEA and create a detailed plan for the future, while pausing discussions on possible privatization.
“I watched the public discourse around a crown jewel asset of this city become toxic and unproductive. It is time for our bridge city to start building bridges,” he said. “It is time for our organization, starting with the CEO, and working in unison with this board, to take a leadership and ownership position in the conversation of JEA’s future.”
Zahn was appointed by Mayor Lenny Curry to the board in January and approved by City Council in late February.
At its last regular meeting, he told his colleagues that the board, and city at large, was moving too fast and should back away from the question of whether to sell the utility. He reiterated that Tuesday.
Zahn said JEA should create a long-term strategic plan and work on repairing relationships with local officials and the public. Over time the sale exploration process bred mistrust among some who feel a sale is being pushed behind the scenes.
Jacksonville’s publically owned municipal utility will begin its search for a permanent CEO with another kind of search, by first looking for a talent acquisition firm.
The utility hopes to solicit bids from search firms before the board’s May meeting.
Finding someone for JEA’s top job is going to be difficult because the conversations surrounding privatization creates uncertainty about the position’s longevity.
JEA Human Resources chief Angie Hiers said that concern filters down to finding a search firm to help in the hiring process.
“As I had the conversations with some of the firms, there were some consistent themes that emerged during those conversations,” she said. “One of the themes that constantly emerged was their concern to be able to provide a quality slate of candidates given the heightened awareness and sensitivity around the privatization conversation.”
JEA Board Chair Alan Howard seemed intent on offering the CEO search contract to a firm that the utility already has a relationship with. Howard called a motion to choose ZRG, whom Hiers says could provide the service for $80,000 — 50 percent less than what finding an outside firm would cost.
But board member Hussein Cumber objected to Howard’s assertion. He said he wanted more time for research.
“I think our head of HR, Angie, brought up a good point, which is what are we looking for? Right? So how do you engage a search firm when we haven’t had a discussion as a board about what it is we’re looking for?,” Cumber asked.
“I think it’s entirely appropriate during the discussion on this motion to give them parameters,” Howard said.
“But I’m giving parameters to a firm that I, for the first time in my life, have just head of,” Cumber retorted.
“Fair enough,” Howard relented.
In the end, the board voted to compile a list of firms willing to do the work of searching for candidates before the board’s next meeting.