Special JEA Committee Tries To Require Testimony After Sale Negotiator Refuses

May 5, 2020

The City Council’s Special Investigatory Committee into JEA on Tuesday voted to issue a letter to both Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry and Chief Administrative Officer Brian Hughes urging them to require Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Stephanie Burch to provide sworn testimony on the attempted sale of JEA. 

The committee had asked that three members of the city’s administration  —  Burch, City Treasurer Randall Barnes, and Chief of Engineering and Construction Management Robin Smith  — would be made available to testify. 

However, Burch declined the request through her attorneys  — who are employed by the city.

“Even though she collects a paycheck from the taxpayers and people of Jacksonville, she has said no. I personally find that totally unacceptable,” Diamond said. 

Burch is one of three members of the city administration who went to Atlanta in November to negotiate with private companies about buying the utility. 

“She was the lead negotiator on behalf of JEA in the ITN [invitation to negotiate] process,” Diamond said. “The purpose of this committee is to figure out what happened with this ITN process. She has a massive amount of very important information.”

The committee decided to send a letter to both of Burch’s supervisors, Curry and Hughes, as the next step toward getting her to testify. 

Jason Gabriel with the Office of General Counsel said other options to get her testimony include requesting her at the next special committee meeting in June, and if she declines that option, to issue a subpoena. 

Committee member Brenda Priestly Jackson said she wants to figure out if city law requires Burch to comply with requests by the City Council.

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“I didn't check it in advance of this, because in all honesty, I didn't think she'd refuse to come talk voluntarily, quite candidly,” Councilwoman Priestly Jackson said. 

Councilman Michael Boylan, who sat in on the meeting, questioned whether it’s the right time to push Burch to speak about JEA considering the work she’s doing for the city in responding to COVID-19. 

“To compromise her effectiveness by putting this burden on top of her right now while she’s trying to help the citizens of our community seems to be a bit more than we probably should be thinking about,” Boylan said.

Burch has been leading the mortgage, rent and utility relief fund that is getting $40 million out to Duval County residents in need of aid. 

Boylan also said that since Burch wasn’t part of the initial group that looked into the ITN process to sell JEA.

“We're going to have two people who created this plan,” Boylan said. “She wasn't one of those. She didn't volunteer to be part of the negotiation team, she was asked to do so.”

But committee member Randy DeFoor said Burch is an integral part of the investigation. 

“When you look at the players involved, you look at it both at the very beginning and the very end,” DeFoor said. “And if you can get the information between the very beginning and the very end, it kind of fills in all the things in between.” 

Priestly Jacskon said asking Burch to testify should not take her away from her responsibilities to the city. 

“I don't see a conversation as a conflict at this point,” Priestly Jackson said. “I see it as a conflict if she refuses to come talk.”

Still, committee member Scott Wilson said he’s concerned how much the work of getting Burch to testify will cost taxpayers. 

“The cost is really frustrating,” Diamond agreed. “This would be a lot cheaper if she would simply do as the code requires her and voluntarily testify under oath.”

Both former Interim JEA CEO Melissa Dykes and former JEA Vice President Lynne Rhode agreed to testify. Dykes will be testifying the week of May 18.

The committee plans to meet again on Friday to provide an update on the letter and about others who were asked to testify. 

Of the more than 3 million JEA documents that were requested by the committee by May 1, Diamond said only 187,000 available to view. 

Officials from the Office of General Counsel said this is because certain documents weren’t pertinent. Another 200,000 documents were flagged as potentially exempt because of “privileged information.” 

DeFoor said, “I believe there's an attempt to prevent us from getting the information. And I think we need to take a really good hard look at what's really happening here.”

Sky Lebron can be reached at slebron@wjct.org, 904-358-6319 or on Twitter at @SkylerLebron.