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Referendum Shakedown

Last Thursday, the School Board referendum issue nearly turned deadly. At Oakleaf Village Elementary, in Clay County, the air conditioning failed, causing the school to shut down for a day. News4Jax reported that some students and faculty fell ill. The report also stated that there were nearly 300 work orders in Jacksonville to fix similar problems before the start of the current school year. As local news outlets, including Folio Weekly, have reported for months now, much-needed infrastructure maintenance and repair is being blocked by city government’s refusal to proceed with a fall 2019 sales-tax referendum proposed by Duval County Public Schools.

Heat kills. The National Weather Service found that heat causes more annual fatalities than floods, lightning, tornadoes and hurricanes combined. The New York Times reported that a heat wave in France in 2003 killed 15,000 people, most of them people living in apartments or homes without air conditioning. Yet here we are in Jacksonville, still arguing whether kids deserve air conditioning at school.

The issue was up for discussion last Tuesday when the school board and the City Council met for a workshop. During that meeting, some City Councilmembers suggested the referendum stalemate could be resolved if the school board agreed to give charter-school interests more money. It was effectively a hostage demand. Councilmember Rory Diamond called the Executive Director of KIPP Jacksonville, Jennifer Brown, to speak. She stated that charter schools receive less money than public schools for buildings and that the referendum money should “follow” the students with a per-pupil allocation.

What is KIPP? It’s a network of 242 public charter schools that was brought to Jacksonville—along with Teach for America—by Ponte Vedra-based political mega-donor Gary Chartrand. Chartrand makes his money from charter schools. Thus, it is no surprise that he is also the head of the education task force of the Civic Association, a group of wealthy Jacksonville CEOs who have opposed the referendum because it does not give enough money to charter schools.

Brown’s proposal is disingenuous. No school district in Florida allocates capital funds for maintenance based on a per-pupil formula. Indeed, a per-pupil formula makes no sense in this context. If you have to replace the roof over your house, it does not matter if your family has 5 members or 10 members. It is going to cost the same. Third, a per-pupil allocation would be unfair to public schools. As Superintendent Greene noted, under a per-pupil formula, the public school Greenleaf Pines Elementary and the charter school Waterleaf Elementary would each get $12 million, while Greenleaf needs $13 million in repairs and Waterleaf only needs $1 million.

Finally, charter schools already receive more capital funds than public schools. According to the Florida Department of Education, Duval County charter schools received about $7,893,111 million in capital funds last year, while public schools only received $2,680,072 million. That’s $5,213,039 million more for charter schools, while 87 percent of our students attend public schools.

The existing DCPS facilities plan provide funds for charter schools, but they are proportional. Charter schools could get funding for safety and security upgrades on the same square-footage basis as public schools. Second, charter schools could get money for building improvements based on the same standards that govern public schools.

The referendum is scheduled for consideration by two City Council Committees Tuesday, August 20 at 9:30 a.m. and 2:00 p.m., while the full Council is to vote on Tuesday, August 27 at 5:00 p.m. This is not a vote to approve the sales tax, but rather to allow voters to decide the issue in a special election later this year, as outlined in the Florida Constitution. If you support that document and the people’s right to have a voice, then you need to tell your councilmember now. Contact information can be found at

Students can get involved, too. It’s their schools that are at stake. Remember Parkland? After that shooting, it was the students who took to social media and advocated commonsense gun reforms in Tallahassee.

Finally, a quick comment on recent allegations made by Joe Peppers. The now-suspended Kids Hope Alliance CEO claims that officials in Mayor Lenny Curry’s administration pressured him to steer grants to preferred groups. Because of conflicts of interest, it is clear that local and state governmental bodies cannot investigate the Curry administration. Simply put, this is a job for the FBI. It undertook an investigation of corruption in Tallahassee city government. There needs to be a similar investigation here.

New York Is (Right) Now

It’s been a big, booming year for cannabis culture, politically and economically, with widespread advances being made on all fronts. Without question, however, the biggest news yet was made during the last week of July, when Andrew Cuomo, Democratic governor of the Great Empire State of New York, signed legislation into law that, for all practical purposes, effectively decriminalized marijuana. Cuomo, whose father Mario was an icon of their party’s politics for decades, carved his own little niche in history by taking that action, which will have an immediate positive effect on the Big Apple, and beyond.

His is the 15th state to decriminalize cannabis; 11 more have fully legalized it. Under the new law, persons caught in possession of an ounce or less of cannabis will be subject to a $50 fine, but will not be faced with the threat of arrest. If caught an amount between one ounce and two ounces, that fine jumps up to $200; the same applies to anyone caught smoking in public. The new law will also effectively nullify prior misdemeanor possession convictions. The FBI says that more than 360,000 New Yorkers were arrested on possession charges between 2008 and 2017, so this measure will easily save millions in man-hours and law-enforcement resources, to say nothing of the boost to that state's business climate.

It remains to be seen if this is a just a step toward full legalization, which has historically been the case—and that proposal has already received Mr. Cuomo’s approval, though he doesn’t have quite enough votes in the legislature—not yet, anyway. The Democratic majority is split over regulatory nuance, but it will probably take it up again next year. Cuomo himself received the gospel of legalization only in his third term as governor, so it’s possible he could convert sufficient numbers of his peers before that term ends in 2023. He will certainly try—all indications are that he'll be running for president in 2024. If Trump is re-elected next year, then Cuomo will be competing for an open seat, against a stacked field of Democrats who, for the most part, washed out in the current cycle.

We’ve already watched those in this year’s field flailing about, trying to outflank their peers on the weed issue. Joe Biden, in particular, has been flailing around like an earthworm in a tornado. Cannabis continues to be a marquee issue these days, and with legalization being worth an estimated $2 to $4 billion for New Yorkers, we surely have not heard the last word on this from Cuomo. Heck, we’ve barely heard the first. The man likes to talk, and sometimes people listen.

Devil's Advocate

Ed Dean keeps crazy hours, to put it mildly. By the time we meet Downtown for lunch, he has already done his radio show and run four miles. You can do things like that when you’re up before dawn. Dean, he usually rises around 3:30 a.m., sometimes four (if he’s feeling lazy). And his day sometimes ends as late as 11 p.m. Work leaves little time for sleep, but it doesn’t seem like he really needs it.

The youngest of four, he was born and raised in Cocoa Beach; he still gets down there on an almost weekly basis. “Do I have to tell my age?” he asks, before relenting. “I’m still in my early 40s, born in the ’70s.” He looks much younger, which is part genetics, and part commitment to fitness. He graduated from Riverside Christian Academy in Melbourne, then he had the proverbial cup of coffee at Brevard Community College. He had an early interest in filmmaking, but shifted to print journalism rather quickly. Ultimately, radio commentary is where he would make his mark.

Dean’s eponymous show airs locally on WBOB from 6 to 9 a.m. every weekday, but that’s just the beginning of his work day. His broadcast schedule is listed in military time, which speaks to the degree of discipline he applies to his trade. And he needs it, because the job is about much, much more than just talking into a microphone. He’s writing copy, selling advertising and networking with sponsors and station managers. Most of the boring side-work, usually delegated to staff, Dean takes on himself, partly out of necessity (because his is still a small business) but largely out of genuine passion for the work.

Ed Dean is a conservative, and his show airs almost exclusively on conservative stations. At a time when American politics is hyper-polarized, however, with both sides giving increasing power to their respective fringes, Dean is carefully charting a new course in the industry—more thoughtful, less dogmatic, more inclusive, less exclusionary. “I love having liberals come on,” he says. “I’m very fair. I get accused by my conservative friends of being too fair.”

Dean got his start toiling in print media outlets around the state. That was when he began developing the instincts for politics and people which he eventually applied to his radio work. “I had offers to go work for Fox News Radio,” he says, dutifully mowing down a Caesar salad at Cowford Chophouse, “but I didn’t want to move to South Florida.” He saves the grilled shrimp as a reward for later, throwing an occasional jealous glance at my fish and chips (with a side of fried oysters). Having just lost 42 pounds, he’s trying to be a good boy, but the struggle is real.

A hectic schedule keeps Dean on the road for most of the week, massaging his markets from one end of the state to the other. Still, there’s a special place in his heart for Northeast Florida. “I love Jacksonville—love it. I came up here all the time as a reporter. The competition, I get feelers from them, but I’m, like, ‘I don’t need to be in Orlando.’ I love it in Jacksonville.” He gestures with a shrimp for emphasis, then pauses. “Oh, wow. This is really good!”

Among homegrown radio products, Ed Dean is easily the most prominent in Florida. “We’re in every major city, excluding maybe Miami,” he explains. “I’ve had offers to go down to Miami, I say no; I’ve had offers to go down to Tampa, I say no.” This decision was driven by economics, and Dean’s desire to maintain maximum control of his own creative destiny.

“There was more money to be made from statewide syndication than from nationwide,” he says, “because there are, like, 100 to 200 radio talk hosts, and only the top 10 or top 20, like Limbaugh or Hannity—those guys make the big bucks. So we were originally in the Central Florida area, and then I sat back in 2014 and said, ‘I want to make more money—I want to be statewide syndicated.’ Nobody had it. Nobody was doing statewide.”

“The only difference between a statewide issue and a nationwide issue is the city that you’re in. So we took the opportunity to go full-blown syndicated in 2014.” Northeast Florida was established not long after. “I was in all the markets,” he says, “but Jacksonville was [just] the weekends. We had gone back and forth for a year or two. We came to an agreement in October of 2016. They gave us the morning show, and in the words of Ric Flair, ‘We’ve only just begun’. No one’s touched us.”

Even as his radio show took off, Dean maintained a lucrative side-hustle in print media, eventually becoming his own master in that realm as well. “I was always a reporter,” he observes. “I worked for several newspapers, I became an editor with Sunshine State News, and a couple years ago, I wanted to buy them out. They originally said yeah, but they came back and said, ‘Would you keep some of the extra owners?’ And I said, ‘I love ya, but I’m here to make a buck.’ So we started Florida Daily, and the numbers are just huge. We started last June, and every month since October, it’s been at least a quarter-million readers; last month, we had over 400,000. Our biggest markets for readership are Orlando, Tampa, Miami, Jacksonville and Tallahassee. Our biggest for Facebook is Jacksonville, because of the morning show.”

This phase of Dean’s career kicked off right as the political scene was morphing into something new, with social media driving the business into a hyper-polarized new era, from Washington on down. Meanwhile, political journalism has undergone massive changes, especially in Florida. Newspapers—and their staffs—are shrinking, leaving fewer reporters to cover more statewide developments. This shift has created an opening in the information market, and folks like Dean are filling that gap.

“When I write articles for our publication, I cover both sides,” Dean explains. “The differences between reporting and covering are night and day sometimes. Some of my conservative friends complain that we don’t cover the story ‘the way it is,’ and I get it. I cover it right down the middle, and they complain that it’s not conservative enough. I do have an opinion, but I try to leave that to the audience.”

Like many Floridians, Dean is part of a growing cadre of conservatives who’ve followed Bill Buckley’s lead in supporting the decriminalization of marijuana. “That’s always a hot topic on my radio show,” he says. “I give credit to [Governor Ron] DeSantis. I was a little nervous when he came in, but I like what he said: You can differ with the amendment but, hey, the people voted for it, so just do it. I’ve never [smoked marijuana] myself, because I worry about what it would do to my health. I’m always the designated driver.”

Another point of commonality shared by DeSantis and Dean is the environment, specifically the slight moves made by the governor in regard to water quality. “I agree with him on the environment,” Dean says. “We’ve got to clean up our freakin’ water, folks! We used to be able to fish in the St. Johns, or some of the Indian River lagoons. We have runoff—that’s just the way it is, and that’s not some liberal viewpoint. Water is a big deal in this state.”

He does, however, take a more nuanced approach to Big Sugar, which has been widely depicted as the villain in public discourse about runoff and corporate responsibility. “Red tide has been around since I’ve been a boy,” Dean shrugs. “Nothing is proven about where it comes from. I don’t know anybody big in Big Sugar. People act like they’re Satan or whatever, or gambling, or the offshore drilling people.”

I’m almost convinced, such is Dean’s affable, everyman grace. This virtue has served him well. Building his own network holistically required him to personally sell his show to each of his member stations, one by one, face to face. This would be a challenge for most conservative talk hosts, who are by nature pushy, ill-tempered and obnoxious (to say nothing of their actual physical appeal, because there is really nothing to be said). Dean, on the other hand, is a natural salesman, with relentless energy and a certain degree of sly charm. Think Eddie Haskell. He’s also tall and reasonably good-looking, which is a refreshing change within the genre.

Above all, Ed Dean is not dogmatic. “Though we don’t always agree,” says Claire Goforth, a frequent guest on The Ed Dean Show (and the former editor of Folio Weekly), “I respect his views and always feel as though he respects mine. At first, I thought it was just another garden-variety conservative talk radio show—full of conspiracy theories, shouting and fake news. But I soon realized that Ed is genuinely thoughtful and informed. He steers clear of that stuff.”

For her part, Goforth adds a fierce, funny and progressive perspective that cuts through the conservative orthodoxy like lemon juice through butter. Whether they admit it or not, even conservative callers seem to appreciate Goforth’s snark and sass.

“Ed won’t take a position just to rile people up,” she says. “He’s going to push back, even against listeners, if they say things that aren’t true, are bigoted or otherwise ill-informed. In this way, he’s far more responsible and balanced than pretty much any other host in the conservative radio space.”

After an hour talking about local and state issues, it was inevitable that talk turned to 2020, and what is already looking to be an exceptionally crazy super-election cycle. “It’s funny,” he says, “because the polls are all over the map. I think Trump could win, but he’s vulnerable, as well.” With Dean being a solid conservative, and almost certain to vote for Trump no matter who his challenger is, I was curious to find out whom he would nominate if he were running the Democratic Party. His answer reflected the kind of intellectual dexterity for which he’s known: “I think Andrew Yang is credible. He’s a business guy. He’s got some liberal views, like the Universal Basic Income, but he’s a moderate.”

As for the president himself, Dean bought the ticket, and now he’s taking the ride, but unlike most conservatives, he doesn’t mind admitting to a little bit of motion sickness. “When you look at conventional wisdom,” he says, “Trump should have never won.” Trump won by subverting standard procedure, exploiting his opposition’s reliance on protocol and optics to keep them perpetually off-balance, whether it was the bland, almost robotic Clinton campaign or a massive Republican field that, in retrospect, never had a chance.

Will history repeat itself? Maybe, maybe not, but it doesn’t really matter either way to Ed Dean. His business model is not dependent on the situation in Washington, or Tallahassee, or anywhere else. He’s in this for the long haul, and his machine is built to last. By reaching out to the other side, he is building his base, and encouraging the kind of realistic dialogue that one rarely sees in mass media these days. It’s a risky proposition, but the numbers don’t lie. His vision of a more nuanced approach to the business is paying off, literally, and he’s only just begun. “I give God all the credit,” says the minister’s son. “I’ve been very blessed.”

The interview over, Dean strides out of the Chophouse. His gold watch glitters in the noontime sun. It’s been a long day already, but it’s far from finished. His black SUV is parked not far away; he gets in and waves before driving off. He didn’t say where he was going, but he was clearly in no real hurry. On the road, or on the air, he moves at his own speed, which is a good deal faster than most.

Let the People Vote

It’s 3 p.m. Thursday afternoon, Aug. 8, and despite the inconvenient hour, dozens of concerned citizens are cramming into a tiny conference room inside the Mandarin Branch Library. It’s the smallest conference room I’ve ever seen—a cell, really or, if you’re feeling lexically generous, a glorified cubicle.

Enter Jason Fischer. Not literally, because the state rep never showed—he sent sacrificial staffers in his stead—but he’s the reason all these folks are here. Fischer represents Florida House District 16, which covers much of Southside Jacksonville including affluent Mandarin. These are his constituents, and they’re hoping to have a word with Fischer at his announced joint office hours with Florida Sen. Aaron Bean.

They won’t have the chance. Unlucky staffers insist that neither Fischer nor Bean were ever scheduled to actually appear at this session, though public notices make no mention of staff proxies. Fischer’s constituents aren’t buying it; their instinct tells them that their elected representative ducked out to avoid any uncomfortable confrontations. You see, he’s not a very popular figure in his district at the moment.

Earlier in the week, Fischer introduced a controversial local bill, J-1, which would impose political appointees on the school board, whose members are currently elected (as per the Florida Constitution) and beholden to no political benefactors. The bill’s designation—J-One—suggests that this is not standard procedure. Local bills create “special laws.” This is an exotic legislative maneuver conceived to further mire us in procedural hairsplitting while the clock runs out on the main play.

It’s scandalous. It’s a power grab. But, in tactical terms, it’s a feint. Yes, this is part of a coordinated effort on the part of Jacksonville’s political establishment to usurp the authority (and operating budget) of Duval County Public Schools, whose autonomy and integrity are guaranteed by state constitution. The key to this hostile takeover, however, is the school board’s proposed 2019 infrastructure-tax referendum, which is dying on the vine as Curry and his cohorts throw up shiny object after shiny object in an effort to distract public outrage just long enough to run out the clock on a 2019 special election, which is the last, best hope of protecting the DCPS budget from the interest groups salivating on the sidelines.

Said interest groups and their henchmen in City Hall are deliberately muddying the waters, but the stakes should be clear. This is about the constitutional separation of powers and, in the final analysis, the consent of the governed.

Here’s a brief timeline. DCPS presented an infrastructure maintenance plan in the spring. It’s been public for all to see at Then, in May, the school board exercised its constitutional authority to propose a half-cent sales tax to pay for the work and a November 2019 referendum to give voters, not politicians, the chance to vote the tax up or down. Jacksonville’s Office of General Counsel immediately issued a dubious pseudo-opinion that gave City Council final approval on any referendum timetable. Outgoing councilmembers deferred the issue to the incoming City Council, which has disingenuously stonewalled ever since it was installed in late June. Council President Scott Wilson acts like his role is to approve the sales-tax proposal itself, not the referendum, which will give voters the chance to approve or not. In truth, he’s not constitutionally authorized on either count. A scandal erupted when it was revealed that outgoing Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa attempted to extort the school board for consulting fees and special interest kickbacks. (The school board declined his services, but no worries, Mousa Consulting Group Inc. won a $120,000 no-bid contract to advise City Hall shortly thereafter. Indeed, government corruption is evident everywhere, from Lot J development incentives to the sale of the JEA.)

Now, Fischer further stirs the pot with this provocative bill. To be clear, we can—and must—push back against J-1, but we mustn’t let it distract us from the urgency of the referendum vote. In this deliberate confusion, we need clarity, and by overplaying their hand, the oligarchs who would run this town have helped us find that clarity. This is no longer about education policy; it’s about checks and balances, it’s about power, it’s about democracy.

Mind you, there will be a healthy and vigorous policy discussion, but it must take place after the city’s powerbrokers stop waiting out the clock on a 2019 special election. The referendum issue must be resolved immediately. Let the people vote.


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Make Jacksonville Great Already

If you are like many folks who live here, you love Jacksonville and you wish that the city would grow the hell up. We see glimpses of greatness—then we veer off course, our hopes are crushed, and we wonder why we keep ending up in the swamp. There is greatness in us, here in Jacksonville. This city has a vibrant history of music and art. The trouble is, we don’t know it. And neither does anybody else.

Jacksonville boasts beautiful beaches, abundant land, scenic waterways, mild winters and an affordable cost of living. Our city should soar, yet it continually falters, weighed down with debt, corruption, stupidity and an almost intentional lack of vision. The destruction of The Jacksonville Landing and the proposed sale of community-owned JEA are two of the most recent—and depressing—chapters in a lengthy history of missed opportunities.


Lack of Identity

Jacksonville is a city that looks itself in the mirror and doesn’t know what it sees. Perhaps worse, it doesn’t know what it wants to see.

Is this a redneck backwater that happens to have a professional football team, or is it a city on the rise? Do we use our claim to fame as the largest city in the United States (in terms of geographic footprint) to continue to build urban sprawl devoid of character, or shall we embrace the vibrancy within and grow in meaningful ways?

Jacksonville is a mix of rural and urban, a riot of race and ideology, often in close proximity. This is a city of industry, innovation, beauty and creativity, but we are not marketing or monetizing our potential.



At dinner with some friends, someone said, “The answer to every question about what’s wrong with Jacksonville is simple: It’s the good ol’ boys.”

The good ol’ boys are understandably concerned about staying in power and making money. They resist change because change threatens their positions. But what if the powers that be could see how much more money they could make by embracing change? What if they capitalized on culture? That’s the ticket, because then everybody wins.

Culture transforms an ordinary city into a great one, and Jacksonville is leaving money and potential on the table. The only way Jacksonville becomes a great city is if the power brokers become allies and advocates for the arts, if only because they will make more profit. And there is a lot of profit in culture. Ask Austin, Savannah, Nashville and Miami.

Art Basel generates a half-billion dollars every year for Miami. For perspective, the wonderful Players Championship brings $151 million to the region. (It’s in St. Johns County, so for Duval, less.) A Super Bowl can bring as much as $50 million to a city, though there are reports that Jacksonville actually lost $12 million hosting its Super Bowl. We can make money with culture, folks.

Shine a Light

There is a certain energy that lives here, a slumbering source of vast untapped power. If you really want to sense this potential, go to Little Talbot Island on a Friday morning; feel the sun on your face and the sand crunch beneath your toes. Marvel at the clear water, then drive down A1A. Take in the wide ocean vistas, spot the silhouettes of Navy ships on the horizon, across the St. Johns River in Mayport. Minutes later, you’ll see the growing Port of Jacksonville, then the city skyline as you hurtle into Downtown.

Take a stroll through Riverside in the afternoon. Start out at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, then visit CoRK Arts District and Yellow House. Attend an open story night at Bab’s Lab and listen to live music at Rain Dogs in Five Points. You’ll meet artists, musicians and storytellers. You’ll feel the energy in your soul.

Finish the night with a cocktail at Black Sheep’s rooftop bar. Listen to the music spilling out into the streets. Watch the city lights twinkle in the distance. The singing feeling in your chest will bring tears to your eyes.

Yes, Jacksonville is a football town, a beach town, the River City, but we should be much more. The arrival of the Jaguars was a wonderful leap forward, but our story is far from finished.


Smith, the author of four published novels, is a solar energy consultant.