Ostensibly, it was a press conference about "Northwest Jacksonville successes and opportunities," as the mayor's late-breaking press release teased. In reality, it was more like high theater designed to slight a member of City Council who has the unfortunate habit of failing to fall in line like a good little soldier.
At high noon on this sunny, beautiful day, the first day of Black History Month, Mayor Lenny Curry summoned the media to Soul Food Bistro so we could point our lenses and pens in his direction while Councilors Reggie Gaffney, Reggie Brown and Katrina Brown nodded along. Conspicuously absent from the press release was Councilor Garrett Dennis, in whose district we gathered, who has of late taken the seemingly lonely position of opposing the mayor's agenda, most recently regarding the proposed sale of JEA. Dennis and Councilor John Crescimbeni are hosting a public-noticed meeting about the proposed sale at City Hall on Tuesday.
Dennis didn't let the lack of an invitation keep him from the party, however. Outside Kingdom Plaza before the press conference began, Dennis shared his concerns about the sale of JEA, as well as how that sale was being handled. He echoed thoughts many have shared around town in recent weeks, questioning the sense of selling off one of the city's biggest sources of revenue, the long-term effect of relinquishing local control of utilities, the possibility of future rate increases without citizens having recourse, and financial repercussions future generations may suffer decades down the line.
"If it goes to a private company, we won't have the ability to bring that private entity and hold them accountable," Dennis said, adding that he thinks it's "wrong" to push such a monumental decision through government without engaging the citizenry.
"We went all around the city having community conversations about the Human Rights Ordinance," Dennis said. "But yet we're going to try to jam this through council and jam this through the board of JEA without having any city input. And that's wrong."
Dennis also questioned whether Curry inviting his Northwest Jax council colleagues, but not him, was the action of someone who truly wants to create "one city," as the mayor often repeats and stamps on pretty much every piece of paper that comes out of his office.
Things heated up near the end of a short press conference. After Curry made a remarkably brief statement, the three councilors each spoke, Katrina Brown and Reggie Brown (no relation) separately rattling off a list of recent improvements to their districts, such as streetlights, road resurfacing, septic tank phase-outs, funds for parks and a library, and the like. Even as all expressed their gratitude to Curry in no uncertain terms, Dennis, standing among the press corps, became more of an elephant in the room.
When David Bauerlein of The Florida Times-Union asked Curry why Dennis wasn't on the invite list, the mayor passed the buck. "I think Councilman Brown suggested that we come here and spend some time with people talking about our accomplishments," he said. "So we're here today to celebrate the accomplishments in these districts."
He said that Dennis, unlike his counterparts, hadn't come a-calling to him for capital funding, but was quick to add, "We have done significant work in District 9."
Questioned on the sale of JEA, Curry denied that it was a done deal, as some have suggested the letter to upper management that leaked earlier in the week implied, saying instead that they were endeavoring to determine JEA's value to better understand what city assets are worth. "Expect to see us understanding the value of all our assets in the years ahead," he said. (No one asked whether City Hall, EverBank Field or the beach was next.)
Just as things began to get out of hand, the mayor thanked the media and adjourned to Soul Food Bistro for lunch.
But the party continued in the hall.
Councilman Brown carried some water for the JEA sale, and denied rumors that the mayor was strong-arming members of City Council by threatening to deny funding for projects in their districts. "I would say 'hell, no,'" he said. "And you can quote me on that." As to the perceived snub of Dennis, he said, "I did not do the invite list."
City Council candidate Diallo-Sekou Seabrooks, who is running for Katrina Brown's seat in District 8, said that today's events were further evidence of a divided black community.
"It's reelection time, so it looks like a dog and pony show..." he said. "Those who need the votes have to jump in front of the camera and thank the mayor."
Speaking on the phone beforehand, Ben Frazier of the Northside Coalition was heavily critical of Curry. "The mayor is just using black people as props to further his own agenda," he said, adding that he doesn't believe Curry has any interest in effecting long-term change for the communities in Districts 7, 8, 9 and 10, which comprise Northwest Jacksonville.
After the press conference, Frazier elaborated on these thoughts.
"This administration has turned its head away from everything that the black community is concerned about," he said. "He has shown a willingness to talk at and not with us. We are a city divided on racial issues, on economic issues."
Far more than "successes and opportunities," the theme of division seemed to carry the day: division between the mayor and Garrett Dennis, division between councilors who represent Northwest Jacksonville, division between white and black people in the city.
Albert Wilcox, another candidate for District 8, seemed disappointed by what had transpired. "Already you have a city that is having problems with a racial divide," he said, "and for our mayor to come up and to selectively invite certain councilmembers to meet with him to discuss to the public about projects and excluding the one councilperson, it shows us as a community that we have some deep-seated problems that we need to try to straighten out."