This article has been updated
JEA and JEA Board Chair G. Alan Howard today separately confirmed that the letter to scores of top employees at the utility, offering them financial incentives to remain in their positions in the event of a sale, was authored at Howard's direction. This seems to conflict statements made by Mayor Lenny Curry at a press conference on Feb. 1.
At that press conference, the mayor repeatedly expressed his "displeasure" with the letter sent to 67 JEA employees, promising each "a retention incentive of up to 1 X your annual base salary," for remaining with JEA for a term beginning on Jan. 18 and ending "on the date of change of control (sale, acquisition or change of management due to acquisition or sale)."
"The idea that 60-something people have been promised some sort of a parachute is problematic and I'm not pleased with it and have my team working to resolve it," the mayor said.
When A.G. Gancarski pointed out that the mayor appointed the board, Curry said, "They were unaware of that. They were unaware of it."
The mayor also said, "I can't speak to the thinking of whoever authored those letters and sent them out."
Howard, an attorney who practices in the area of mergers and acquisitions, said that after Tom Petway announced his resignation and in the same breath recommended privatizing JEA, he recommended offering top staff incentives to stay on following this announcement and his own subsequent recommendation on Dec. 5 that JEA contract a firm to quickly review and evaluate its assets. Howard told Folio Weekly today that he anticipates that evaluation being completed on or around March 1.
After the letter was written--which Howard said was done internally at JEA--a draft was provided to him.
"I saw it before it was distributed, but not as a lawyer; it was shared with me as chairman of the board," Howard said.
Howard said that he did not share the letter with the mayor's office or other members of JEA's board. A JEA spokesperson said that no one in the mayor's office reviewed the letter.
In a subsequent telephone conversation, Howard disagreed with the implication that there was any inconsistency between his and the mayor's statements. "If one member of the board knows, the board does not know," he said.
A spokesperson with the mayor's office told Folio Weekly that Curry was not in the office when we attempted to speak with him, but that they would look into whether the mayor was mistaken or had incomplete information on Feb. 1. This story will be updated with that response.
Messages left for three JEA board members this afternoon were not immediately returned.
When large companies contemplate a sale, it is not uncommon for them to offer high-level employees incentives to remain so as to avoid a mass exodus of key personnel. Nevertheless, the news that 67 high-ranking JEA employees were being offered a deal that has been estimated to cost a cumulative $15 million, according to WJXT, was met with much resistance from the mayor's office after Action News broke the story on Jan. 31. The offer was subsequently rescinded in a letter dated Feb. 2.
The potential sale of JEA has taken center stage of city politics since Petway's surprise recommendation in November. By the end of that day, the mayor's office had circulated a press release supporting studying the possibility of a sale.
Last week, City Councilman Garrett Dennis appeared to be persona non grata with the mayor's office at the aforementioned press conference, which, though it was held in Dennis' district, he attended as an uninvited spectator, standing among media while the mayor and other councilors gave statements and fielded questions. The mayor denied snubbing Dennis, who has been one of few on council to go on record questioning the wisdom of privatizing the utility.
At a publicly noticed informational meeting in City Hall today, Dennis and Councilman John Crescimbeni were joined by several other members of council to discuss the sale. The room was packed with JEA employees and local notables; anticipating the crowd, it had been moved from a smaller space to council chambers.
Crescimbeni said that, although the Office of General Counsel has determined that a voter referendum is not required to initiate a sale of JEA, he supports putting the question to the voters, who are the shareholders of the utility. He also noted that his request that the OGC provide him with information on how to initiate just such a referendum was roughly "60 days" old.
Crescimbeni did not seem to rule out the possibility of supporting the sale, however, provided some conditions were met, but also expressed frustration with the way the process had been carried out thus far, specifically the lack of details, misinformation and the like. Crescimbeni did agree that the current events presented some questions as to how and why the board was cleared out and new members appointed by the mayor over two years ago following a Florida Times-Union story that board meetings were being orchestrated by top executives at the utility.
Today Dennis expressed his own frustration with the process regarding the potential privatization of the utility, saying in reference to the letter, "I'm beginning to feel the sale is a definite without conversations."
Howard echoed the mayor's repeated blanket denials that the sale was a done deal.
"I think there's a lot of discussion to be had in our community," Howard said. "...[It's] far from a foregone conclusion."
"I think the decision on whether or not there should be privatization of JEA is a community decision ... because JEA is a community asset," he later added. Howard was not willing to comment on how the community could best weigh in on privatization; saying that he felt such would be inappropriate for a member of the board. He also was not willing to discuss what factors he would consider in determining whether to recommend a sale of JEA.
"I think it's premature for me to respond to that," he said. "...No report has been prepared."
Correction: This article previously incorrectly stated that Tom Petway was board chair in November 2017.