FIGHTIN' WORDS

KERRIED Away

Inside the Jax City Hall power struggle

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Ash fell from the sky last weekend, as fires burned to the west and the detritus wafted east.

And in #jaxpol, fire was also thrown, by Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry’s political strategist, Brian Hughes, just minutes after Curry said he’d withdrawn his name from among those Governor Rick Scott would be considering for state Chief Financial Officer.

“FYI, if anyone said they knew and made job decisions because of it, they weren’t telling the truth,” Hughes Tweeted Saturday afternoon, as most folks drank before the Kentucky Derby.

Some might’ve seen that Tweet as cryptic. However, Hughes’ Tweet speaks to a larger fissure that surfaced in Curry’s orbit—and has since been largely resolved … as one key person—Chief of Staff Kerri Stewart—recently made a “job decision” to move on to a director role at JEA.

“Opportunity is great and so is timing,” Stewart told me, without elaborating on why the timing was so good.

Here’s one theory:

For weeks, a persistent narrative emanated from and around the St. James Building, insider counterpoint to the pension reform push.

There was grousing, much of it at that weird intersection between Strictly Background Boulevard and Off The Record Avenue, about Stewart—who wasn’t as “visible” as other chiefs of staff.

One veteran Republican councilmember, when asked to appraise Stewart’s performance, joked, “Kerri who?”

He brought up Chris Hand, Alvin Brown’s do-it-all chief of staff, noting that Hand had been much more present.

And those who spend time in council committees know how it almost always has gone, for two years. When it came time to get on the mike and make the sale, Sam Mousa—the all-powerful Chief Administrative Officer—carried the ball.

And there to shore Mousa up on the numbers: Chief Financial Officer Mike Weinstein.

It usually wasn’t Stewart, as a second Republican councilmember observed. Beyond Stewart’s relative lack of visibility or strength in the role, there was another issue that stuck in the craw of a third Republican councilmember.

Early in Curry’s term, the City Council Auditor’s office dinged Stewart in a report, saying that she had acted improperly when she’d worked for the city earlier.

Stewart helmed the Neighborhoods department under John Peyton’s administration, when the city contracted for consulting services from a company, Infinity Global Solutions—where she went to work after leaving the city.

Anne Schindler, over at First Coast News, called it a “dubious” deal, predicated on a “no-bid contract” that left the city paying out without benefit. And indeed, my review of what IGS did saw invoices padded with all kinds of extraneous bullshit.

That third Republican councilmember and I talked, in that quiet way I talk to all the politicians smart enough to push a narrative, one morning in City Hall. He suggested Stewart should resign.

Ultimately, the Ethics Commission dropped its charges, asserting—among other things—that Stewart followed city policy and that, even if she hadn’t, the matter was outside the statute of limitations.

Stewart had a quieter style than many—certainly than Mousa. Having sat in the mayor’s office during the early-summer romp through departmental budgets, Mousa and Weinstein did a lot more talking than Stewart did.

There are also some who say Mousa and Stewart just didn’t get along, though neither of them are personally pushing that story.

They’ll be gearing up for budget meetings in the coming weeks, but they’ll be doing it without Stewart.

Are they worried? Nope. The feeling, among some, is that she wasn’t essential. Some grumbled she wasn’t down with every aspect of the Curry agenda.

Good luck getting any of that on the record.

In April, I asked Stewart if she was headed out. She wanted to know who had told me, saying she had “been hearing it for 18 months,” and calling it “palace intrigue.”

“I am not going anywhere,” she said.

And for a few weeks, that held true. Then, after the pension reform vote, the narrative sped up.

“JEA approached me after the vote on pension,” Stewart said. And just a week after that vote, she got an offer—confirmed by press release less than 24 hours after Stewart’s resignation became official. It read, in part:

“As the Chief Customer Officer, Stewart will be a member of JEA’s executive team and will be responsible for leading JEA’s nationally recognized Customer Experience Team. Stewart will have functional responsibility for service delivery, including meter services, as well as customer experience strategy, delivery and support. She will also lead the business development and community engagement functions, and market solutions and development activities."

Is meter services a lateral move from Mayoral Chief of Staff? Your perspective on that question should inform the rest of your read on this situation.

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