fightin words

Subpoena Season

Did Council get the drop on the JEA sale push?

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The mood in Jacksonville City Hall has gone toxic in recent months, and while reasonable people can argue about when things started to go south, probably the single most interesting narrative point was late last year.

At a JEA Board meeting, outgoing member and perpetual Lenny Curry donor Tom Petway brought back a concept that's been floated for more than a decade: the privatization of the local utility. Petway suggested that perhaps the time had come for the municipal utility to move into a "private sector marketplace" model. "The majority of people in Florida are served by a private-sector marketplace," Petway said, asking the board to consider where JEA "fits" in that emergent paradigm.

"Would the customers of JEA be better served in the private marketplace?" Petway asked, urging a board report on the utility's value.

Soon enough, the valuation/evaluation report manifested. Pushed forth by Public Financial Management, a national company also involved in helping to broker the exploration of value, the numbers were eye-popping.

Proceeds, the report said, could be between $2.9 billion and $6.4 billion after the retirement of debt.

Values ranged from $7.5 billion up to $11 billion, based on cash flow, price/earnings ratios, and other metrics.

Sounded good, right? But the tension was palpable between Mayor Lenny Curry, who was tweeting out quotes from On War by Carl von Clausewitz, and Council President Anna Lopez Brosche, who denied Curry an opportunity to pitch, out of turn, the valuation report.

A special committee to explore the potential sale of JEA was formed soon thereafter. Brosche and Finance Chair Garrett Dennis, Curry's biggest nemeses on the council, are on it. Danny Becton, another independent self-styled fiscal watchdog, also has a seat. As does Councilman John Crescimbeni, the wiliest politician on the dais who's another fiscal watchdog, one with a keen eye toward self-preservation.

Crescimbeni is nearing the end of his council tenure, which has been off and on since 1991. And it's telling that the handling of the JEA valuation exploration by Mayor Curry and his handpicked JEA Board have driven Crescimbeni toward an alliance with Council President Brosche-an unimaginable fate when the two were shivving each other last year in a bid for the legislative body's top job.

The council committee's work on the JEA sale has been a fractious affair, with tensions ominously building up to last Thursday's meeting.

Held on the Ides of March, there was indeed cause to beware.

The city's chief administrative officer, Sam Mousa, was about to begin speaking, when Councilman Dennis spoke up, asking why Mousa hadn't been sworn in-which would've meant that any misrepresentation or misspeak would have had the potential for a felony perjury rap.

The mechanics of swearing people in were robustly debated, with the General Counsel's office attempting to dissuade the administration of oath by advancing principles such as the presumption of truth from public officials and the rarity of swearing people in since Consolidation.

No matter. The body voted to require the oath. Mousa refused to take the oath, calling the committee's bluff.

In the end, the committee did not subpoena Mousa-at least, not yet.

The same can't be said for JEA CEO Paul McElroy, who refused to take the oath and will be subpoenaed to appear on March 29.

How real is shit getting? Council President Brosche pushed for an earlier start to the meeting, because she and others will have lots of questions for McElroy, whose biggest problem up until recently was whether or not he'd get his yearly raises and bonuses.

Mousa's subpoena would have been an atomic bomb, a once-and-for-all severance of a good-faith relationship with the Curry Administration. The committee stepped back from that ledge for a reason.

McElroy seemed like a softer target. But he will do for setting a precedent on how witnesses and testimony may be processed until the committee dies in June.

Numerous senior staffers in both JEA and the mayor's office have met to discuss issues in recent weeks. Explanations of the meetings have been kept opaque. Will the committee allow that to continue?

In what is clearly a toxic, adversarial atmosphere, what would stop Dennis or Brosche from pushing for the subpoena of Chief of Staff Brian Hughes? JEA CFO Melissa Dykes? Mayor Curry? CFO Mike Weinstein? Former Chief of Staff Kerri Stewart? It's not like the relationships can be preserved. Not now. Not ever again.

Worth noting: Curry still has no real competition on the ballot. The mayor has a political machine and very interested members of the donor class who may want to end some careers over this drama.

So how real is shit getting? Too real for everyone involved to stick around much longer.

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