Duval County’s Charter Revision Commission met for the fourth time last Friday, Sept. 13. It was an auspicious date, to be sure, and it proved most unlucky—at least for your average Jacksonville citizen. You see, this meeting made clear what so many have feared since the commissioners were appointed months ago: The CRC is going to be another classic power grab by self-serving and self-appointed oligarchs.
All this became clear when Chairman Lindsey Brock shut down the meeting over the heated objections of some of his own members. At issue was the amount of public input to be permitted at these CRC conclaves. Under normal circumstances, of course, public participation is a natural and necessary component of democratic self-government. Some officials even welcome it in an effort to better serve their constituents.
More fool them! Here in Jacksonville, elected officials know better. When you gain power, by hook or by crook, you run with it. U.S. Representative John Rutherford has famously never held a public town hall meeting. Jacksonville City Council President Scott Wilson recently cleared council chambers of pesky voters. Under the direction of Mayor Lenny Curry, City Hall is moving aggressively to churn out demolition and consultant contracts, green-light corporate welfare payouts and liquidate JEA to balance the books on rate-payers’ backs—and damn the torpedoes! The election is over, after all. You’ve done your part, good citizenfolk, now go home and let your leaders do as they please.
A funny thing happened on the way to bank, however. The people demand accountability, especially as the administration grows brazenly corrupt, as the revolving door swings ever faster, as the donor service takes on a lascivious look, and as some mighty unseemly back-channel coordination—conspiracy?—comes to light.
One flashpoint of public outrage has been education policy. City Hall’s unpopular efforts to chasten Duval County Public Schools (and its constitutionally independent school board) have been challenged at every step. In the spring, DCPS proposed a (constitutionally legitimate) referendum to fund school infrastructure maintenance. The Office of General Counsel’s early salvos against it were as transparently cynical as they were legally dubious. Later, when Wilson cleared council chambers, it was because constituents were there en masse to demand that City Council stop stonewalling the ref.
Yet the city’s power brokers continue to ignore overwhelming public sentiment. They’re getting their marching orders from elsewhere. Indeed, the louder the people speak, the more dramatically—and visibly—these power brokers are forced to act against them. This year’s numerous education skirmishes have exposed a concerted, coordinated effort to undermine not just public education, but the will of the people. The optics are bad; the reality, even worse.
To return to the Sept. 13 CRC meeting—it’s no surprise that this latest farce was precipitated by education policy. And it’s no surprise that it degenerated into the same show of force as Scott Wilson’s City Council fiasco. At the CRC meeting, commissioners heard education-related remarks by controversial Florida Rep. Jason Fischer (R, 16th Dist.) as well as DCPS Superintendent Diana Greene and School Board Chair Lori Hershey. When members of the public, including City Councilmembers Garrett Dennis and Matt Carlucci, wished to speak, Brock promptly terminated the meeting, stating there was no time for public comment. CRC member W.C. Gentry pointed out that, since the meeting started 15 minutes late, it should be extended 15 minutes, thus allowing time for comment. “The meeting is adjourned,” Brock answered bluntly. “I am not debating this.” In other words, Respect my authoritah! True to form, Dennis spoke anyway, and indicated that he would call for Brock’s removal as CRC chair.
The episode has confirmed suspicions. We had, and have, every right to be wary of the political appointees on the Charter Revision Commission, especially its chair. The CRC, which convenes every 10 years to suggest modifications to the consolidated city-county charter, will be used to further City Hall’s agenda, no matter what the majority has to say about it. Jacksonville’s political class as a whole is adopting a very ugly posture in the face of public calls for accountability and basic democratic legitimacy.