The Tuesday before Thanksgiving was a watershed day in Jacksonville City Council history. That’s when some of its most respected politicians killed a reform bill.
The Rules Committee is largely composed of the kinds of people who, if Jacksonville were slightly different, might be in the discussion for mayor. Lori Boyer, Bill Gulliford, Greg Anderson: all former council presidents. John Crescimbeni came close. And Tommy Hazouri actually was mayor a few decades back.
They are, generally speaking, among the most educated and knowledgeable voices on the City Council. If you want to understand policy, they can usually explain it.
And if you want them to kill a bill, well, they just proved they know how to do that, too.
It was yet another shot to the solar plexus of the council’s former president Anna Brosche. The bill, written after a task force on open government and transparency during Brosche’s presidency earlier this year, includes a number of reforms.
The legislation would require anyone doing more than $1 million worth of business with the city to disclose local political donations over the last five years. It would also require emails and texts between councilors and registered lobbyists to be posted to an online portal as the public record documents they are.
Brosche attempted to water down the bill, striking a requirement to document donor-funded travel by pols. However, that didn’t close the deal.
Anderson said that the council had actually led on ethics issues, instituting an Office of Inspector General and an ethics office. And, to be sure, that’s worked. Out of the class of 19 elected in 2015, only two have been indicted for defrauding the taxpayers.
Gulliford waxed poetic about the council’s “very honorable people,” who apparently can manage a $1.3 trillion budget but somehow can’t figure out how to post texts and emails of taxpayer-funded communications to a public portal so that citizens and media know what their elected representatives are actually doing.
Worth remembering: No one is conscripted to legislate. City Council is still a volunteer army. They can do what it takes to campaign … but they can’t make their texts or emails—messages sent and received through city accounts and phones—public.
Council President Aaron Bowman described the bill as “intimidation.” But of whom, exactly?
Why should the people who make the laws, who have all the connections they need for their post-political career, be intimidated by providing the same kind of accounting for their daily tasks as people in retail and delivery jobs?
We’ll never know.
Ahead of the meeting, Rules Chair Hazouri called out Brosche, in the midst of a months-long pre-candidacy for mayor.
“The only thing transparent about this bill is that the sponsor is using it to further their own political agenda,” Hazouri said.
What bill isn’t furthering a sponsor’s political agenda? And why is the idea of disclosure of contacts that could impact city contracts part of a “political agenda”? Shouldn’t that be everyone’s political agenda?
Brosche’s presidency featured a task force on “open government,” a body that spent some time deliberating on how to give citizens and media a better vantage point on what’s being done to them by their government.
The longer someone has been working as media in this town, the more likely they are to tell you that in the not-too-distant past, there was more transparency.
Still, it remains an open question whether Anna Brosche can get elected mayor. Tough to overcome the city’s political establishment when it’s unified, as it more or less is behind Lenny Curry. A 16-3 council vote downing this bill last week underscored that, as did the unsurprising JEA Board vote to retain Curry ally Aaron Zahn as CEO of the utility last week.
Ironically, given the last year of JEA theater, which included a “paused” debate on whether to prioritize the utility, the chair of the board wondered why people were cynical about the process.
There are a number of positives to having Lenny Curry as mayor. He’s connected to Tallahassee and Washington, though we’ve yet to see a real payoff from the latter despite years of Curry cheerleading the president. The donor class may grumble about his power moves, but they still stroke the checks. His re-election campaign has been going for a while (really, since July 1, 2015).
However, the counterargument to how Curry does business is that people who don’t have skin in the game often don’t know how decisions are made—hence the constant drumbeat of media distrust. Is that something the majority of people care about, though? Or just the few thousand who live and breathe the fetid air of the St. James Building?
Anna Brosche and/or Garrett Dennis, should they finally file for mayor, will test those questions. One suspects that many reading this won’t like the ultimate answers.