A Private Matter

In some respects, Walt Bussells seems an ideal candidate to serve as a JEA board member.

A former JEA CEO, Bussells presided over the municipal water and sewer authority’s golden era ­— a time when it was both popular with ratepayers and revered for its business sense. During his tenure, electricity rates — which had increased precipitously in prior years — flattened, and didn’t increase for 14 years. The company effectively leveraged bonds, participated in an innovative and often lucrative power marketing enterprise, and promised great things in the area of water reuse, solar power and resource conservation. By the time he retired, Bussells’ name was bandied about as a possible mayoral contender, and The Florida Times-Union dubbed him “the city’s go-to financial guru.”

A decade on, however, Bussells’ legacy doesn’t appear quite as uncomplicated. Shortly after his departure, the authority was forced to raise rates — and raise them, and raise them, at an almost annual pace. Critics both in and outside the authority contend the hikes were a necessary corrective after years of artificially low rates, required to cover long-deferred costs of replacing aging infrastructure. And whatever moves the agency has made toward cleaner energy have largely been obliterated by its simultaneous embrace of coal-burning technology.

Regardless of whether you subscribe to the former vision of Bussells or the latter, his recent nomination by the mayor to fill a vacant seat on the JEA board raises a host of questions. For one, as has been noted by some City Councilmembers, there’s that little matter of Bussells’ sizeable rep inside JEA, and the likelihood that it would intimidate a future CEO. Bussells tried to downplay the concern, saying any competent CEO “ought not to be intimidatable,” adding that if that wasn’t the case, “I might be concerned about his self-confidence.”

Bussells’ gender-specific pronouns and who’s-man-enough posturing notwithstanding, it’s frankly kind of silly to pretend that a former CEO wouldn’t significantly flavor the agency’s soup. But his influence wouldn’t end with his JEA ties. Bussells also has cross-connections with another board member, Cynthia Austin. Both Bussells and Austin hold senior positions with the Government Services Partnership Institute — Austin as president of the group’s Government Leaders Advisory Council, and Bussells as the for-profit group’s founder and managing partner. Aside from the seeming over-representation of this one company on JEA’s seven-member board, the company’s raison d’être itself raises questions. Initially, the group called itself “Government Services Privatization Institute” — an arguably more frank view of its goal. GSPI advocates for the privatization of government services, a cause increasingly embraced by elected officials — including Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown, who rarely misses a chance to promote the idea of public/private partnerships (or “P3s” in the lingo). Brown even created a full-time position titled “Commissioner for Public-Private Partnerships” (an unpaid role filled strategically by a corporate strategy executive-on-loan from Blue Cross Blue Shield of Florida. As it happens, that company’s chief lobbyist, Mike Hightower, is also on JEA’s board.)

Interest in P3s goes well beyond the local level, of course. The Florida legislature has already voted to privatize Medicaid and much of its prison system (though the former is being challenged by the federal government, and the latter was deemed unconstitutional). This past session, lawmakers even came close to passing a bill that would allow government agencies to privatize in private — not letting taxpayers know until after a deal is inked that their local library, fire department, or transit agency is in private hands.

As with any government contracting opportunity, there is big money to be made in privatization, and Bussells’ company is poised to get a piece of the pie. GSPI hosted a well-attended conference in South Florida last summer at which Bussells himself was a speaker, and several prominent Jacksonville officials were panelists, including then-Mayoral Chief of Staff Adam Hollingsworth, then-Chief Administrative Officer Kerri Stewart and current Clay County Manager Stephanie Kopelousos (then head of DOT). Among those in attendance were Devin Reed, then-director of central operations for the city, and City Councilmember Ray Holt. Following the conference, Holt told a reporter he was so “fired up” about privatizing city functions, he asked then-City Council President Stephen Joost to establish a special subcommittee on privatization. Joost agreed, and named Holt chair. The committee has so far considered privatizing fleet management functions and some duties of city’s fire department, but everything is on the table — from payroll functions to running the Duval County Jail.

There are arguments to be made for privatization — seemingly endless arguments, in fact, particularly in this era of union-busting, government downsizing and “starve the beast” rhetoric. But there is less evidence that privatization actually promotes competition, saves money or does much besides transferring public assets and tax dollars to private hands. Walt Bussells knows enough about both public and private enterprise to be an ideal figurehead for GSPI. But that role conflicts with that of a board member of a municipally owned electric and sewer authority. And certainly one GSPI representative is enough. The City Council is expected to take up the matter of Bussells’ appointment again on May 8. They should vote it down, in the public’s interest.

Anne Schind

[email protected]

Twitter @schindy