Coffee Talk

June 19, 2012
by
4 mins read

While the Brown Administration was busy incurring the wrath of Khan — claiming, then reversing claims that the Jags had violated the terms of its lease (http://bit.ly/KLYuNm) — some members of the Jacksonville City Council were getting a very different reception from the billionaire team owner.

On May 29, three members of the Jacksonville City Council met with Khan, Jags lobbyist Paul Harden, team president Mark Lamping and a slew of Jags team officials for a coffee reception at Khan’s plush EverBank Field headquarters. Most of the discussion centered on Khan’s vision for the city and the Jags, but at one point, the meeting touched upon a city contract councilmembers will be voting on. When that subject was broached, the three councilmembers present came dangerously close to violating the state Sunshine Law.

Two councilmembers in attendance — Matt Schellenberg and Greg Anderson — insist the meet-and-greet was merely an opportunity for face-time with Khan, to hear his ideas about how to make the team and the city an NFL success story. But the fact that the meeting occurred amid discussions of two of the biggest Jags-related matters in team history — the rebid of the stadium contract and the lease dustup with the administration — raises questions about whether councilmembers ought to have publicly noticed the meeting. What’s more, at least one councilmember in attendance recalls team president Lamping commenting that the team’s clear preference for a stadium facility manager is the current one — SMG.

That’s important because the contract to manage the city’s entertainment facilities, including EverBank Field, is up for bid for the first time in 20 years. According to the original Request For Proposals, choosing a winning bidder would rest with the Brown Administration and the Jags, but on May 22, the City Council inserted itself into the bid process, requiring the winning bidder to get its approval. That makes the RFP official Council business, and the state Sunshine Law requires that councilmembers publicly notice a meeting 24 hours in advance if two or more councilmembers are meeting to discuss a matter that will come before the City Council for a vote. The Sunshine Law also requires them to open the meeting to the public and to record minutes. The discussion of the Jags’ preference for SMG also may have put Harden in violation of a lobbying blackout enforced during the city’s contract bidding process. Harden is both the Jags’ lobbyist and the lobbyist and lawyer for SMG.

But if the conversation is one-sided, the city’s ethics officer says it’s not a violation. Councilmember Schellenberg acknowledges that Lamping made the comment, but says he doesn’t think the meeting violated the Sunshine Law because nobody responded to it. He doesn’t consider it a violation because there wasn’t a discussion. “There’s not any dirt,” he says. “Sorry.”

City Ethics Officer Carla Miller affirms Schellenberg did what he should have in the circumstance. It’s not Lamping’s comments that create the problem, she says.

“It’s your participation in the exchange that violates the Sunshine Law,” explains Miller. “I think the best thing you can do in that situation is change the subject and move on and don’t participate. Frankly, I’m glad to hear that they were listening to all the training we’ve done.”

Councilmember Anderson says he didn’t remember Lamping or anyone else talking about the dispute with the city or SMG. “We didn’t talk about any City Council business, anything that would have been voted on. I was particularly careful about that,” says Anderson. “I don’t recall any of that being discussed. To me, that would have been a violation.”

Folio Weekly couldn’t reach Councilmember Johnny Gaffney, who also attended the meeting. Dan Edwards, senior vice president of communications for the team, said Khan has been scheduling gat-acquainted sessions with government, social and business leaders, but “no discussions of city business have taken place.”

The city’s public dispute with the Jaguars began when the team notified the city on May 24 that it wanted SMG to win the multi-million-dollar facilities management contract. (The Comcast-owned Global Spectrum also submitted a bid.) City General Counsel Cindy Laquidara responded with a terse note the next day, saying the contract specified that the city and team should pick the winning bidder together, and notifying the team that it had breached its contract with the city.

Khan responded with a blistering letter in which he pointed out that an addendum to the RFP said the Jags should notify the city of its choice. Khan also asked Mayor Brown if he should be looking for a new home for the team, since, “We are on the cusp of training camp to begin the NFL season and will need to act quickly.”

The May 29 meeting wasn’t the first. Harden arranged a similar confab on April 27, during which Councilmember John Crescimbeni recalls learning that Shahid Khan speaks six languages and Councilmember Warren Jones remembers Khan saying he has no plans to move the team. Crescimbeni and Jones say they were both assured prior to the meeting that no city business would be discussed there. Councilmembers Bill Bishop, Ray Holt and Jim Love also attended the April luncheon. None of the councilmembers Folio Weekly interviewed thought at the time of either meeting that public notice was required, but incoming Council president Bishop says in light of everything that’s happened since the April meet-and-greet, it now seems like it would have been prudent.

“The luncheon we had was not about city business. It was all about the Jags and what they were doing in the community,” Bishop says of a meet-and-greet he attended April 27. “But I suppose considering where everyone has gone, it would make sense at this point [to notice all such meetings just in case].”

City Councilmember Robin Lumb actually chose not to participate in the May 29 meet-and-greet after he read about Laquidara’s letter in the Times-Union on May 25. “I’m not saying anybody did anything wrong,” he demurs. “But under the circumstances, I thought it would be better if I didn’t go,” he says.

He also says the incident will prompt him to revisit the requirements of the Sunshine Law, the reach of what constitutes “city business.”

“If I accepted another invitation, after having had this conversation with Folio [Weekly] magazine, I might go the extra step and sit down to brush up on the law with [Ethics Officer] Carla Miller or [Assistant General Counsel] Steve Rohan,” he says.

Susan Cooper E

sceastman@folioweekly.c

Folio is your guide to entertainment and culture around and near Jacksonville, Florida. We cover events, concerts, restaurants, theatre, sports, art, happenings, and all things about living and visiting Jax. Folio serves more than two million readers across Jacksonville and Northeast Florida, including St. Augustine, The Beaches, and Fernandina.

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