Potholes, it is said, don’t have political party affiliations.
In other words, the issues that concern us at the city level — libraries, roads, downtown development, even backyard chickens — aren’t partisan ones.
Jacksonville’s newly elected mayor, Republican Lenny Curry, appeared to embrace a local, non-partisan approach at his inauguration, in an overt bow-and-curtsy to unity.
“One city,” the mayor called out, cuing the crowd to respond with the second half of his campaign slogan. “One Jacksonville,” the audience roared back.
Then he exited, stage right. Hard right.
Curry’s decision to scrub the city’s volunteer service boards to make room for perceived political cronies has triggered a spontaneous response from local progressives, many of them young.
Concerned citizens were galvanized in particular by one woman’s refusal to acquiesce to Curry’s demands: Planning Commission Chairwoman and former Democratic candidate for City Council, Lisa King.
Curry’s stated reason for wanting to replace King on the planning commission was “lack of shared vision.” But King doesn’t buy it. Arguing that the mayor incorporated her planning suggestions into his transition plan, King says the move is about partisan politics.
“It’s working out so well in Tallahassee and Washington,” she jabs. “Why not bring it here?”
“Somebody has to stand up and say that they’re making a mistake,” King says, referring to the mayor and his administration. “What they’re doing is inconsistent with their stated goal,” she adds, acknowledging the mayor’s enunciated campaign vision of smart growth and job creation.
She regrets she hasn’t had the opportunity, despite several attempts, to sit and talk with Curry, in the same spirit that he had asked the JEA board members — who’d receive their own share of scrutiny from the mayor’s office shortly after King was asked to resign — to come visit him, individually.
“I reached out to [the mayor] multiple times,” King says. “I reached out to him after the election … I just want to serve my city.”
King refused to resign when the mayor asked. Two days later, even in the wake of Curry’s move, King’s peers on the quasi-judicial and highly technical planning commission voted her in as chairman. Commissioner Tony Robbins, who nominated King for the leadership spot, declined to be interviewed for this feature article.
“I don’t know if it makes all the sense in the world to oust a new chairman,” Councilman Jim Love said of the mayor’s resignation request to King. Love, a Republican, serves District 14, which includes Riverside and Avondale.
SCRUBBING THE PLANNING COMMISSION
King, who has served on the planning commission since 2012, says the mayor’s request for her resignation makes no sense. Commission member Lara Diettrich has already resigned from the body at the mayor’s request, and Nate Day’s and Marvin Hill’s terms have expired. Adding King and Joey McKinnon to the exit list will enable the mayor to appoint five new members — a majority — to the nine-member board. At-large member Jerry Friley has not been asked to resign.(Two additional commissioners, Tyler Loehnert and Matthew E. Schellhorn, are ex-officio members from the school board and the military, respectively. While they advise the board, they don’t vote.)
“With all those people trying to get up to speed at the same time,” King says, “what kinds of mistakes will they make that won’t hold up in court?” King explained that the board is often the last stop for city planning decisions, and in those cases, appealing the board means going to state or federal court.
“It’s not enough to make the right decision,” she says. “You have to make the right decision based on the right evidence, and you have to be sharp enough to get that on the record so the city can defend it in court.”
The board hears citizen, business, and developer input on a variety of issues: from zoning exceptions for home-based dog groomers, to proposed regulations for backyard chickens; from future dispensary sites for medical marijuana, to the environmental impact of borrow pits.
“Diverse backgrounds [of board members] are a strength,” King says. “But the subject area is so detailed — and the process. If you mess up, you set the city up for a lawsuit.”
And when the city goes to court, King says, “It costs the taxpayers money.”
The borrow pit issue is instructive on that point: McKinnon’s extensive hydrogeology background enabled him to explain to a homeowner why his backyard wetlands could not have been affected by a nearby borrow pit.
To replace the hydrogeologist on the planning body, the mayor wants banker and former Alvin Brown staffer Abel Harding. McKinnon and Harding are residents of Jacksonville’s least-populated residential planning district, comprising mostly Downtown and Springfield. The mayor, it seems, has pitted neighbor against neighbor.
To fill Nate Day’s recently vacated at-large planning seat, Curry has tapped Nicole Padgett, chief administrator for Summit Construction Group Inc.
Between July 2014 and last May, Summit Construction contributed $69,000 to Curry’s PAC, Together for a Greater Jacksonville, according to Duval County Supervisor of Elections records.
And that PAC contributions list reads like a “who’s who” of developers and financiers in Jacksonville. Names like Petway, Rummell, Weaver, Foley, Burr, and Haskell appear frequently, with generous donations to match. Overall, Together for a Better Jacksonville raised $2.77 million to help elect the man who is now overhauling the Planning Commission.
Summit’s owners, Padgett and her husband, Marc, each contributed $1,000 to Curry’s campaign, as well. They also gave $1,000 each to Ferraro, King’s opponent in the District 2 City Council race.
In District 2, one of several known “safe” Republican districts in the city, King, a Democrat, nevertheless garnered 43 percent of the vote.
Councilman Matt Schellenberg, District 6, wrote in a letter to the Florida Times-Union that King shouldn’t now be eligible to serve her city on this volunteer board because she lost in District 2. In a twist of logic, Schellenberg wrote that the longtime public servant would have had to step down if she had won the council seat and, for that reason, being voted in by her board to serve as chairman of the Planning Commission somehow constituted “hypocrisy.”
Curry wants to replace King, an experienced land developer and grassroots organizer, with Donald “Marshall” Adkison, a tow-truck business CEO. According to the Supervisor of Elections website, the various Adkisons, including the family business, Adkison Towing, contributed more than $4,000 to Ferraro’s campaign. Adkison Towing also gave $2,000 to the Curry campaign. Observers say Adkison will serve as a proxy for Ferraro on the Planning Commission.
UNPRECEDENTED IN THE HISTORY OF CONSOLIDATED JACKSONVILLE
“As a former mayor, I don’t recall anyone ever doing it,” says Tommy Hazouri of requesting midterm resignations from volunteer board members. Hazouri is now serving in his newly elected position as at-large City Councilman.
Hazouri says having members with differing views on the city’s independent boards and commissions is “the essence of the decision-making process.”
The city charter calls for staggered terms for just this reason, he explains. Some previously elected board members will stay on in order to preserve institutional knowledge during political transitions. (Recently, Schellenberg has called for city council members to be able to serve three consecutive terms instead of two, to preserve “institutional knowledge” in that body only.)
Historically, new mayoral board nominations are made for seats that are coming open at the same time the new mayor is elected.
“I would be willing to have [Curry’s] team in place,” Hazouri says, “but this is not his team — the independent authorities and commissions.”
“Independent means independent. Even though the mayor appoints, they’re on their own to make decisions as if it’s their own business. They go with what they think is the right thing to do and it may not be what the mayor or governor wants.”
“He’s not the chair of the Republican Party anymore,” Hazouri says of Curry.
In addition to opposing the move to have King resign, Hazouri bemoaned the ouster of JEA board member Lisa Strange Weatherby, who served as acting chair of that body last year.
Weatherby is on record calling Curry’s board nominations a “paranoia-induced purge.”
“It’s wrong to have them step down,” Hazouri says, in the absence of “malfeasance or corruption.”
“If the [mayor’s] intent was team-building, they [would] have had the new appointees coincide with the term of the new mayor,” Hazouri says. “It’s clearly political.”
While Hazouri may be right on good governance grounds, Councilwoman Lori Boyer, District 5, has a different perspective on replacing commission members midterm: She sticks closely to municipal code, as it reads now.
“It doesn’t say they [board members] have to be removed for cause,” Boyer told Folio Weekly.
When it comes to putting in whomever he wants, “The mayor has the right to do it,” Boyer says, echoing the widely circulated public statements of her colleague, Councilman Reginald Brown.
“That doesn’t mean we [the council] don’t have the right to approve,” Boyer adds.
McKinnon agrees that the final decision is in the hands of the council, but disagrees with the notion that commissioners serve at the pleasure of the mayor.
“The mayor makes a recommendation,” McKinnon says. “We are not wrong to not want to resign. When the City Council makes a decision, I’ll respect that.”
The mayor has the “perfect right” to nominate whomever he wants, according to Councilman Love.
“It’s new to us, but it’s perfectly legal what he’s doing,” Love says. “We [the city council] also have the perfect right to approve or disapprove, depending on how we feel about the nominee. The city council gets the last word.”
Love says he’ll vote against replacing King. “She’s shown me a lot of leadership qualities,” he says. “I’d like to see her continue until her term is up in 2017.”
The Planning Commission, Love says, entails much more complexity than other policy boards. Issues from his district are especially complex, given the historic zoning overlays that must be considered.
Love puts stock in the board’s vote of confidence in King, “Now she’s been voted in as the next chair. They also see that she’s done a good job.”
Boyer says she has not made a final decision about the mayor’s nominations, and was complimentary about King’s performance on the commission.
“My recall is that she was an engaged member,” Boyer says. “She obviously has subject matter background and knowledge.”
“I applaud her service,” Boyer says. “She’s done a great job in her role and has been very valuable to the city.”
The councilwoman adds that she thanks King for her willingness to serve on the commission. “She’s done an excellent job,” Boyer reiterated.
While Boyer says she’s open to any new information that might influence her vote on the mayor’s appointments on Oct. 27, she refers back to the written parameters for choosing planning commissioners.
Currently, for better or worse, Boyer explained, the code doesn’t say anything about subject matter expertise. Rather, the requirements for serving are purely geographical.
“They [members] bring unique knowledge of their part of our consolidated city,” Boyer says. “The staff is supposed to have all the technical expertise.”
THE MAYOR’S DOG GROOMER
But King says that relying too heavily on the city’s planning department, which serves as staff for the planning commission, would be a mistake.
“They weren’t right about the mayor’s dog-groomer,” she quips.
At a planning commission meeting on Oct. 8, the staff recommended denying a zoning exception to dog-groomer Missy Groves, who runs her business out of her Lakewood home.
“If we had agreed with the mayor’s staff, she could have appealed to the council,” King says. “We do a lot of that work — it saves the council time.”
The staff’s denial was based on a series of complaints received by the city, alleging barking dogs and increased traffic to the home. Twenty friends, customers and neighbors showed up at the commission meeting to counter the recommended denial, which would have put Groves out of business. The evidence they presented proved that the complaints came from a single source and were unfounded.
“We take additional information and testimony and make decisions based on competent, substantial evidence,” King says. In this instance, it kept a woman’s livelihood intact. In the case of a cellphone tower, on the other hand, doing the job right could prevent a federal lawsuit against the city.
The individuals who appeared on Groves’ behalf organized exhibits and affidavits for the board, which disproved the staff’s basis for denial.
Only later did the body learn that Groves grooms the mayor’s dogs, too. On Oct. 4, Groves posted photos of Curry and his canines on her Facebook page, with the caption, “Our GREAT MAYOR just picked up his pups. Lenny Curry is a GREAT GUY.”
“Twenty people showed up in the middle of the day, took time off from work, paid to park — they chose not to make income and go stand up for their neighbor,” King says of Groves’ supporters.
“Sometimes,” King adds, “individuals oppose a big business interest.”
“IT’S MY JOB TO HEAR THEM.”
“It’s a sacred honor to hear this,” King says. “People are coming to their government to be heard. It is my job to hear them; to acknowledge that they are a part of a decision-making process.”
Often, as with pilot programs for henhouses, potential dispensary sites for medical marijuana, or new restaurants in historic districts, King says, board members have to ask the right questions to get to the right solutions.
Having tenured members on the board, she says, helps “people see it’s not what they think.”
Contrary to popular belief, for example, hens are clean animals. They don’t make noise. And you don’t need a rooster to get eggs.
“It was the most disparate coalition I’ve ever seen,” she says about the people who came together regarding the backyard chicken issue. “Tree-huggers, from the vast green-wing conspiracy, and religious conservatives who were interested in chickens.”
The pilot program that was ultimately passed by the City Council, granting 500 permits for henhouses, and requiring applicants to take a class, was not something the planning commission favored in the beginning. Backyard chickens passed the commission with a split vote, after King “advocated vigorously” for it, and was recommended to the City Council. Former Councilman Don Redman sponsored the bill.
When, after two years, the city counted zero complaints regarding chickens, King reports, “My colleagues were amazed. They couldn’t believe it.”
The board then voted unanimously to recommend to the council that hens be allowed in all residential neighborhoods except those that opt out.
With the medical marijuana proposals, King says, there were some underhanded maneuvers by a potential grower in Gainesville who encouraged a moratorium on medical marijuana in Jacksonville. He was trying to knock out his potential competition.
“I was incensed,” she says. “I don’t want our city to have stood in the way of patients getting this medicine because we didn’t do our job. Getting the zoning codes ready is our job.”
“I suggested to the planning commission that we hold workshops.” Her colleague on the board, Chris Hagan, arranged meetings in conjunction with the council’s land-use committee in an effort to be proactive on the issue of medical marijuana.
“We’re dealing with a non-euphoric medication for kids having 10 seizures a day, or ALS patients with horrible muscle spasms,” King says. She favors medical marijuana, but not legalized marijuana in general. The proposal regarding medical marijuana sites will come before the council soon.
“There’s a lot of fear about this — that this is the camel’s nose coming in under the tent. Limiting [potential dispensaries] to six, citywide, should allay some of those fears.” King says the most logical dispensary locations will be near hospitals, where people go to get prescribed medicines.
The process was difficult, King says, because of people’s tendency to conflate non-euphoric medical marijuana with controlled substances like alcohol.
It’s a process, she says, that’s open to any citizen.
And it’s analogous to the council’s decision-making process that will ultimately keep or reject King’s service on the Planning Commission.
But at least one observer fears that most council members had made up their minds about the mayoral nominations before they even heard from citizens on Oct. 13.
“I’m not sure that public comment [at the City Council meeting] is a real avenue to persuade council members,” Kristellys Zolondek tells Folio Weekly. Zolondek is a 28-year-old Venezuelan-born citizen who’s lived in Florida since she was seven years old. She’s a community engagement specialist at a Jacksonville healthcare organization.
During the public comments portion of Oct. 13’s council meeting, approximately 40 citizens turned out to oppose the mayor’s legislation that would remove King and McKinnon from the Planning Commission and replace them with Adkison and Harding, respectively. (Padgett has been tapped to fill former commissioner Day’s vacated seat; one potential at-large nominee is still up in the air.)
“We already know that only a few are going to support Lisa and Joey. They made up their minds a long time ago,” Zolondek says. She echoes the sentiments of observers who’ve said that districted council members fear retaliation from the mayor that could impact future legislation affecting their districts.
Zolondek says democracy is a “two-lane system, built for citizen feedback.”
“There’s obviously enough community feedback to make a decision based on what citizens want,” Zolondek says, referring to the Oct. 13 public comment session.
Zolondek was one of the 40 who showed up to oppose the mayor’s replacements for King and McKinnon, and one of about 20 who addressed the council directly.
Her objections are less partisan than practical, she says. “It only has to do with knowledge and skills for the Planning Commission.”
Despite Boyer’s contention that the staff will provide all the institutional knowledge the board needs, Zolondek fears the turnover on the planning commission will hurt the city.
“It will slow down the planning commission and might even stop what they’re doing,” she says.
She says she expects the council will support the mayor, in the end, and that the damage of that vote will go beyond planning and land development in Jacksonville — it will hurt the cause of civic engagement.
“I want public comment to mean something,” Zolondek tells Folio Weekly. “I don’t want it to be just a show.” Voting against King and McKinnon over the public’s objections is not democracy, she argues.
“That’s not really representative government. That’s [the council is] a self-serving body. It doesn’t encourage civic engagement and it diminishes democracy in our city.”
That sentiment has found resonance with McKinnon and King.
In his public statement to the City Council, McKinnon decried the chilling effect the mayor’s nominations process will have on those who might otherwise volunteer for board service:
If I share one important thing, it’s this: Although I appreciate all the people that came out today, this issue isn’t about myself or individuals. By placing volunteer board members and commissioners under this level of scrutiny, this new precedent will diminish the pool of quality applicants to boards and commissions in the future. I’m happy to do the considerable volunteer time it takes, but people have jobs, families, class, bills and so on and won’t be willing to commit their specific professional expertise so willingly with this kind of treatment and public scrutiny.
King, on the other hand, was more blunt about the mayor’s partisan actions and the City Council vote that will likely back him up on Oct. 27.
“It’s so destructive to public service in this town,” she says.