In 1968, Duval County and the city ofJacksonville consolidated. It was hoped that consolidation would eliminate corruption in both the city government and the county government. That did not happen. Instead, the consolidated government created uncontrolled multimillion-dollar slush funds. Some were the result of manipulation by powerful vested interests, some were plain stupidity, some violated either Florida law or Jacksonville ordinances or both. Some were outright criminal. Among the projects with one or more bungled and wasteful deeds, one could include the fiasco dealings with Offshore Power Systems, the Automated Skyway Express (ASE), the collapsed original Southbank Riverwalk, the manipulated Convention Center, the Northbank landfill, the transformation of the Gator Bowl into an NFL stadium, the River City Renaissance bond issue — where major projects disappeared — the proposed Shipyard project, the highway and overpass construction, some of which were handed out without the required public bids.
By far, however, the biggest slush fund of them all was the illegal $2.2-billion Better Jacksonville Plan (BJP). With interest on its bonds, the sum exceeded $3 billion. Projects beneath its umbrella included a new Downtown library, a City Hall structure, a ballpark stadium, a new arena, all kinds of highways and a new courthouse. Due to construction manipulation of the proposed courthouse, including unlawful actions, the cost exploded from $190 million to more than $350 million. In May 2000, Mayor John Delaney said the courthouse project’s cost would not exceed $190 million. At the same time, the Florida Times-Union quoted Susan Wiles, Delaney’s chief of staff, as saying, “Regardless of which plan is chosen, the cost will not exceed $190 million, including construction, renovation, land, furnishings and parking. The new or renovated courthouse will be functional, not opulent, the mayor will not permit any gold plating.” The real power behind the courthouse promotion and what it contained was Chief Judge Donald R. Moran Jr. He repeatedly denied that ordinance 2000-572-E, on which the BJP is authorized, violated court rulings by Florida’s Supreme Court, or rulings by Florida Attorneys General.
We have previously cited examples of Moran either disregarding or being ignorant of Florida law. The same was true of Delaney, also the City Council, and the General Counsel’s office. All three — Moran, the judge who presided over the grand jury, and Delaney — should have recused themselves from the case because each had a conflict of interest. The final 12-page grand jury report contained no mention of the clear violations that were reported in the news media. Both Delaney and Moran were also members of the mayor’s Professional Service Evaluation Committee (PSEC), which was involved with selecting winning bids for contracts under the plan.
The city of Jacksonville referendum with the half-cent increase in the sales tax was approved on Sept. 5, 2000. It was D-Day for Delaney. Earlier, on July 18, Mayor Delaney was interviewed by Tom Patton, news director for WJCT-TV. Patton asked Delany, “How much of this Better Jacksonville Plan is etched in stone? How much of it is at the discretion of yourself, city council, future mayors, future city councils? What’s to prevent a future city council or a future mayor from amending the statute that was passed, to suit their vision of what’s a Better Jacksonville?”
Delaney responded, “It’s not amendable. It’s a vote of the people. And when the people vote in something like this, it is absolutely etched in stone. It is etched in volcanic rock. It is etched in granite. The people vote it in … And the only way to change the plan, the BJP, is through a referendum. So no mayor can touch it. No city council can touch it. The projects that are listing must absolutely be done by law.”
The office of Florida’s Attorney General and rulings by Florida’s courts agree with the mayor. They have all ruled that projects listed in a tax increase referendum can be amended only by another public referendum. A former Jacksonville General Counsel rendered the same opinion.
However, the provision included in the ordinance states: “… the countywide road, infrastructure and transportation improvements are itemized in the ‘City of Jacksonville Transportation and Infrastructure 2000-2010 Work Program’ which is attached as Exhibit A … Amendments to this work program as financed by the BJP half-cent sales surtax, may be made in the City Council for just cause only but as deemed necessary; provided however substituting a project shall be made only by the City Council upon a vote of two-thirds of all City Council members (13 votes).” This makes the ordinance unlawful.
Nevertheless, the ordinance, with this unlawful section, was enacted by the City Council on July 11, and approved by Mayor Delaney on July 12. He signed the illegal ordinance just six days before telling Patton that the projects in the ordinance could not be amended except by another public referendum. The unlawful amending power given to City Council covers $1.5 billion (68 percent) of the $2.2 billion BJP projects. It makes a mockery of the public referendum. Nowhere in the ordinance are “just cause” and “deemed necessary” defined. The reality is that the city council long ago eliminated some of these listed projects and added new ones. Nothing in the 12-page report of the grand jury contained a discussion about the invalid referendum. And some of the violations in the court construction negotiations were not included.
A subsequent lawsuit filed by former state representative Andy Johnson asked the Fourth Judicial Circuit Court to issue an injunction striking the BJP referendum from the Sept. 5 ballot. Johnson, through his attorney, charged that the ordinance covering the plan and its referendum violated state law.
Chief Circuit Judge Donald R. Moran Jr. rejected Johnson’s charge that the referendum’s wording was misleading. The Florida Times-Union reported Moran’s ruling was issued less than one hour after arguments were made. Moran said Johnson did not have a case to justify withdrawal of the referendum, saying, “The most important thing that’s been established is the general principle that courts shouldn’t interfere with the democratic process.”
On the contrary, the court’s primary responsibility is to uphold the law and protect the public from those who violate it. The court should have concerned itself with the question, “Do the ordinance and referendum violate state law?” Based on numerous rulings and opinions by Florida’s courts and Attorney General’s Office covering rulings and opinions on similar referendums, the answer is “Yes.”
According to Johnson, the half-cent sales tax referendum violated a state law that governs the wording of ballot questions. Specifically, the law prohibits questions that editorialize about the issue at hand in any way. Were it properly worded, the recent referendum would have asked the voters to simply vote “For the half-cent sales tax increase” or vote “Against the half-cent sales tax increase.”
Notice that no optional wording appears in that example. Such was not the case for the Better Jacksonville referendum, which appeared on the ballot in this form:
“For the Better Jacksonville 1/2 cent sales tax (YES)”
“Against the Better Jacksonville 1/2 cent sales tax (NO)”
The Sept. 5 question’s wording editorializes and politicizes because it implies a vote “against” the plan is a vote “against a Better Jacksonville.”
Both Mayor Delaney and Judge Moran, by their spending $350 million on a construction debacle — the Courthouse — and their ignoring Florida law explains why, over the years, so many projects end up in the cesspool.