In The Public Interest

50 Years Of Jacksonville’s City/County Consolidation

5

by James B. Crooks, for Jaxlookout,  October 21, 2018

JACKSONVILLE IN THE 1960s

The old Atlantic Coast Line RR (now CSX) building and original civic auditorium (now the TU Performing Arts Center). 

On the surface, mid-1960s Jacksonville, Florida, looked prosperous. Under Haydon Burns’s sixteen years as mayor, much of downtown had been re-built with new waterfront parking lots, city hall, county courthouse, civic auditorium, American Coast Line Railroad home office, Prudential Insurance Company Southeast Regional Home Office, Robert Meyer Hotel, Sears Roebuck superstore, and more. Burns was popular with most voters and ran successfully for governor in November, 1964.

Beneath the surface, however, people in the know knew Jacksonville had big problems. It was the most expensive city for its size in the country, with the most employees for a city its size in the country.

There were stories of extravagance and corruption. City commissioners over five years had purchased 168 automobiles from one dealer without competitive bids paying maximum price for each car. City officials used these cars for private as well as public transportation charging the cost of fuel on city credit cards. Often the cards were unsigned, but the city paid the bill.

The city spent more on insurance premiums than did Miami, Tampa and St. Petersburg combined. Individual commissioners and council members were known to charge televisions, watches and jewelry purchased on city credit cards.

All of these shenanigans were exposed in a series of investigative reports on WJXT in February, 1965. They led in turn to a grand jury which indicted two of five city commissioners, four of nine city council members and two other ranking city employees. Not all were convicted, but one gets the picture.

There were other issues. Duval County high schools had been disaccredited by state and national accrediting agencies for inadequate funding, overcrowding and unsafe schools.

The St. Johns River and its tributaries were badly polluted. Homes along the river, businesses, hospitals and governmental buildings dumped more than fifteen million gallons of raw sewage daily into the St Johns. The tributaries were not much better. Critics called McCoy’s Creek an “open sewer.”

Odor pollution from two pulp paper mills and two chemical plants that processed sulfate turpentine into perfumes created a “rotten cabbage” smell that challenged the Gator Bowl as the city’s number one claim to fame or infamy. Further, there was no systematic solid waste disposal. Most garbage and trash went to open dumps or onto vacant lands.

From the riots of 1960

In addition, the mid-1960s was still an era of segregation. Until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Jacksonville was a deep South segregated city. There had been protests like Axe Handle Saturday in 1960 but only minimal change. Schools, restaurants, theaters, hospitals, housing, parks and beaches were segregated by race. City hall had separate black and white drinking fountains.

Further the proportion of African Americans in Jacksonville was increasing. An estimated 42 percent of the approximately 200,000 residents in the mid-sixties were black. Whites were moving to the suburbs and many folks, blacks and whites, saw the probability of a black majority city in the not too distant future. While many African Americans may have looked forward to this outcome, many whites feared it.

Meanwhile the suburbs and rural areas of Duval County had their own problems. Population had more than doubled in the twenty years after World War II. Some 327,000 folks settled in Arlington, San Jose, Cedar Hills, Ortega Farms, Lake Forest, Sherwood Forest, Ribault Gardens and the beach communities.

Map showing the old boundaries of the pre-consolidation city within the new boundaries

Duval County’s commission form of government could not keep up with this rapid growth. Many schools were on double sessions. There was inadequate police protection and a largely volunteer fire department. Sewage and solid waste were disposed into septic tanks, streams and open dumps. There were few parks and libraries. A largely impotent county government was overwhelmed.

Recognizing this mess, Claude Yates, Vice President of Southern Bell and incoming president of the Chamber of Commerce, invited 23 community leaders to lunch in January, 1965, to discuss conditions, failed prior annexation attempts and next moves. The consensus was to propose city/county consolidation.

The resulting Yates Manifestor called on the Florida legislature to authorize a Local Study Commission, which it did in March, 1965. It was chaired by J. J. Daniel, a quintessentially establishment leader. The day to day work and staffing was handled by Lex Hester, a brilliant young federal government employee who saw both the big picture and details of government and governmental administration.

The Study Commission met for a year. It examined prior consolidations, particularly Nashville/Davidson County, Tennessee, and proposed replacing both local and county governments with a new “City of Jacksonville.”

Cover of the consolidation plan

The new city would have a strong mayor, a city council with district representation ensuring black participation, streamlined governance and promises for major infrastructure improvements to inner city neighborhoods including street paving, water, sewers, street lighting and more. This “Blueprint for Progress” was approved and published in December, 1966. It went to the state legislature the following session.

Opposition to city/county consolidation came in several forms. The beach communities and rural Baldwin did not want to lose their identities and opposed inclusion. The incumbent Democratic Party leadership opposed losing power. City and county employees feared for their jobs and their unions opposed consolidation. Others saw too much power located in the executive branch; a few even saw a communist takeover.

In Tallahassee, Jacksonville’s five state senators, both Republican and Democratic, supported consolidation. In the House, six of eleven state representatives opposed it. And they could block passage.

This became the White Hat-Black Hat conflict with supporters being the White Hats and opponents the Black Hats. Chairman Daniel and Lex Hester sent Jim Rinaman, Jack Chambers and Ted Grissett, three bright young lawyers, to Tallahassee to lead a lobbying effort on behalf of consolidation.

They negotiated the separation and autonomy for the beaches and Baldwin communities. They reduced the proposed size of city council from 21 to 19 members with 14 districts and 5 members at-large. They changed the sheriff from being appointed by the mayor to being elected, as before. There were others. One opponent was persuaded to change his vote and authorization for a Consolidation referendum passed on June 20th.

The next step was the Campaign for Consolidation on the referendum scheduled for August 8th, not the best time of year for an election on a complex and controversial topic. While Claude Yates chaired the campaign, again Les Hester was the master tactician on the front lines.

Alexander Lewis “Lex” Hester, leading strategist and tactician of the consolidation campaign

Hester recruited volunteers from women’s groups, the NAACP and Urban League. Sallye Mathis, a person of color recently elected to city council, was a major supporter. While volunteers went door to door and made phone calls, Mathis drove through northside neighborhoods with a loud speaker mounted on her station wagon urging support for consolidation. Hester also recruited endorsements from most civic and professional groups: attorneys, architects, doctors, etc. The Times Unionand Jacksonville Journalplus all three television stations endorsed consolidation.

The two black newspaper opposed consolidation as not being in the interests of the black community as did black community leaders Frank Hampton and Mary Singleton. The beach communities were adamantly opposed as was the Democratic County Executive Committee, Central Labor Union and anti-tax citizen groups.

On election day 84,000 voters turned out, 45 percent of the electorate, a surprisingly high turnout. Consolidation won 64.7 percent of the vote in both city and county. African Americans gave it a 57 percent majority. At the beaches, 52 percent agreed that the new consolidated city could become their county while maintaining their autonomy as Atlantic, Neptune and Jacksonville beach communities. Rural precincts and Baldwin voted no.

Besides the substantial support for the referendum, there were two noteworthy results. A majority of African Americans favored it as did county voters who had opposed prior annexation efforts. A key factor in the results was the turnout and Lex Hester’s success with door-to-door canvassing, speakers bureaus and media support.

IMPLEMENTATION

Consolidation began formally on October 1, 1968. Hans Tanzler, recently elected mayor under the old system, was re-elected as first mayor of Consolidated Jacksonville with a 19-member city council including four African Americans. Tanzler appointed Lex Hester as his chief administrative officer.

Mayor Hans Tanzler

The first challenge was actually creating the consolidated government. This meant combining 4500 city and 4500 county employees into one united government. City and county law enforcement officials began working together under the leadership of FBI-trained Sheriff Dale Carson. County volunteer fire fighters were replaced by paid professionals and new fire stations added. A general counsel’s office combined legal services spread across multiple jurisdictions under the leadership of Judge William Durden. A Central Services division combined motor pool, human resources, purchasing, public relations and data processing under one director. A newly formed Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA) replaced the old city electric commission. And more.

Actress Burgess Meredith and Mayor Hans Tanzler in an iconic photo of Jacksonville, The Bold New City of the South

The Tanzler administration began urban renewal programs to re-build the core city, abolishing remnants of the old Hansontown slums and building low income housing for seniors and others. The city accepted the opportunity to acquire one and one-half miles of beach front on the ocean to create the 450-acre Kathryn Abby Hannah Park, a rare jewel for the consolidated city.

Probably the biggest achievement was to begin cleaning up the St Johns River from Julington Creek to the Atlantic Ocean. The hospitals, city hall, court house, homes and businesses along the river dumped 15 million gallons of raw sewage into the river daily. Chicken processing plants, restaurants and motels added their wastes into local tributaries. Yet by 1977, the river was clean enough for the Mayor and Cypress Garden performers to water ski highlighting the St. Johns River Day Festival.

Mayor Tanzler water skiing with young women from Cypress Gardens celebrating the clean up of the river

The achievements of the Tanzler administration received national recognition. In 1969, the National Municipal League awarded Jacksonville its All-American City Award.

Tanzler resigned the mayoralty in 1979 to run for governor (and lost). Yet Consolidated Jacksonville had gotten off to a good start accomplishing things the old city government never could have done.

City Council president Jake Godbold succeeded Tanzler and was twice elected over the next eight years. Godbold’s first election was a surprise victory as the establishment that supported consolidation initially opposed him. However, Godbold built his own public-private partnership with the business community and continued consolidation forward.

Mayor Jake Godbold

One of his most significant achievements was building on Tanzler’s beginning the river clean up recognizing the potential of the St Johns River to enhance the image and quality of life in Jacksonville. The new mayor joined with the Chamber of Commerce trips to Baltimore to see its inner harbor, and to San Antonio to see its river walk and entertainment opportunities.

Back home he supported the creation of Metropolitan Park on the river, Jacksonville Landing, south bank riverwalk and Convention Center as steps to focus more of the city on the river.

The Jacksonville Landing when it opened in the 1980s

As the economy prospered nationally in the 1980s, the mayor also supported the development of the suburbs to East Arlington and south into Mandarin. His administration also applied for the All-American City Award, but got its knuckles rapped for not controlling suburban sprawl. The absence of impact fees, growth management policies and enforcement of a comprehensive citywide plan were the stated reasons. Uncontrolled growth was not an asset in a large city. Still a subsequent mayor called Godbold “a great cheerleader for Jacksonville.”

Mayor Tommy Hazouri

Jacksonville’s next mayor, Tommy Hazouri (1987-1991), focused the city in a different direction in his one term of office.

First, he secured passage of a referendum to abolish the tolls across the Trout and St Johns Rivers, and along Butler Boulevard substituting a half cent sales tax for the tolls. This achievement of consolidated government lessened traffic congestion at the bridges and eased auto exhaust pollution notably. No longer was Jacksonville known as the “toll city” of Florida.

Removing the toll booths: Hazouri is at the right managing the wrecking ball

Second, and perhaps more importantly, Hazouri enlisted the support of W. C. Gentry as a dollar-a-year man to challenge Jacksonville’s four major odor polluters. The rotten egg odors from paper mills and chemical plants were notorious. Next to the Gator Bowl, they probably were its best-known characteristic, and not a positive one. Combining strong legislation with substantial penalties and strict enforcement, the Hazouri administration began the process of cleaning the air over much of Jacksonville.

This achievement may have done more to improve Jacksonville’s reputation across the state than anything else since consolidation. And it could only have been done as a result of consolidation. The paper mills and chemical plants were mostly outside the old city’s boundaries.

In 1991 Hazouri was defeated for re-election by the popular state attorney, Ed Austin. The new mayor was from the generation that achieved city/county consolidation, and was imbued with the spirit of achieving great things.

Mayor Edward T. “Ed” Austin

His first step was to bring back Lex Hester as his Chief Administrative Officer and focusing on creating an efficient, professional city administration. One prime example was converting the city Housing and Urban Development division, one of the worst in the nation, into the independent Jacksonville Housing Authority under the leadership of David Hicks and Ronnie Ferguson. It became one of the best in the nation. Austin also created the long overdue Jacksonville Children’s Commission.

Austin, in partnership with the Jacksonville Chamber Commerce, reached out to residents across the city’s 840 square miles to create Jacksonville Insight. It became a twelve-month project representing citizens from all parts of the consolidated city setting priorities for the next stage of Jacksonville’s growth.

The results led to the River City Renaissance converting the stately St. James Building into the city hall. It re-built the Gator Bowl to welcome the Jaguars, renovated the civic auditorium into the beautiful Times Union Center for the Performing Arts, and supported the construction of the Sulzbacher Center for homeless residents.

Austin’s Jacksonville Renaissance focusing on the stadium

Perhaps the capstone of the Austin Administration was acquiring the Jaguars National Football League team. Once more Jacksonville was the Bold New City of the South with coach Tom Coughlin, quarterback Mark Brunell and hard running Fred Taylor. Austin always said that Jacksonville’s consolidated government was a key factor in attracting the Jaguars to this regional city with a relatively small population.

Austin decided not to run for re-election and the voters chose his chief of staff, John Delaney, to succeed him. From 1995 to 2003, Delaney built upon his predecessor’s beginnings.

Mayor John Delaney

Delaney’s Better Jacksonville Plan expanded upon the River City Renaissance. It was funded by a half cent sales tax approved by the voters. Over 840 square miles the consolidated city built new roads, libraries, parks and fire stations in the suburbs; and downtown a new central library, courthouse and sports complex.

The capstone, not yet fully appreciated locally, was the Timucuan Ecological Preserve bringing federal, state and city lands together, partly for preservation and partly to serve families and tourists coming to the city. The Delaney administration created the largest park system by acreage in the United States.

A view of the Timucuan Preserve, which Mayor Delaney’s administration initiated

In addition, Delaney achieved national recognition for the St Johns as an American Heritage River. In turn, the National Municipal League recognized the achievements once again identifying Jacksonville as an All-American City.

Twelve years of Austin and Delaney as mayors did much to create a spirit of progress not much seen since the early days of Consolidation. Jacksonville was once again on the move, and it helped having the Jaguars in town.

Mayor John Peyton, 2003-2011, began slowly but picked up steam with his Blueprint for Prosperity Partnership with the Chamber to provide educational and job opportunities for all Jacksonville residents. Unfortunately, the Blueprint succumbed to the Great Recession beginning in 2008.

Mayor John Peyton

In another major effort, Peyton also created the Jacksonville Journey designed to combat crime in a city embarrassed by its high homicide rate. It focused much of its energies on after school and summer programs to enable inner city youth avoid crime and have better opportunities in their lives. Unfortunately, it reached only about 20 percent of the need. It too took a major hit with the arrival of the Great Recession and a new administration. Peyton’s efforts to build on the Austin-Delaney successes met frustration in large part due to the recession.

Mayor Alvin Brown

Mayor Alvin Brown, elected in 2011, became Jacksonville’s first African American mayor. He too had to deal with the repercussions of the Great Recession reducing tax revenues, affecting city programs and employees. He did manage, however, to focus on downtown needs with the creation of the Downtown Investment Authority and the Office of Economic Development. He began to reform the city’s pension system and supported efforts to gentrify the Brooklyn neighborhood. He also continued prior efforts to encourage people and businesses to move downtown.

Mayor Lenny Curry

Mayor Lenny Curry, elected in 2015 is still in his first term, too early for an historian to offer judgment. Clearly there has been pension reform. There also are many promises for downtown and some beginnings, but Jacksonville has heard promises before.

EVALUATING CITY/CONSOLIDATION

How do we sum up this consolidation story covering fifty years? Clearly there have been substantial results. Compare Jacksonville today with its highly partisan, corrupt and inefficient predecessor. Police and fire systems are professionally run. As are public health, education, port, airport, JEA, JTA and more. There have been major improvements in the environment: the odor removal in our air, systematic refuse removal on the land and cleaning up much of our waterways. Challenges continue but the St. Johns is now an American Heritage River, the Timucuan Preserve has received national recognition, and our air is clean to breathe.

The educational system from pre-k to graduate school is much expanded and improved. More needs to be done, but few cities can match schools like Stanton, Paxon and Douglas Anderson School of the Arts. Fifty years ago, FSCJ was a struggling new junior college, not yet accredited, teaching students in old navy Quonset huts. UNF had not yet opened its doors.

The suburbs, the part of Duval County once outside the old city, have developed with schools, libraries, parks, fire and police station, shopping centers, hospitals and cultural venues.

All of these achievements are real, but of course all also are impermanent. What was the new city hall and court house in the 1950s needed to be replaced in the 1990s and early 2000s. The Acosta and Fuller Warren bridges also were replaced. Philips Mall no longer exists as such, and Regency Mall is a threatened species. Change challenges all cities and requires constructive, sometimes expensive responses. At times Jacksonville has not fared well in meeting these challenges.

Part of the reason lies in the city’s approach to taxation. From the beginning Mayor Tanzler took pride in reducing property taxes. Every mayor followed suit. In 1973, Jacksonville University Professor Joan Carver analyzed the value of a one mill tax cut for the average homeowner. The amount was $10 per year. Of course, for CSX and Prudential, and wealthy homeowners, it was more. But as Preston Haskell, a substantial taxpayer himself has written, a city never became great by reducing its taxes.

At a city council meeting on September 26, 1989, before passing the city’s budget, four African American council members walked out protesting the failure to include funding for infrastructure on the north side while funding several projects in Mandarin and the south side. The city council president directed sheriff’s deputies to return the members to council chambers and the budget was passed. But the protests continued. Mayor Hazouri found some money for one of the north side projects, but when asked why not more, he replied that he could not divert money from Mandarin. No mention was made of raising the millage rate in support of infrastructure projects in the old city as promised the in the original Blueprint for Prosperity.

Urban renewal in LaVilla

The African American community has other concerns about consolidation. For example, there was the razing of LaVilla in the name of urban renewal in the 1990s destroying an historic African American neighborhood.

In a community symposium in 1993 hosted by UNF entitled “Race Relations in Jacksonville Since Consolidation,” a panel of black and white participants reflected on the past 25 years. (Full disclosure: Dr. Carolyn Williams and I set up and co-moderated the symposium.) The great proportion of speakers, community leaders like the Rev. Charles Dailey, former School Board chair Wendell Holmes, State Senator Betty Holzendorf, State Representative Willye Dennis, Chief Jerome Spates, the Rev. John Allen Newman and Alton Yates criticized school desegregation, police-community relations and the failure to fulfill the original promises of consolidation in providing adequate public services in the old city. At least two speakers felt that consolidation had done little to bring blacks and whites together over the past 25 years as seen in the largely segregated north and south sides of town.

The original unfulfilled promises for the old city where most African Americans then lived were recognized in the recent Blueprint for Prosperity II publishes in 2014. It was undertaken by a special city council task force chaired by council member Lori Boyer. This second Blueprint recommended setting aside a certain percentage of Annual Capital Improvement dollars to be directed toward catching up on road paving, street lights, sidewalks, water and sewer services, refuse collection and flood protection in the old city. Four years later, the recommendation remains just that.

The 2014 report on consolidated government led by Council member Lorrie Boyer

Council member Boyer’s task force saw other areas in which 21stcentury consolidated government might focus. It included paying more attention to neighborhoods; and developing a comprehensive city-wide strategic plan in order to set clearer direction in which the city might grow. Membership would include not only representatives from the mayor’s office and city council, but also from the sheriff and other constitutional officers, school board and independent authorities. A third area of concern was the quality and utilization of our waterways, one of the defining characteristics of our consolidated city.

One of the issues not considered by the task force in those pre-Hurricane Irma days was the impact of climate change on our waterways, adjacent neighborhoods and beach communities.

Fifty years of consolidation presents a remarkable story of Jacksonville’s growth and development. Most areas of government—public schools, police, fire fighting, public utilities, public health—are run professionally, not like under the old partisan spoils system. The city is facing up to many of its environmental responsibilities. The suburbs thrive and downtown is a work in progress.

Fifty years of consolidation is also a story of limitations. While many African Americans have achieved prominence as mayor, sheriff, school superintendent and chair of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce, the African American community overall has been short changed in services to the community. One challenge looking forward is to correct this deficiency.

Another challenge is to respond effectively to rapid changes in technology and society, which cost money. Jacksonville as a community is growing older. Drug epidemics cripple too many people, young and old, black and white, rich and poor. Violence remains a characteristic of our city. Climate change is happening with rising sea levels and harsh storms.

Twenty-five years ago, Consolidation’s first mayor, Hans Tanzler, summarized his feelings about the Jacksonville experience as follows:

“I’m often asked the question: ‘Has it [consolidation] been everything you thought it would be?’ My answer has been: ‘No, but then I can’t think of anything in life that can meet that test! Consolidation is not an answer and solution to all the complexities of urban America. It is simply a superior mechanism….No government is better than the people elected to run it!”

Continuing, Tanzler added, “Consolidation has been described as Jacksonville’s ‘Greatest Moment.’ I believe that…we have the capacity to determine our future. To decide what we want this area to be like 25 years from now….We have no excuse. It is in our hands and it is ours to win or lose.”

The same might be said today, 25 years later in 2018, in our civic story about who we are, what we have done and what we still need to do.

The same might be said today, 25 years later in 2018, in our civic story about who we are, what we have done and what we still need to do.

(Images courtesy of the author)

Editor’s Notes: 

According to the Federal Reserve Banks of St. Louis and Atlanta, at the height of the Great Recession, Jacksonville’s unemployment rate reached 11.2% in July 2010 and 9.8% of all home liens were in foreclosure in December 2011.

Mayors, terms in office, and affiliations:

Consolidated city mayors Name Took Office Left Office Party
1 Hans Tanzler March 1, 1968 July 1, 1979 Democrat
2 Jake Godbold July 1, 1979 July 1, 1987 Democrat
3 Tommy Hazouri July 1, 1987 July 1, 1991 Democrat
4 Ed Austin, Jr.[1][2] July 1, 1991 July 1, 1995 Democrat / Republican
5 John Delaney July 1, 1995 July 1, 2003 Republican
6 John Peyton July 1, 2003 July 1, 2011 Republican
7 Alvin Brown July 1, 2011 July 1, 2015 Democrat
8 Lenny Curry July 1, 2015 Incumbent Republican

About the author

James B. Crooks

James B. Crooks is professor emeritus of history from the University of North Florida.

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