October 23, 2019
In The Public Interest

Charter Revision Commission

“A municipal charter is the basic document that defines the organization, powers, functions and essential procedures of the city government. The charter is, therefore, the most important legal document of any city.” ~ Wikipedia

Jacksonville is in the midst of taking a once-a-decade, long, hard look at its charter. A Charter Revision Commission comprising 15 members appointed by then-City Council President Aaron Bowman is currently mulling ways city government can function to better provide for the health, happiness and success of Jacksonville and its inhabitants.

The 15 comprise a diverse and varied group demographically, geographically and economically. Their stated priorities for the CRC are as disparate as they, and their occupations range from media – former Florida Times-Union editor Frank Denton is among their ranks – to business, healthcare, education and, for several, law. How much they differ politically is less clear.

Several commissioners have connections to the mayor, including three of the four added when Bowman expanded the group from 11 to 15 in June. Jessica Baker worked for the Curry administration; her husband, Tim Baker, is the architect of Curry’s mayoral campaigns. She and commissioner Chris Hagan’s firm contributed to Curry’s 2019 campaign. June appointee W.C. Gentry contributed to the mayor’s 2015 campaign. Curry’s PAC contributed to June appointee Nick Howland’s unsuccessful 2019 school board campaign.

Council Member Aaron Bowman watches Mayor Curry speak.

The CRC is currently in the beginning phase of a term that lasts a maximum of eight months, at the end of which it will issue recommendations. It hopes to finalize the topics it focuses on by the end of October. To that end, the CRC is scheduling two town hall meetings this month to solicit public input.

Though relatively early in the process (the first meeting was held July 31), some themes are already arising. The CRC has discussed the balance of powers, improving citywide and neighborhood-specific planning and services, the manner in which the Office of General Counsel functions, and matters concerning local elections and elected officials, as well as boards, authorities and commissions.

For anyone who’s combed through the reports of the 2009-2010 CRC and 2014 task force on consolidated government, this round of CRC meetings will at times impart a sense of déjà vu. Then, as now, there’s talk of the unfulfilled promises of the 1968 consolidation, charter versus public schools, developing a strategic citywide vision, the budget process, local elections, OGC, independent authorities, term limits, and, as ever, downtown development.

One difference thus far between this CRC and that of a decade ago concerns the strong mayor system of government. The 2010 CRC recommended strengthening the office by moving to a mayor-appointed school board, rather than elected, and giving the chief executive even more power over the budget; several members of this CRC seem more concerned with whether the office has too much power. Only time will tell whether these early concerns make their way into its recommendations.

It is possible that this could turn out to be essentially an exercise in futility, much like the previous CRC, which ultimately affected little change. Several commissioners have expressed precisely this concern and wondered whether it should recommend giving successive CRCs more power.

The CRC has no authority to amend the charter or even to set such in motion by getting its recommendations on the ballot. There are only four ways to amend the city charter: 1) City Council ordinance, subject to limitations; 2) City Council ordinance followed by voter referendum; 3) special act of the Florida legislature; and 4) voter referendum following ballot initiative.

The matters it’s weighing nevertheless echo many of the challenges and concerns expressed by residents and representatives of Jacksonville.

Many of the topics coming before the CRC are pulled straight from conflicts playing out in the news. The school system, general counsel, and JEA have all been featured in both. Other matters, such as the strong mayor government, budget process and ethics code, are perennial.

This summer, as City Council, the OGC and the Duval County School Board tangled over whether the latter’s request for a tax referendum would appear on the November ballot (the matter is currently in litigation), the CRC was inviting people to discuss the school system, including how the board and superintendent are selected. Currently Jacksonville elects a School Board, which appoints the superintendent.

During the Sept. 13 meeting, State Rep. Jason Fischer tried to drum up support for his proposal to elect the superintendent. Fischer claimed he’d knocked on “210 doors” in the past few days and said that 80% of people who answered supported making the superintendent an elected office. He also noted that the majority of counties elect this position.

The CRC didn’t seem to have much appetite for this, however. Gentry pointed out that the largest counties in Florida and 100 largest in the nation appoint their superintendent. Matt Schellenberg wondered if the school board would essentially become “useless.” He also took issue with Fischer’s data.

“My experience is that no one likes the elected school board superintendent,” Schellenberg said of the district, which he formerly represented part of on City Council.

Celestine Mills – after noting that Duval County elected its superintendent prior to consolidation, when its school system was discredited – asked Fischer where he’d been unofficially polling voters. After conceding that he’d only talked to people in Mandarin, he said, “I have plans, over the course of the next 45 days – I’ll probably hit 1,700 doors or so in the course of that time to grab different communities in each part of [my] district.”

Mills subsequently asked Fischer if he planned to send people to poll in other areas, like the Northwest quadrant, where schools are crumbling and in otherwise poor condition. “Consolidation has not worked in the urban core for over 50 years,” she said, later adding, “It doesn’t just affect where you live; it affects the whole city.”

As ever, charter schools and, by proxy, money lurk in the background of debates about education. Duval’s schools have a $1.6 billion budget; the half-penny sales tax it wants on the ballot will raise an estimated $2 billion for renovations and repairs. By comparison, the city’s budget is just north of $1 billion. School choice proponents say they fight to improve education; public education supporters say the school choice camp is motivated by money and power.

Overall, the CRC currently seems reluctant to wade into murky, highly politicized waters surrounding the school board’s fight with City Council and, some say, the mayor’s office (and his charter school supporting donors), over the tax referendum, which many believe is being held up because charter school proponents want more money from the school system.

If the commission does recommend electing the superintendent or an appointed school board, by the mayor or otherwise, the voters will get the final say. The charter requires a referendum.

Several members of the commission and people appearing before it have delved into potentially revising the role and structure of the Office of General Counsel, as well as how the general counsel is selected.

“The issue of the Office of General Counsel and how it’s appointed, its extensive power has been the subject of comment by many people,” Gentry said at the Sept. 13 meeting.

There have been criticisms of it in the past. The 2014 task force on consolidated government identified “discontent with the perceived partiality of the Office of General Counsel” as a problem in its final report.

The role of OGC has recently become the focus of intense scrutiny citywide. The general counsel is among the many positions that are mayor-appointed and council-affirmed under the charter. The OGC represents the independent authorities, all branches of government, and drafts legislation for the Duval Delegation. General Counsel Jason Gabriel, who publicly supported Mayor Curry’s candidacy, has repeatedly made decisions and issued binding opinions that critics say give the mayor what he wants.

Gabriel has also taken what some call the extraordinary position that the independent authorities and branches of government must use the Office of General Counsel in a dispute with another authority or branch. In July, Gabriel refused the School Board’s request to seek its own representation in its dispute with City Council. Previous general counsels have allowed independent agencies to hire outside attorneys in such disputes. The School Board subsequently defied Gabriel’s order and engaged a team of high-powered local attorneys to sue the city.

Florida Bar rules broadly prohibit attorneys in the same firm from representing opposing parties. Yet the charter is silent on this issue, providing that the OGC “may” allow an independent agency or branch of government to seek its own counsel.

Based on this, according to the Florida Times-Union, in a July email to School Board Chair Lori Hershey, Gabriel said, “There is no charter authority for obtaining outside counsel to challenge the opinion of the office.”

City Councilwoman Randy DeFoor has concerns about the omnipotent role of the OGC to decide whether the authorities or branches of government can hire their own attorneys. In late September, DeFoor, who works as a corporate general counsel, told Florida Politics that she views the situation as “a crisis of the charter itself.”

“We have a general counsel who is advising all of these groups where there’s an inherent conflict,” she said. The council is facing a similar matter. Some on City Council want the body to hire its own representation for the looming potential sale of JEA. (Disclosure: My spouse is a JEA employee.) Gabriel has refused.

The OGC’s authority to issue binding opinions, which can be exceptionally difficult to review or overturn, is also being questioned. There are technically two ways to overturn a binding opinion from the general counsel: through the courts and by requesting an opinion from the Florida Attorney General. But there is some question whether these means are available as a practical matter if the OGC can deny permission to do either.

Commissioner Schellenberg said of the OGC that the charter “instills excessive power in an unelected person.”

At the time of consolidation, the OGC was created to arbitrate disputes within city government, which saves both time and money. “General counsel’s office is the glue that holds our government together,” Mike Weinstein, formerly chief financial officer with the Curry administration, opined at the Aug. 16 CRC meeting. On Sept. 13, Rep. Fischer commended the general counsel’s authority to issue binding opinions and claimed that branches of governments in South Florida cities that don’t have a similar office are constantly suing each other, at great cost to the taxpayer.

Concerns about the general counsel’s office have led several on the CRC to express interest in altering both its authority and how the general counsel is appointed. Some ideas include term limits, using a nominating committee, restructuring the office to require each authority and branch of government to have its own independent general counsel, and adding limitations or a review process to binding opinions. At the Sept. 13 meeting, Sheriff Mike Williams said he hadn’t had any issues with the general counsel’s office, but noted, “I may be the only sheriff in the state that doesn’t have his own attorney.”

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Jacksonville’s strong mayor form of government has come up as the CRC maps out its areas of focus.

The system of government has been critiqued in the past, but many feel that Curry’s approach to the office has exposed exploitable flaws in strong mayor government, pointing to moves like his unprecedented purge of independent boards and commissions shortly after taking office. He was the first mayor to do so. Conversely, some worry about whether making drastic recommendations in response to his actions will unfairly hamstring the next mayor.

The close alignment between the mayor and City Council has also given rise to complaints that the city is essentially being run according to the will of the mayor alone. The system is supposed to provide a balance of power, and when mayors have been at odds with council, it has done so. At the Aug. 16 meeting, Schellenberg said that the system was “out of whack, there’s no balance.”

Questions about the mayor’s appointment and budgetary powers have started to crop up in the conversation. Having such broad appointment power over the independent authorities, boards and commissions allowed Curry to wipe out anyone who didn’t “share his vision” and put in their place people critics say will do whatever the mayor wants.

Several of the tentative topics the CRC plans to tackle are associated with empowering City Council to provide a better check on mayoral power. According to its current list of topics, the CRC may review the council’s role in the budget, whether election dates should be moved to allow councilors more time in office before they vote on a budget, and “other steps that may increase the council’s ability to better balance the ‘strong mayor.’”

Although it hasn’t spent much time on JEA yet, in part because CEO Aaron Zahn has thus far refused to speak to the CRC, the local municipal utility has come up a few times. The current talk of the town is associated with selling JEA, a boomerang of a local topic that comes back every time it’s rejected. This is the first time that bids are actively being solicited.

Like much of the electorate, some commissioners are clearly interested in the subject. At the Sept. 20 meeting, Gentry discussed discrepancies between the grim picture JEA is painting of its future and the optimistic forecasts of the same available elsewhere. “A state entity that is made up of power companies has determined that the future of electricity is not nearly as bleak as JEA has indicated and there seems to be a real discrepancy regarding the data regarding some important issues to the community regarding the privatization of JEA,” he said, before asking Council Auditor Kyle Billy if his office would be tasked with ferreting out the truth if the matter comes before council. Billy answered that yes, his office would do so.

Regardless of its interest, there isn’t much that the CRC can do to effect whether JEA is sold to the highest bidder, except perhaps use its platform to draw attention to the issue. The CRC can make recommendations about altering how it and other boards are chosen and by whom, be it the mayor, city council, an independent group, or, less likely, the voters.

Chief among other perennial local topics of discussion being considered by the CRC is making good on the promises of consolidation. At the time, urban neighborhoods, many majority-black, were promised that they would receive funding and attention equal to the majority-white areas that used to be the suburbs in terms of funding and otherwise.

That didn’t happen. Fifty years later, districts near the city’s center are crumbling and neglected. This CRC, like the one before, and the task force, will likely make some much-needed recommendations to address this problem.

“We have to look at all of the factors that have left the urban core behind,” said commissioner Charles Griggs, noting that he doesn’t believe it was intentional.

The CRC may also similarly seek to beef up ethics requirements; improve developing citywide strategic plans; pay more attention to individual neighborhoods and better address their unique, specific needs; recommend different term limits and lengths or nonpartisan local elections. Among the more interesting topics that’s come up is that the city provides no dedicated source of funds to the Health Department.

No matter what it does or doesn’t recommend, most of what it does will come down to one thing: the will of the people. And they’re listening.

“Surprisingly, a lot of people are paying attention,” Griggs said.

The CRC meeting schedule is as follows:

Friday, October 11, 2019                        9:00 am       Council Chamber

Tuesday, October 15, 2019                     9:00 am       Lynwood Roberts Room

Friday, October 25, 2019                        9:00 am       Council Chamber

Contact the CRC at [email protected]. Public input is encouraged.

Explore The Jacksonville City Charter online

Written by
Claire Goforth

Goforth is a journalist and licensed attorney in Jacksonville, Florida. Follow her on Twitter @clairenjax.

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Written by Claire Goforth

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