November 13, 2019
In The Public Interest

Warts and Unfulfilled Promises in Our Consolidated City

The celebrations leading up to the 50th anniversary in October of Jacksonville’s consolidated form of government will extol its successes.

The warts and unfulfilled promises are just as important to remember.

Two sons of members of the first City Council after the county and city governments were consolidated, Matthew Carlucci and Earl M.  Johnson Jr., are serving as co-chairs of a task force coordinating events for the anniversary.

During a regular monthly meeting organized by former City Council presidents, the two of them outlined what led to efforts to fundamentally change Jacksonville’s form of government that began in the mid-1960s and culminated with Consolidation on Oct. 1, 1968.

Carlucci described a “perfect storm of crises.”

The public schools had lost their accreditation, 20 million gallons of raw sewage were being dumped into the St. Johns River each day, municipal services were being duplicated and a host of public officials were under indictment.

There was another factor that deserves equal attention in this look backwards.

“We had a city that was facing bankruptcy as the result of white flight from the core city,” Johnson told the group.

“Dad was tapped to be secretary of the consolidation commission in large part because he was seen as probably soon to be tapped for what was going to be a black elective majority in Jacksonville.

“And my father, while the notion of being mayor of Jacksonville certainly fancied him, he famously said, ‘Who wants to be mayor of a bankrupt town?’”

To win approval of Consolidation, black support was needed, and Johnson’s father worked to secure that. It wasn’t easy.

“To in essence vote away the voting power that was emerging didn’t make sense to a whole lot of black folks, but it made sense to a majority of black people in Jacksonville.

“It made sense to centralize government, to streamline city services, to know who was coming out when you called for police, to understand that your garbage was going to be picked up on time and that potholes were going to be filled.”

There was another motivation behind Consolidation that wasn’t often articulated.

Bill Basford served in the Florida House in the 1960s and drafted the bill that began the first steps toward Consolidation. He went on to serve as City Council president.

During the monthly meeting, he was asked if fear of a black city played a role in Consolidation.

“There isn’t any question that part of the emphasis for passing was the whites within the city didn’t want a black government, and the rednecks out in the county weren’t anxious to have a city in there that was black,” Basford said. 

“It wasn’t something that was talked about a lot, but it was there. The racism was there.”

Earl M. Johnson Sr. was elected countywide to serve in at-large seat on the first City Council after Consolidation.

The question of whether the right decision had been made was still asked in the black community.

Johnson quoted the answer his father gave that was contained in a Times-Union article printed in 1968: 

“Jacksonville Councilman Earl Johnson, a Negro, told commission members, ‘You are going to have a real job selling Consolidation to your black community. You must remember to build in certain measures of fair play. Give the black community an assurance that it will have a role. You must not only show Consolidation is the best hope for the black community. You must show it’s the best hope for the whole community.’”

It was that focus on the whole community that helped his father persuade black voters to go along with Consolidation, Johnson said.

“Now why is that important, and why am I bringing that up today?” Johnson asked.

“As we acknowledge and celebrate our 50th anniversary, everybody won’t be celebrating Consolidation as a wild success.

“If you go to Moncrief and Golfair, it doesn’t take much to see there have been some neighborhoods left behind.”

These are some of the unfulfilled promises of Consolidation after a half century: Neighborhoods without water and sewer services, inadequate sidewalks and roads in disrepair. They are scattered throughout the consolidated city but are found predominantly in the black neighborhoods of the old core city.

“This is an opportunity as we celebrate our birthday to not only acknowledge what I believe to be the best form of city government in the country,” Johnson said, “but to rededicating ourselves to fulfilling those promises of Consolidation that really touch every neighborhood in our community.”

Hans Tanzler Jr. served as the first mayor of the consolidated government. This is what he said during the 25th anniversary of Consolidation:

“In the ambiance of our celebration enthusiasm, it is easy to overlook the sobering fact that we are now blessed with the most envied and most nearly perfect form of government of any city in the country, and, unlike the other cities, we now have the capacity to determine our future.

“To decide what we want this area to be like 25 years from now and then proceed to see that it is done. We have no excuse. It is in our hands and it is ours to win or lose.”

It wouldn’t be in the spirit of Consolidation Johnson sold 50 years ago to not achieve victory before another 25 years go by.

Written by
Ron Littlepage

Ron is retired op-ed columnist who can't kick the habit of commenting.

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Written by Ron Littlepage

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