JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Our ongoing Action News Jax investigation into the Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) now goes all the way up to the mayor and governor’s offices.
Investigator Emily Turner talked to public policy and transportation experts about performance issues and possible problems with accountability.
Action News Jax Investigates has already told you about how JTA’s bus service, its biggest and most expensive operation, is falling short in almost every measurable way. Meanwhile, its CEO, Nat Ford, travels all over the world on transportation business to the tune of at least $40,970.41 just this year. Records show that leaves him significantly absent from the office.
Meanwhile, the board gave Ford a four-out-of-four “exceeds expectations” on his most recent annual review, allowing him to take home his $91,784.60 bonus. So, while he gets an A+ review, JTA’s bus and skyway systems, according to experts, are failing.
When we confronted Ford last month, he was clear about how he felt he was performing and said, “I’m doing everything within my power 24 hours a day, seven days a week to support the citizens in this community. And that record is pretty clear and evident.”
But public records paint a very different picture: the city’s own gas tax dashboard, JTA’s report to the Florida Transportation Commission, and the agency’s own ridership numbers.
According to Steve Page at The University of Washington’s School of Public Policy and Governance, these are the metrics Ford’s success should be based on.
“Voters and residents of Jacksonville want financial, careful financial management of their transit authority,” he said, “And I assume they probably also want good roads, and they want good bus service.”
Action News Jax Investigates pulled the agency’s bylaws to find out who’s supposed to hold Ford to that. The answer is on page five: “The Authority shall employ an Executive Director to serve at the pleasure of the Board.”
That means, Page said, Ford is supposed to answer to the seven people on JTA’s independent board. (See board members here: https://www.jtafla.com/about-jta/leadership/board-of-directors/)
Page said the current breakdown in services is, “a classic democratic accountability problem with a series of what economists would call principal agent problems.”
In other words, Page said it’s a hierarchical chain where “folks at each level of that chain need to be taking and monitoring what the folks below them are doing and holding them accountable for that performance.”
Action News Jax reached out to each of the board members after our first investigation aired to see if that’s what board members are doing and if so, why these problems persist.
No one agreed to talk to us except Immediate Past Chair, Ari Jolly. But two hours before our on-camera sit-down interview, JTA’s public information officer canceled with no explanation and no rescheduled time.
So, we took our questions up the chain of command. Because according to Page, the buck stops not just with the board, but also with “who appoints the board,” he said.
That would be the mayor and the governor. They each get three appointees. Former Mayor Lenny Curry appointed the Jax Chamber’s Aundra Wallace and current Mayor Donna Deegan appointed Iceman co-owner Megan Hayward and former JTA manager Patricia Gillum Sams, an aunt of former gubernatorial candidate, Andrew Gillum.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed retired Truist Bank Market President Debbie Buckland, attorney G. Ray Driver Jr., and Senior Assistant General Counsel at Florida Blue, Ari Jolly.
The Florida Department of Transportation District Secretary, Greg Evans, takes the final spot. But records show Evans hasn’t shown up to a meeting in more than a year. When we asked, he failed to tell us why.
Page is clear on this. “You’ve got an absenteeism problem there,” he said.
We also reached out to the governor’s office five separate times over three weeks, asking if DeSantis supports Ford’s performance and the job his board appointees are doing.
So far, the Governor hasn’t even acknowledged our request.
The mayor’s office replied to our request. We also asked if Deegan supported the job Ford is doing and if the board’s oversight meets her standards.
We didn’t get an answer to that, but did get this statement:
“Under Nat Ford’s leadership, JTA has brought $186 million to Jacksonville since 2016. Additionally, he and Mayor Deegan pitched together to bring home another $184 million on their recent trip to Washington, D.C.”
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When emailing that statement, the mayor’s office made sure to loop in and include Ford, who then thanked the press liaison in the response.
The next board meeting is Thursday, December 14. It will be the first one since Action News Jax Investigates’ coverage of JTA began. The agenda has yet to be published, but it is open to the public.