INVESTIGATES: Questions raised about taxpayer-funded mailings for Jacksonville City Council

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Action News Jax investigates how members of Jacksonville’s City Council are allowed to send mail or advertisements to you on the taxpayer dime, including pooling money to help each other, even if some are running for local or state office.

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“You familiar with this?” Action News Jax’s Ben Becker asked Councilman Reggie Gaffney on the steps of City Hall as Becker held a Gaffney newsletter. “I’m not,” said Gaffney at first before acknowledging, “it’s probably mine I assume, oh my newsletter.”

Gaffney has spent nearly seven years on the City Council and is currently running for the District 5 state Senate seat.

Gaffney told Becker that he has sent the newsletter to 5,000 people in his district spelling out his accomplishments where he points out: “As I approach the end of my time as your Jacksonville City Council Member, it has been an honor to serve the constituents of District 7.”

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According to a City of Jacksonville ordinance, City Council district members are allocated $1,000 each year to pay for postage that is used for such mailings.

But in an Action News Jax investigation, Becker obtained internal documents and discovered that Gaffney made his request for the $1,000 on May 20, three days before formalizing his plans to resign on May 23 to run for that Senate seat, ahead of the Aug. 23 primary.

“So you’re saying this isn’t a political ad in your mind?” Becker pressed Gaffney. “What’s political about it?” asked Gaffney.

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Nowhere does the mailing say that Gaffney is running for office, but Becker compared Gaffney’s taxpayer-funded newsletter to the news release announcing his run for state Senate that’s on Gaffney’s campaign website.

Both the newsletter and the news release talk about Gaffney’s role in creating “Jacksonville’s first Nuisance Abatement” and his focus on “infrastructure” improvement.

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Becker also discovered that five other City Council members gifted Gaffney a total of $3,250 to pay for his newsletter:

  • May 23, Michael Boylan: $500
  • May 24, Aaron Bowman: $750
  • May 24, Danny Becton: $500
  • May 24, Randy White: $500
  • May 24, Randy DeFoor: $500

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However, nowhere in that City of Jacksonville ordinance does it say that City Council members can’t share their pot of postage money.

“It’s not illegal,” said University of North Florida political science professor Michael Binder.

Becker also discovered through City Council mass mailings records that since Gaffney came on the City Council in 2015, nobody has received postage money from another City Council member until now.

“It might look questionable, the timing of it,” according to Binder, who said that mailings are intended to inform constituents and not serve as a political ad, but it can be hard to tell the difference.

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“Maybe you (Gaffney) should have done that with your campaign committee. You’re certainly not short on cash,” said Binder.

Gaffney currently has about $460,000 on hand between his campaign account and friends of Reggie Gaffney political committee.

Becker asked Gaffney if the City Council postage policy is a good one.

“What you think about it?” said Becker. “You think a thousand dollars can help me?” shot back Gaffney. “I did it to showcase my accomplishment and that’s basically what I did.”

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Gaffney tells Becker he spent $3,000 out of his own pocket. Becker also uncovered that Gaffney is one of only three City Council members to spend their full yearly allotment during his City Council term.

The other two City Council members?

Former City Councilman Reggie Brown and former City Councilwoman Katrina Brown, who both exceeded the $1,000 threshold in 2016.