Mayor Deegan names Florida Blue’s Darnell Smith as new Chief of Staff

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Mayor Donna Deegan has named Darnell Smith as her new Chief of Staff, just days after her administration announced Pat McCullough would be leaving that role to seek other opportunities in city government.


From the JAX Chamber to the United Way and the Sulzbacher Center, Smith has deep ties with a variety of prominent organizations in Jacksonville, but his job as North Region Market President at Florida Blue could complicate things.

Smith will step into his new role beginning January 2nd.

“I’m excited and grateful that Darnell is joining the Mayor’s Office to lead our talented team. He will build upon our administration’s early successes, and with decades of experience and a deep love of Jacksonville, I believe he will maximize this transformational moment in time for our city,” said Deegan in a release announcing Smith’s appointment.

UNF political science professor Dr. Michael Binder noted Smith already has relationships with many members of the city council and other government officials.

“If we were looking back and we were wondering maybe why this choice was made, if you wanted to draw some inferences, it’s certainly clear that maybe Darnell might be a good relationship builder across maybe some of the different constituencies that the mayor’s office has to deal with,” said Binder.

Smith’s experience in healthcare is aligned with Deegan’s priority to improve healthcare access in the city.

Additionally, his service on various boards throughout the city intersects with some of the mayor’s other top priorities like homelessness, arts and small business development.

“It’s an honor to answer the call to serve Mayor Deegan and people across Jacksonville. I believe in her vision of an inclusive and thriving city that works for all of us – and the shared value that our community is stronger when it’s united. I’m looking forward to working with Mayor Deegan and the team to take big steps forward for our city,” said Smith in the release announcing his appointment.

City Council President Ron Salem (R-Group 2 At-Large) told Action News Jax he’s excited to see what Smith is able to help deliver on a variety of issues.

“Darnell just has a far reach in several issues all over this community, so I think he can migrate to any one of those and have instant credibility,” said Salem.

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According to the Mayor’s Office, Florida Blue will pay Smith’s salary while he serves as Chief of Staff.

It’s a $ 230,000-a-year cost savings for taxpayers, but it also raises some questions about whether he could potentially run into conflict-of-interest issues in his new role, as Florida Blue is contracted with the city to process health insurance claims for city employees.

Binder argued so long as Smith doesn’t have a hand in those issues, there shouldn’t be a problem.

“You can make the argument, hey down the road this person has an in and they can leverage that to a benefit for their company. Sure, that’s a possibility, but those relationships can exist even without this type of situation,” said Binder.

The mayor’s office noted the city contract with Florida Blue isn’t up for renewal until 2027, which would be near the end of her current term.

Still, Salem recommended the mayor’s office seek an opinion from the Office of General Counsel, just to ensure Smith’s work in his new role doesn’t run into any issues.

“That will be an issue that I’m sure needs to come up and we all need to understand his role in those types of issues where Florida Blue is engaged,” said Salem.

The mayor’s office told Action News Jax us it has not requested an opinion from OGC and argued that ‘executive on loan’ deals like this are not new.

“We did not request an OGC opinion because of the precedent and standard operating procedure of many past executives on loan. It would have been unnecessary to do so,” said Chief Communications Officer Philip Perry.

The mayor’s office provided a list of those past examples, though none of them involved a person specifically serving in the role of Chief of Staff.

Those examples included Jacksonville Education Commissioners Dr. Annmarie Kent-Willette and Dr. Donnie Horner, Directors of Public-Private Partnerships Renee Finley and Ernie Franklin, Director of Strategic Partnerships Dawn Lockhart and Director of Downtown Public Spaces Laura Phillips Edgecombe.

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