‘We have an obligation to protect the public’: JEA, City leaders debate JEA sale method

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — JEA leaders are headed to Atlanta this week to meet with prospective buyers for the utility. Their trip comes as Jacksonville City Council members are pressing for answers and clarity on the sale process so far.

Action News Jax reporter Courtney Cole attended the third JEA Fact-Finding Workshop on Monday morning. She says that’s where some City Leaders had the opportunity to question why JEA would be attractive to a bidder, if we’re trying to get rid of it.

One question council members had in today’s meeting was why it was so critical to sell JEA.

One council member came equipped with a list of other notable cities that own their own utilities and don’t seem to be having the same issues as Jacksonville.

Melissa Dykes, the JEA president and chief operating officer, and Ryan Wannemacher, chief financial officer, say it can’t continue to run as is.

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Wannemacher said the way for JEA to make money is through acquisition.

Many of the other questions from City Council and Action News Jax left JEA leaders feeling uneasy.

We were initially told we would be able to talk to JEA Board Chair, April Green, at the conclusion of Monday’s meeting.

But that’s not what happened.

Instead, Green and Dykes left without taking our questions.

And avoided us by trying to go out of side doors of City Hall.

But before Green left the meeting, she talked to City Council members about the desire to “press the restart button” on [some] the last 90 days of this process.

“I will only support a plan going forward that will protect the rate payers and the employees and was crafted in an open and transparent manner,” Green told the room full of city leaders and residents.

Some city leaders have a hard time believing that statement.

One city council member said she wants the council to vote on scrapping this whole idea.

On Tuesday, City Council will vote on a bill to stop the evaluation of potential bidders and the sale process. Councilwoman Brenda Priestly Jackson is requesting emergency passage for this bill.

While it’s nonbinding, she told Cole the way the vote would express the will of City Council.

“It just seems that what they continue to feed us is information they want us to hear,” Connie Benham told Action News Jax.

After attending today’s factfinding work shop — Benham told Cole something about this process still seems deceptive.

“We have an obligation to protect the public — and we cannot do that if we have actions inconsistent with the charter, that don’t foster public engagement,” Priestly Jackson told Action News Jax.

Jackson believes the lack of transparency has muddied the waters.

“And it doesn't seem consistent with the will of our neighbors. It doesn't seem consistent with the collaboration that they were required to engage with City Council."

Benham is grateful Priestly Jackson isn’t afraid to speak up on behalf of customers.

“We’re just not getting the full picture... meanwhile, we have people up in Atlanta having private meetings,” Benham said.

Priestly Jackson is concerned some of those previous JEA meetings may have violated sunshine laws.

Without any redirection, customers like Benham believe the sale of this public utility is in someone’s best interest, but not the citizens'.

"If you are watching, and you are paying attention and you are looking at the conversations. No one wants this done,” said Benham.

We focus a lot on the role City Council plays in this decision, but it’s the community’s role that’s important.

Here’s a little reminder of how this process works: JEA makes a decision, but it still has to pass with 2/3 City Council. Then the decision City Council makes still has to be passed by a majority of the voters.