Demolition of the Jacksonville Landing produced a large pile of rubble but the debris was small compared to the wreckage of the JEA sale scheme.
In what probably was the biggest local story of 2019, an effort to sell the city’s water and utility company took off and looked to be flying high – until it crashed.
Despite his attempts to deny ownership, it was Mayor Lenny Curry’s plan, and he botched it completely.
Or, maybe the guy everyone says was Curry’s alter ego, Brian Hughes, gets the “credit.”
I don’t know Hughes or Curry, so I don’t know. But clearly it was not handled well, to say the least.
First, Curry replaced the entire JEA board. Then, one of his pals, who Curry had appointed to the board, was selected out of the blue to be the new CEO, despite the lack of any qualifications.
Then the JEA began exploring options, including the sale to a private investor-owned utility, while bemoaning a supposed “death spiral” from declining revenues.
There was an immediate backlash. People could not understand why the city would sell what often has been called its “golden goose,” providing money that lowers property taxes. (For the most part the ratepayers who provided the money were also the taxpayer who benefited, but that’s another story.)
Curry spoke of great benefits that might come from the sale, such as payment of the city’s debt.
But that wasn’t too reassuring. For one thing, who would trust politicians? Most likely they would act like irresponsible consumers who pay off huge credit card debt and immediately run it up again.
But a requirement that the matter be put to a referendum all but doomed a sale. Proponents never mounted a serious effort to justify the effort.
Even the Jacksonville Civic Council, a private group of businessmen and civic leaders including some of Curry’s biggest backers, knocked the proposal and ultimately called for a grand jury investigation.
Many City Council members also hooted at the proposal.
With little or no support from the public, politicians or business leaders, there was no way the project was going to be completed.
In the end, the proposal was dropped, the CEO was fired, the JEA’s lawyer and the person in charge of public relations both left. The state attorney’s office is looking at the matter to see if anyone strayed from the law.
It cannot be called anything but a disaster.
What next? There is still an opportunity for the JEA to develop a reorganization plan and look at its finances. So the outcome could be a better, more productive utility.
But that could have been accomplished without all the sturm und drang.