Details of how a public relations company prepared opinion pieces for a local newspaper that ran under the names of a JEA official and another person have been provided by News4Jax.
Dalton Agency employees recruited Henry Brown, who is on the JEA board, and HCI Group CEO Rick Caplin and then prepared the commentaries for them in support of the utility’s search for buyers. The two said Dalton helped them express their own thoughts.
The one that ran under Brown’s byline said, in part, “During anxious times, when the unknown overwhelms the known, it is sometimes tempting to follow the alarm call of the angriest voices. It’s important that we become more willing to listen, more inclined to speak honestly without indignation and more open to the facts.”
But when the facts were revealed, the plan quickly went south.
The effort to seek buyers from the private sector was opposed by many people and eventually led to the termination of the effort after a series of blunders by the JEA board and its CEO, who was fired.
The final blow probably was the revelation that JEA employees were fitted with golden parachutes in the event of a sale.
It is, of course, not uncommon for public relations people to write opinion pieces for politicians and others and submit them to newspapers for publication.
Just as one example, when I was a policy analyst for Gov. Jeb Bush, I wrote one article on education that had considerable input and review from the governor before it was published in the Washington Post with his byline. Private sector public relations people do the same as those in government.
The Dalton Agency was being paid $25,000 a month by the JEA to promote its push for bidders.
That leads to the larger issue that has not been explored.
A number of people are wondering what authority the JEA had to spend millions on the sale effort – money that went to lawyers, public relations companies and others.
The City Council approves a line-item budget for the JEA each year. Where in that billion-dollar budget is the appropriation for what JEA spent on seeking bidders?
City departments and agencies can usually find money for unbudgeted expenses by allocating them to one category or another. But nowhere in the JEA budget are millions set aside for this effort, according to our sources. It also appears that JEA never went to the city with a request for a budget transfer.
In the end, any sale would have had to be approved by the voters, which undoubtedly explains why the board felt it necessary to hire PR people and plant opinion columns in newspapers.
But where did it get the authority to spend the $10 million that went out the door as it tried to find buyers and convince a skeptical public it was a good idea? What funds were diverted from other accounts?
There is now a federal investigation under way. Maybe it will answer those questions, and others.