JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – First Coast News has obtained emails requested by Jacksonville City Council Auditor Kyle Billy, who sent out the emails to other city staffers at the request of City Council President Anna Brosche.

The emails he uncovered show a “Request for Proposals (RFP) to provide Strategic Initiatives Financial Advisory Services to the City of Jacksonville, Florida”. The request was issued on December 20, 2017 and the proposal was due on January 15 of this year.

Top city officials at odds over JEA

In the RFP, the “purpose” states that in part, “The City of Jacksonville, Florida (the “City”) is soliciting proposals from qualified firms wishing to serve as Financial Advisor for Strategic Initiative opportunities.”

While the December RFP doesn’t mention “JEA” by name, Billy believes that was the intention.

“The RFP appears to request Financial Advisory Services that would be needed to solicit bids to purchase JEA, evaluate those bids, assist City staff in negotiations, and assist in bringing the transaction to financial and commercial close,” Billy wrote in his email. “I received this document from a retired JEA employee, who received it from another retired JEA employee. I thought it was unusual because it appears to be a City of Jacksonville [request], but the responses were not coming to the City. The responses were to be returned to PFM [a third party company]."

Billy then contacted PFM, the company hired by the city to evaluate JEA, to try to understand where the request came from and in return he received a series of communications.

“I asked if the Finance Department already had the responses and he acknowledged that they did. [PFM] emailed the responses to me. I will forward them to you in a separate email following this one,” wrote Billy.

Early 'draft' released of study showing risk of possible JEA sale

He states that Municipal Code Section 126.313 does allow the Finance Department to make such procurements without going through City Procurement.

Billy then sent out the “Request for Proposal responses” that he received from PFM. Top U.S. firms including Ernst & Young, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley, KPMG, Goldman Sachs, RBC Capital Markets and IMG Rebel were interested in being chosen for the financial advisory project.

After Billy sent this information out to city leaders, he received an email from the Director of the Finance Department Michael Weinstein saying, “Your premise and opinions are totally incorrect and I am extremely disappointed in you.”

The Mayor’s Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa also sent a “reply all” to the information, expressing his own “disappointment”, saying, “I too, must express my disappointment in your approach and assumed conclusions concerning this matter,” wrote Mousa.

“For the last 2 years, the Administration has been approached by private equity providers and affiliated operating companies interested in either monetizing our City public infrastructure or entering into public/private partnerships for new City infrastructures. Infrastructure such as parking garages, airport, seaport, bridges, roadways and various other City public infrastructure have been presented for consideration. We have been listening to and considering many of these proposals, and as such, we decided to seek the assistance of financial experts in the respective area to assist in potential evaluation of presented proposals. We have been working on this matter well before any discussion of the JEA had ever surfaced. And if I am not mistaken, the JEA is not even referenced in the RFP.”

Mousa continued, “I would have expected you reaching out to me or Mr. Weinstein if you had any questions or concerns before you coming to such an erroneous conclusion that think RFP was solicited to 'request Financial Advisory Services that would be needed to solicit bids to purchase JEA, evaluate those bids, assist City staff in negotiations, and assist in bringing the transaction to financial and commercial close.' That is just not so!”

Bill Gulliford also responded with the following email: "

Mr. Billy,

I am sorely disappointed by your email yesterday regarding financial consulting services. Why wouldn’t you pick up the phone or visit the Finance Director instead of allowing yourself to be manipulated by someone who wants to “smell test” everything the mayor does, not for the benefit of the City but for a personal agenda.

I spoke to the Administration at length almost two years ago about looking at selling some city assets like the Ed Ball Building or parking garages and then have them leased back to the City, much as many large corporations do. I have voiced to them in the past my long term concern about the tough situation the City is in with respect to some garages. Would you suggest pursuing such direction without professional financial guidance? Also, how did their actions in any way violate charter, code, sunshine, ethics or even good professional judgment?

I would hope you might be more cautious in the future to avoid being dragged into the fray, especially as the “silly season” of the election cycle comes into play."

On the same day, these emails were sent out, City Council President Brosche created a “Task Force on Open Government” with the purpose to:

“Study the legislative process and the methods by which the public accesses government. Make recommendations for how the City of Jacksonville can be more open and accessible to the public, while maintaining a healthy perspective of the costs and benefits of such recommendations. Include in your recommendations suggestions for how the City of Jacksonville can institutionalize transparency.”

One council member also told First Coast News these emails were the “smoking gun” in regard to JEA.

These developments arrived as yet another city council meeting over JEA led by Council members Garrett Dennis and John Crescimbeni took place Thursday in the Council Chamber.

City council members tell First Coast News that their skepticism arose when they discovered that Weinstein had allegedly gone to visit JEA nearly 30 times since December trying to negotiate a sale over the next 12 months. They planned to discuss it at Thursday’s meeting.

First Coast News reached out to the mayor's office for comment and received the following statement:

The RFP invited financial firms to submit application to serve as a provider of “strategic initiatives financial advisory services” to the City of Jacksonville. In a few of the proposals received last month, responders with experience in public-private partnerships reference public utilities as their experience. Please note there is no reference or mention of JEA/public utilities within the 7-page document/scope of work.

There are currently no public private partnership asset sales the City is considering. However, the administration does consistently receive requests and inquiries about City assets. The issuance of the RFP is the financial planning and analysis that this administration conducts as part of its budget process. This is not only legal but expected of an executive branch that is committed to sound and prudent financial practices. This RFP was issued 100 percent in compliance of every law and regulation.

In reference to this being characterized as unusual, please see the email responses (Mr. Mousa and Councilman Gulliford) sent which aptly describes and characterizes the routine nature of such requests.

This RFP would not be used by the City of Jacksonville for a sale of JEA.

The mayor’s neutral position on a sale of JEA has not changed.