City Council member Tommy Hazouri on Thursday ripped JEA for its newest ad that claims getting $3 billion by privatizing the utility would “improve the lives of everyone” in Jacksonville.
Hazouri said JEA is “clearly campaigning for the sale” of the utility by using ratepayer dollars to fund promotional ads.
“The political season has already begun for JEA in dangling the $3 billion in front of the ratepayers, and even the City Council, who have the ultimate vote on it,” Hazouri said. “This is a day for the credibility gap. They widened the gap.”
JEA says the ad is just asking ratepayers to consider future possibilities.
With piano music and whooshing jet noises in the background, the script on the screen delivers the ad’s message: “Transforming JEA ... will transform our community. Bringing $3 billion to our city. To improve Jacksonville. And the lives of everyone living here. Explore what we can become. Together.”
General Counsel Jason Gabriel, the top lawyer for city government, issued a legal memo last week saying that during the months-long period that JEA is seeking offers and then negotiating with outside entities, a “cone of silence” prohibits City Council members from communicating publicly about the merits of terms in the solicitation package.
One of the terms in the solicitation package crafted by JEA is a requirement that City Hall would net at least $3 billion from a deal.
The 24-second JEA commercial, posted Thursday on the utility’s Twitter feed, is about the $3 billion.
Kerri Stewart, chief customer officer for JEA, said Gabriel asked her to respond to questions about the ad. She said JEA did not seek approval from the General Counsel for the commercial.
“It simply asks our customers to consider the future of JEA and the possibilities of an outcome that protects customers, employees, the environment and ultimately the community through the minimum requirements prescribed by the JEA board at the [July board meeting] and expressly set forth in the publicly available ITN,” Stewart said.
City Council member Matt Carlucci, who criticized a previous JEA commercial, said he’s not an attorney, but it appears JEA crossed the line in the ad.
“If anyone is breaking the cone of silence, they are,” he said.
He said the commercial “is not an honest broker ad.” He said it shows JEA favors privatization, even though the utility has yet to receive the offers.
JEA will open bids on Monday and then take several months conducting negotiations. If the JEA board decides to approve a deal, the City Council then would decide whether to support or reject it. Support by the City Council would send it to a countywide voter referendum for final approval.
When the City Council voted last week for the 2019-20 budget, Hazouri filed a budget amendment that would have put restrictions on the part of JEA’s budget that pays for advertising.
Then he saw the latest ad online.
“They’ve doubled down and double-dared us,” he said. “You try to be reasonable. You try to work with JEA.”
A growing number of City Council members have said JEA should have worked with the council before the JEA board voted July 23 to seek offers. Hazouri said JEA has been “painting council into a corner.”
JEA board Chairwoman April Green said at last week’s board meeting that “politics” have been in play in criticism from City Council members about the process.
“We all tend to question the motives because a decision has not been made, and I think the politics are responding as though a decision has been made,” Green said. “This is an action to explore opportunities to maximize JEA’s potential. It’s that simple.”