JACKSONVILLE, Fla — The 2020 Republican National Convention’s plans for coming to Jacksonville next month will face a major roadblock after Mayor Lenny Curry filed a bill Wednesday evening: a city council president who said he now opposes the effort.
The bill, which still leaves gaps about how the city plans to handle testing, treatment and the potential spread of coronavirus, grants Curry extraordinary power to spend $33 million in federal security funds how he thinks is necessary.
City Council President Tommy Hazouri told the Times-Union he opposes the bill, though it’s possible he could be persuaded to change his vote depending on the outcome of a Friday council meeting where he’s asked the sheriff and other officials to testify.
The fact that he hasn’t gotten the mayor to commit to be there, he said, is a strike against the bill’s chances of passing. If the bill fails a two-thirds majority vote next Tuesday, Hazouri said, he doesn’t see how the convention could come.
Sheriff Mike Williams, on the other hand, told Hazouri he would attend. Williams said this week that “we are simply past the point of no return,” and he didn’t see how he could keep the event safe with such little time to plan for it.
The sheriff’s Monday comments has sent plans for the convention in a tailspin. Curry held a news conference Tuesday, ostensibly about new COVID-19 testing sites, but he didn’t get into any specifics when asked repeatedly what changes were necessary to make the convention a reality.
Curry said he agreed with the sheriff’s comments even as he contradicted the sheriff by saying the convention could still happen and be safe.
Hazouri said the sheriff’s opinion likely has turned enough of the council against the effort to kill the bill. “That [opinion] in itself stops it in its tracks with some of the council members and it would with me if he doesn’t have the ability to keep people safe downtown.”
The mayor’s bill is necessary to spend the federal funds necessary for safety and security. Other funds are coming from fundraising for the convention’s host committee.
However, it’s possible the convention could continue without the council approving funding.
The Republican National Convention is scheduled to take place downtown at several venues from Aug. 24 through Aug. 27. It was initially scheduled for Charlotte, but President Trump moved it after the North Carolina governor indicated masks may be mandatory during the event.
A majority of Jacksonville residents oppose the convention coming here, a poll has found. And the day after the mayor announced the city had secured the Republican convention, community and business leaders as well as local Democratic Party leaders protested the planned event over health, crime and crowd concerns.
Brian Hughes, the city’s chief administrative officer, has said in emails to Hazouri that the city wouldn’t be on the hook for any spending, writing that “budgets for the events are the responsibility of the Host Committee and their partners.”
He also wrote that he didn’t believe any contracts or agreements necessary required City Council approval.
The bill does much more than approve funding. It also details insurance requirements, approves a mutual-aid plan for bringing in law-enforcement officers from other agencies and waives alcohol restrictions.
The bill also sets the perimeter for marching routes, free-speech zones and for the convention’s celebrations, along with permitting processes for those wanting to participate or protest.
The bill left any plans for dealing with COVID-19 vague at best, saying that the city would assist “in providing resources to implement and administer the COVID-19 pandemic health protocols plan developed by the RNC and Host Committee in consultation with the City.”
Hazouri has been unable to get answers about what that means. A spokeswoman for the host committee wouldn’t answer questions.
The City Council is made up of two-thirds Republicans. Hazouri, a Democrat, however said he believed some Republicans on council are likely as skeptical as he, and he expects they’ll ask many questions at Friday’s meeting.
“I’m proud of them and they too will put the public ahead of politics. Maybe that’s wishful thinking, but I think they will.”
Councilman Matt Carlucci, who called himself a “Jeb Bush Republican,” said he’s concerned by how little details about the convention he had so close to the convention’s go-date. As of now, he opposes the effort.
After Carlucci met with the mayor’s staff, he said, “there were more questions than there were answers,” he said. “How much money has the host committee raised? Well, they can’t say.”
He added, “I won’t support it unless our sheriff says he can keep our community safe and secure. That’s one box, but there are other boxes as well, such as the ever-changing COVID problem.”
Hazouri said it’s still possible the bill could pass, if every concern is sufficiently satisfied by Friday.
“This bill right now is on the 40-yard line, and it’s fourth down, and they’ve got to get it across the goal line,” he said. “They’ve got to do everything they can to make it acceptable, and depending on the answers and the questions, that’s where the council has to make tough decisions.”
Without the sheriff’s endorsement, Hazouri said that he won’t support the bill.
“Until I feel the health, safety and welfare are solidly protected, I can’t support this bill or any bill that could potentially implode with the virus and our safety and the welfare of our community and those that are coming here.”
He said he’s concerned by how much energy the convention is taking up while the city also deals with a federal investigation into the JEA privatization debacle, near-record highs in terms of homicides and civil unrest in the wake of police violence, not to mention a global pandemic.
“Honestly, they should not have been moving on this with the pandemic,” he said. “The pandemic itself should’ve been the [end] for the convention.”