Jacksonville’s City Council will have a new look on July 1. Eight of 15 council races do not have an incumbent on the ticket, and seven incumbents face challengers. (Three other incumbents will return to the Council without opposition, and one is facing only a write-in candidate.)
How can voters evaluate the candidates? Jacksonville Today spoke with four former members of the City Council – two Democrats, two Republicans – on the attributes needed to be successful on the Council.
Winning in the spring is only the first step in the process. “It’s really important for candidates to have paid attention to what’s going on,” says John Crescimbeni, a Democrat who spent 20 years on the Council. “They really have to dig in and follow the Council business for at least a year prior to running for office so they get a handle for historical and institutional knowledge. I found that to be very helpful when I got elected.”
Whoever is elected will likely face a series of complex questions over their four year-term – ranging from determining affordable housing solutions to whether the city should spend up to hundreds of millions of dollars in public money to renovate the Jags’ TIAA Bank Field.
Jim Love, a Republican who was on the Council from 2011 to 2019, says members need to be level-headed and smart and be able to pivot in unforeseen circumstances.
“No matter what they thought they are getting into, it’s going to change. There are going to be new items and new issues,” says Love. “In my case it was (Confederate) statues and the human rights ordinance, (a hotly debated expansion to protect LGBT people). There are a whole list of other issues, like Georgia Pacific dumping in our river, that you deal with that you never think about when you’re running for office.”
Love, like Crescimbeni, says preparation is paramount. He read every bill that was before the Council. Love also asked for advice from the Office of General Counsel and called local elected officials in other Florida cities for context and information.
And nothing beats communicating with constituents. Crescimbeni, Love and former Council member Warren Jones, in separate conversations, all agreed on this point.
Jones, today a Duval School Board member, was elected to seven terms on the Council, the first in 1979. Back then, he was one of 10 new members of the Council.
Jones admits an elected official may not have the time to knock on doors as much as they once did when they were a candidate. His workaround was to distribute flyers about 10 days before community meetings so he could get to know the people who sent him to City Hall.
“People don’t want to hear from your (legislative) aide. They want to hear from you,” Jones says. “They didn’t elect your aide. They elected you.”
Jones says the goal of a candidate is to reach as many voters as quickly as possible. The goal of an elected official is soliciting two-way communication.
Other keys to being an effective Council member, Jones says, are separating yourself from special interests and transparency.
“Given the situation we find our city in at this point in time, effectiveness begins with independence,” Jones says. “If you are beholden to any special interest group, then you lose credibility. You lose effectiveness in representing the people you are elected to represent.”
People may not always agree with one’s position. But, those who have taken the time to be engaged within their community and neighborhood and have what Love calls “a servant’s heart,” will be successful council members who help improve Jacksonville.
“The servant’s heart is what I am looking for. (With) a servant’s heart, you care. You’re not trying to make money or be famous. You’re just trying to make Jacksonville better,” Love says.
While Council members come from all walks of life — the current Council includes a retired broadcast journalist, nonprofit executives, economic developers, a teacher and a pharmacist — term limits mean not many are experienced in operating a $1.5 billion budget.
Former Council President Greg Anderson says on-the-job learning “is a constant fact.” Anderson, a Republican, won two terms as an at-large candidate. (Editor’s note: Greg Anderson is a member of the board of trustees of WJCT Public Media, the community-owned nonprofit that runs Jacksonville Today.)
“The fact that we have a diversity of experiences elected to a 19-member City Council is incredibly helpful from every aspect,” Anderson says. “The key is developing a relationship where everyone is able to share their experience and the Council can make their decisions on the best (information) available to them.”
One of those decisions will be on the budget. The budget process begins in earnest in late June and will not be finalized until late September.
Because at least seven Council members will be new – the District 14 race includes one candidate with prior council experience – Anderson suggests new members attend budget hearings even if they are not placed on the Finance Committee.
Between committee meetings, community conversations, Council meetings and other public commitments, one thing all four former members agree on is a Council member must commit a large chunk of time to the position of public trust.
Love says he waited eight years until his children were older. Crescimbeni routinely spent parts of his weekend at City Hall. Anderson poured over legislation and the financial ramifications of it like the banker he is. Jones made a habit of personally answering phone calls from the community when he was at his office.
“Your work product as a Council member, the better that is, the more people will understand that you’re doing something and they will perceive it as effective,” Crescimbeni says. “They may not agree with everything you’re doing. But, at least they will know you’re out there swinging at problems.”