The Jacksonville City Council may soon decide whether to hire a former Jacksonville Jaguars executive and current NFL diversity expert to represent City Council in stadium deal negotiations. The Finance Committee this week greenlit drawing up a $150,000 economic development consulting contract.
On Tuesday, Council President Ron Salem presented Finance Committee members with the proposal to draft a contract to employ attorney Michael Huyghue of Jacksonville-based sports and entertainment consulting firm Michael Huyghue & Associates LLC.
Huyghue has more than 30 years in the industry, getting his start running football operations for the Jaguars in 1994 — back when the team was just an NFL cub. He was later commissioner of the United Football League, from the minor league’s 2009 inception to 2012 when the financially strapped organization canceled its season early. And, for the past 10 years, he told the committee, he has been working for the National Football League overseeing diversity hiring. He also teaches law at Cornell University in New York.
Huyghue told the committee that while he has commuted to New York, he and his wife raised their children here.
“Jacksonville has always been our home,” he said. “Jacksonville has always been important and the Jaguars have as well.”
The committee enthusiastically agreed to Salem’s proposal. The vote was 7-0 to proceed, setting up a potential vote on a finished contract at next Tuesday’s City Council meeting. District 4 Councilman Kevin Carrico abstained from voting “out of an abundance of caution” because he and Huyghue had familiarity through the board of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Northeast Florida.
The vote to proceed with contract negotiations ignores an earlier recommendation by the previous Neighborhoods, Community Services, Public Health and Safety Committee to open up the consulting position to a competitive bid process. Last month, following an at times heated discussion, that committee voted unanimously on the plan to hire a consultant — but with the caveat that the procurement process needed to follow a request for proposals.
At that time, Salem had told the Neighborhoods committee that he had received some firm names from former Mayor Lenny Curry’s chief of Staff Brian Hughes and said that, while he wasn’t opposed to issuing a bid process, he felt time was of the essence.
“I understand there may be criticism if we go with a direct contract. I clearly understand that,” Salem said to then-Neighborhoods Chair, Councilwoman Randy DeFoor, who brought up concerns of transparency. “But I just want to have somebody on board as quickly as we can so that the Council has the appropriate representation.”
Outgoing Councilwoman LeAnna Cumber at the time warned against a sole-source contract deal.
“As someone who is going to be a private citizen in two weeks, I would caution each of you to think about the response from the people of Jacksonville, when you tell them doing an RFP for a $2 billion project in Jacksonville for the Jaguars was just going to take too long,” Cumber said.
At the time, Councilman Michael Boylan served on the Neighborhoods Committee and agreed with Cumber, saying the procurement process should be transparent and that a request for proposals could help assure that — but he wouldn’t rule out a no-bid contract. On Tuesday, Boylan, who is a member of the Finance Committee and has become chair of the Neighborhoods Committee, voted with his colleagues to begin contract negotiations with Huyghue alone.
Salem assured Finance Committee members Tuesday that the mayor’s administration is using a similar process this year to procure outside negotiators to help broker a public funding deal with the Jaguars for the roughly $1.4 billion proposed stadium renovation, plus the costs of surrounding multi-use development.
“The method that we’re using to contract with Mr. Huyghue is the same method the administration is using to contract with a law firm to basically negotiate this process, ” Salem said. “I just want to make sure that the committee understands the Council is using the same process as the administration. They are speaking to multiple law firms, but once they decide on a particular one, they will come to us with legislation to hire that particular firm, and it will save us a great deal of time in the process, which is very important, I think, to all of us.”
Salem impressed upon Committee members that he feels the City Council needs to be represented separately in stadium negotiations so, prior to the Council’s summer break, he “started making calls.”
“Some of us went through the Lot J process, where the Council was basically given information and really did not have representation,” Salem said. “I said to myself, ‘If we’re ever in that boat again on a major significant project, not just with the Jaguars, but anything of that nature – several, $100 million – we ought to have somebody that we can go to that’s representing us.”
Salem said during his hunt, he got a call from Huyghue, who has a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University and a law degree from University of Michigan, according to the Cornell website. He is listed in the faculty directory as a visiting professor of sports law.
“The more Michael and I talked about his relationships with the other (NFL) teams – the owners, the general managers, and his ability to facilitate the discussions on their stadium deals, how they work all the ancillary revenue sources such as concessions, parking, signage, advertising in the stadium – it became very clear to me that we have someone right here in Northeast Florida that would serve this role better than anybody,” Salem told the Finance Committee.
Huyghue, for his part, was enthusiastic about the potential job.
Huyghue said the diversity role allows him to work directly with 32 NFL owners, team presidents and general managers. He said it has given him “a very strong understanding of the economics of teams and different aspects of best practices.”
He added that there could be ways to pay for stadium renovations using “creative, innovative, outside-of-the-box thinking” from other teams who have handled similar situations.
“I think I’d be able to get that information for you quite well,” Huyghue said. “The Jaguars and this city have been the most important things in my career,” he said. “I think I would enjoy, very much, the opportunity to serve you in that capacity.”
Several on the committee had good things to say about Huyghue.
“You don’t get better than Michael,” said District 10 Councilwoman Ju’Coby Pittman. “I had an opportunity to watch him from afar when he was with the Jaguars and in the community.”
The committee member called Huyghue transparent, fair and to the point.
“I think we can count on him to answer the tough questions,” Pittman said.