Jacksonville Mayor Donna Deegan speaks to a crowd at the Legends Center in Northwest Jacksonville Thursday, criticizing a Finance Committee move on her request for funding a chief of diversityJacksonville Mayor Donna Deegan speaks to a crowd at the Legends Center in Northwest Jacksonville Thursday, criticizing a Finance Committee move on her request for funding a chief of diversity

Mayor and finance board spar over diversity chief funding

Published on August 25, 2023 at 5:56 pm

A Jacksonville City Council committee has recommended slicing a portion of the mayor’s proposed budget that would have funded a chief of diversity and inclusion.

Instead, the Finance Committee decided Thursday to divert the money, in part, to the Human Rights Commission and the Public Works department.

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Later that night, at a town hall meeting in Sherwood Forest, Mayor Donna Deegan criticized the move. 

“As we all know, you know, the governor is not all too fond of diversity,” Deegan said. “So I think (the vote) was a bit of a message. But that’s okay. It’s okay. We’ve got to stay calm. We’ve got to stay focused. And Lord knows we don’t want to look like we don’t have the right temperament to do the job.”

The “temperament” line was in reference to a fight over Deegan’s nominee for general counsel, Randy DeFoor — another contested issue between City Council members and the mayor’s office.

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Back in July, Deegan announced that she wanted to create the diversity chief position and picked Parvez Ahmed, a two-term Human Rights Commission member, to fill that spot. 

Deegan was measured in her wording at the finance meeting.

“This is a position that I’ve looked at for a long time and I believe it absolutely is needed,” Deegan told committee members. “Dr. Parvez Ahmed is someone who has been an expert in this area for many, many years. This is something this city has needed for a very long time. I would like for you to approve my budget, the way that it is because we’ve given it a great deal of thought.”

The 4-2 Finance Committee vote, with Councilwoman Ju’Coby Pittman and Councilman Reggie Gaffney Jr. dissenting, stemmed from committee members’ concerns over cost and redundancy, several members stated at the meeting.

Councilman Nick Howland, who chairs the committee, said he had concerns with the mayor’s staffing budget, announcing to colleagues that staffing costs for the mayor’s office are set to rise by 33% next fiscal year.

Kim Taylor, with the Council Auditor’s Office, told the committee that the increase in the mayor’s staff salaries budget was a “system related” increase in the budget, meaning, largely, that costs go up relative to raises and benefits from one year to the next.

But as the meeting went on, Howland, Councilman Kevin Carrico and others pushed to cut the funding and redirect the balance to the Human Rights Commission and Public Works Department.

Howland said the move wasn’t about cutting a position — it was about cutting funding.

“The mayor has carte blanche to title her staff as she wants to,” Howland said. “So … what is being contemplated here is not eliminating a position. It’s eliminating a budget (item) of $232K. In my case, because I believe it’s redundant.”

Carrico motioned to add $145,000 in funding for two more positions on the Human Rights Commission and add $87,000 to fund another position in Public Works.

Newly appointed Public Works Director Nina Sickler acknowledged that collective bargaining could potentially play a factor in any potential new hires, but she told the committee she had not yet identified a need for a staff hike.

“It’ll take some time to evaluate exactly how our staff can be utilized to help speed up” processes, Sickler said. “But at the moment, we haven’t identified the need to retain any additional staff.”

Carrico suggested Sickler was too new to make the call on department funding.

“Our new public works director is brand new on the job and maybe doesn’t have her finger on the pulse yet of all the needs of that department,” Carrico said. “When we go to our community meetings, and they wonder why we’ve said that things are approved and we have parks that are going to be built and it’s in the [Capital Improvement Plan] and they never get done. … This is not a shot at the mayor’s office or at the budget. This is just us trying to do what we think we need to do because we have a say in how the city runs as well.”

Ultimately, the budget is City Council’s decision. It will head to a vote in September, once the various city committees weigh in. But the main governing body is largely made up of Republicans, and that could stymie Deegan’s initial plans for the position.

“The position can stay, but if I can’t fund it, it would be very, very hard for us to have a director of diversity in the city of Jacksonville,” Deegan said to the committee.

Councilman Matt Carlucci, who is not a member of the committee but spoke at the meeting in favor of keeping the mayor’s budget request in place, said Friday that he felt some committee members were not being honest about their reasons for the budget vote — that committee members just didn’t want to fund a position titled diversity chief.

“That’s just too woke for them,” Carlucci said. “Just be honest. Just say you don’t want a diversity guy.”

Deegan, at the town hall in District 10 Thursday evening at the Legends Center, assured the standing-room only crowd that her office would “figure it out.”

“We’re gonna come up with a solution. We’ll figure it out,” Deegan said. “But I’m gonna need every one of you to not only support Councilwoman Pittman, but to make a call to your City Council people to let them know, because that’s not a final vote. It’s just a committee vote. I think it was sort of probably a little thank you for the fact that I’ve been pushing back a little bit.”

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Casmira Harrison is a Jacksonville Today reporter focusing on local government in Duval County.

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