Five months into Mayor Deegan’s first term in office, it is unfortunate that the discourse surrounding her effectiveness as the city’s chief executive has been monopolized by petty partisan grievances and minor setbacks. We have witnessed the enthusiasm generated by her historic electoral victory diminish as scuttled nominations, controversy regarding her role as Grand Marshal at the River City Pride Parade, and the ongoing debate over the removal of Confederate monuments have begun to soak up all the political oxygen.
Ironically, these molehills masquerading as mountains actually serve the opposite of their intended purpose by demonstrating just how little substance there is behind the critiques dominating the headlines. It wasn’t that long ago that we had a mayoral administration in place that was deeply marred by scandals like the attempted sale of JEA, the failure of major development projects bargained behind closed doors like Lot J, the perplexing move to reject funding from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Resilient Cities Network, and, of course, those late-night mean tweets. By contrast, Mayor Deegan’s early record represents a stark departure from politics as usual in this city. A brief accounting of her achievements and ambitions illustrates how in a short period of time she has elevated Jacksonville from the butt of jokes on The Good Place to a truly Bold New City of the South.
To begin, like a true leader seeking to heal a city reeling from racial and political divides, Mayor Deegan hit the ground listening. In all, she participated in 14 community conversations, one in each City Council district, where she provided space for meaningful dialogue between Jacksonville’s top official and the electorate to whom she is accountable. It’s hard to overstate how important it was, in the wake of two exhaustingly divisive mayoral terms, not to speak, but just to listen to constituents all over town and hear their concerns.
Even before these crucial meetings took place, the mayor charged the city’s best and brightest with developing recommendations for improving Jacksonville in key areas of public interest, including infrastructure, economic development, public safety, and others. Members of the seven transition committees and their related subcommittees (including the resilience subcommittee, on which I served) met voluntarily every week for months. Our collective effort was summarized in a 200-page report offering specific policies, potential funding sources, and timelines for completion.
Many of the most important suggestions are featured in the Mayor’s Task Force Programs budget requests, passed this week, which appropriate more than $27 million towards vital government initiatives like addressing food insecurity, affordable housing, homelessness, and mental health. These are precisely the issues that Jacksonvillians care about solving and that the mayor promised to address during her campaign.
Under the mayor’s watch, the city is also making strides in environmental protection and resilience, which is necessary given that Jacksonville is one of the U.S. cities most vulnerable to hurricanes. In October, Chief Resilience Officer Anne Coglianese delivered the city’s Resilient Jacksonville strategy, a “roadmap for adapting to a changing climate, accommodating a growing population, guiding new urban development, and planning for uncertain shocks and stressors.” More recently, the mayor has hired new staff to undertake the immense task of developing the city’s first climate action plan, which would set the River City on a more sustainable, resilient course for safeguarding our cherished natural surroundings and critical infrastructure for generations to come.
Sure, there are looming issues like stadium negotiations with the Jaguars, relocating the Duval County jail, and Downtown development, but given the mayor’s willingness to listen to the people, tap into the incredible talent the city has to offer, and turn recommendations into resources and action, the pieces are in place to transform Jacksonville into a world-class destination that will be the envy of other municipal chambers of commerce (maybe they’ll even send their delegations here to learn best practices).
My father once told me how a teacher of his scolded him for his inattention in class with the snide remark, “Small things amuse small minds.” The criticisms levied against Mayor Deegan’s administration are small things. The good news is that big things are on the horizon, and the mayor is just getting started.