Monument-removal money never flowed through city coffers, Jax top lawyer says

Published on January 16, 2024 at 10:37 pm

The city’s chief lawyer came under fire again Tuesday from City Council members as he sought to explain his department’s legal opinion justifying Mayor Donna Deegan’s authority to relocate Confederate statues from Springfield Park last month.

Deegan removed the statues, often referred to as the “Women of the Southland monument,” and many on the council were surprised and felt they should have been privy to her decision. 

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To remove the circa 1915 statues, the Deegan administration secured a legal opinion from General Counsel Michael Fackler, who stated she had the right to remove the display without first seeking what’s called a certificate of appropriateness.

General Counsel Michael Fackler answers questions in City Council chambers on Jan. 16, 2024 | Casmira Harrison, Jacksonville Today

But according to The Florida Times-Union, Fackler’s conclusion wasn’t unanimous among his own staff. Former General Council Jason Teal, who remains on the Office of General Council staff, said in emails to other staff attorneys that he disagreed with Fackler’s conclusion.

Teal said the Confederate monument is within the historic district of Springfield, and “the application clearly depicts the monument and the other structures within the park as contributing structures” to achieve the historic designation. Because of that, he wrote, between 2007 and 2012, the city Parks Department had applied for at least four certificates of appropriateness to do work at the park, including one to clean and repair the same Confederate monument.

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On Tuesday, during a Rules Committee meeting in which Fackler was expected to answer Council questions, Salem said he had received Fackler’s final written opinion less than an hour before the meeting, so he will be invited back next week after Council members have more time to formulate their thoughts on the document and how the removal transpired.

“As I previously stated, I’m not litigating the taking down of the monument. I have issues with the process used to remove it,” Salem said. “Three weeks after the removal of the monument we now have a signed, dated opinion by our general counsel, and that was after providing a couple of extensions.”

Salem said he is concerned that Fackler was trying to “find an opinion to accomplish a project.”

“I just feel like the opinion of the office has been very consistent until your arrival,” Salem said. 

Council member Nick Howland shared frustration with the opinion, particularly around the terminology used to describe the monument’s base — as a “structure” or “non-building” — a distinction that aided Fackler’s opinion.

“It seems like a new week, a new ruling, and things keep changing a little bit,” Howland said. “Some legal gymnastics.”

Who paid for the removal, and how?

Also at issue for council members is the funding used to remove the monuments and whether those funds needed City Council approval.

The Times-Union reports the $187,000 to pay for taking down the statues came from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund and 904WARD, both Jacksonville nonprofits, and 904WARD contracted with ACON Construction for the work.

Councilman Rahman Johnson asked Fackler to explain the flow of money that led to the removal of the statues.

Fackler replied that he did not know how the money got transferred to 904WARD. But he added that 904WARD contracted with ACON to do the work on Dec. 27, the day the monuments were removed from the park. 

“(So) the money never came to the city?” Johnson asked.

“That is correct,” replied Fackler. “The contract between the city and ACON was for a zero dollar (amount) but outlined the scope of the services, and the 904WARD contract was for the performance of ACON’s contract with the city.”

Johnson, referring to recent legislation filed in response to the Confederate statues’ removal that would require donations to the city get council approval, said that because the city never actually received funding for the removal, that legislation wouldn’t have been helpful in this particular case.

“That still would not have stopped this action because of the fact that the dollars never came into the city coffers,” Johnson said. 

Salem said he expects to announce a meeting time and date this week for next week’s further discussion on the topic.

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

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