PerspectivesSherry Magill Jacksonville Today Contributor

OPINION | The citizens who stopped, exposed the JEA scheme

Published on March 28, 2024 at 6:36 pm
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Before we close the book on the JEA scandal, it’s fitting that we take a moment to reflect on the actions of those who stopped the behind-the-scenes sale effort and revealed a corrupt personal enrichment bonus plan.

Whether or not it takes a village to raise a child, it certainly seems to take legions of citizens and courageous just plain folk to stop the machinations of a powerful few.

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David vs. Goliath

Were it not for the courage of City council auditor Kyle Billy, City council president Anna Brosche, and City ethics officer Carla Miller—collectively playing David to the administration’s Goliath—early efforts to steamroll a sale might have succeeded.

Had diligent Florida Times-Union reporters given in to other stories, and had JEA’s union not organized, the sale effort may not have penetrated the public’s consciousness. Had it not been for a Civic Council study showing JEA’s stable finances, envisioned by Jeanne Miller and her board, we may have believed JEA was on shaky ground.

And had it not been for a City council special investigative report on who did what, when, and where, appointed by council President Scott Wilson and led by council members Brenda Priestly-Jackson and Randy DeFoor, and a collection of folks calling themselves Our Jax Michael Ward, David Miller, Mike Hightower, Audrey McKibbin Moran among them who insisted the city council investigation proceed despite the plug having been pulled on the sale and bonus plan, we would not have documented this public corruption scheme in our official historical record.

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Aided by an engaged citizenry, all these folks stopped an administration’s rush to sell JEA, uncovered secrecy, revealed the truth about JEA finances, blew the whistle on a greedy enrichment scheme and insisted the entire affair be exposed and remembered.

Individually, many of these folks received threats to their careers and livelihoods, others feared retribution. All civic-minded folks who in individual ways stood up to the worst of us and the worst in us.

Their putting the public’s interest above self-interest, fulfilling their public responsibilities as citizens, reminds us that civic virtue, while maybe on life support, is not yet dead.

Let’s lift up their contributions and their example, and trust that as a community we can nurture in ourselves and the generations that follow the individual qualities necessary for civic virtue to thrive.

Civic Virtue

Civic virtue — putting one’s individual self-interest aside to promote our collective best interest — is a quality that those who founded the American constitutional system thought absolutely essential to a healthy, functioning democracy.

What’s required is nothing short of individuals’ fulfilling their responsibilities as citizens.

In our seemingly sordid and publicly corrupt world, we witness few examples of citizens, whether acting in an elected or appointed position, or as members of a political community, who possess such qualities. When we do, we rarely celebrate them.

But we should.

If for no other reason than to set civically virtuous examples for our community, reminding ourselves that we can conquer corruption and demand better. Besides, lifting up examples of civic virtue might also help us rediscover what it means to be an engaged citizen.

Joe Tussman argues that the art of politics — that is, the art of getting together to provide for our common welfare — has been corrupted by the concept of the marketplace, leaving us with the notion that our political life is one big “shopping trip” and our elected representatives are our “designated shoppers.”

We know it, we feel it, we fret about it, we study it, and we produce reports on just how empty our civic lives have become. Just when we think all is lost, that we cannot recover our sense of purpose and common interest, along come beacons of hope.  Local champions. Heroes.

“Heroes,” Studs Terkel tells us, “are people who say, ‘This is my community, and it is my responsibility to make it better.’”

This is our community, and it’s our responsibility to make it better.

This column appears in partnership with the JaxLookout.

author image Jacksonville Today Contributor Sherry Magill founded the JaxLookout in 2018 to reflect on local issues and encourage local citizens to engage as she was retiring from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund presidency, ending a 27-year career in private philanthropy. During her tenure, Magill spearheaded the development of the defunct Haydon Burns Library into the Jessie Ball duPont Center, a nationally recognized nonprofit and philanthropic center. Sherry currently chairs the Local Initiatives Support Corporation-Jacksonville (LISC) advisory committee and the Charles F. Kettering Foundation board and serves as member of the board of directors of Virginia-based Locus Bank.

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