When it comes to the JEA board’s evaluation of its CEO, let’s cut to the chase.
Board members took the spirit of Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law and ripped it to shreds.
Members talked individually to an outside attorney, then granted a $43,169 bonus to their chief executive with almost no discussion in public.
If this is legal, then Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law needs to be amended because it flies in the face of every principle of the state’s open government laws.
Among the principles that were violated:
■ The public has the right to both observe and participate in its government during the entire process, not as a last-minute formality.
In the case of the JEA evaluation, we will never know what the discussions were like with outside attorney and former city General Counsel Cindy Laquidara and individual board members. The public was not invited, the discussions were not recorded and there were no minutes taken.
JEA Board Chair Lisa Weatherby said there was no need for public discussion at the JEA board meeting because the board members already agreed with the process.
Of course not, the board members had already talked about it privately with Laquidara, so why waste their breath in public?
Though JEA streams its board meetings on its website, viewers would have heard next to nothing about the CEO’s evaluation and his bonus.
■ The public has a right to know how its government bodies are doing on a consistent basis.
In this case, the evaluation of JEA CEO Paul McElroy is not just about him; it’s about how a multi-billion dollar utility is conducting its business.
McElroy provided a self-evaluation, and the board basically accepted it. End of discussion.
Though the evaluations were positive, are there warning signs that need to be followed up next year?
■ Using an outside attorney to find legal loopholes in the law, frankly, is an outrage.
It’s especially interesting that Laquidara was the outside attorney involved in these private meetings.
Laquidara, remember, said that using a federal mediator to hold private meetings on a new police and fire pension plan was legal. Times-Union Editor Frank Denton sued, saying this was simply a device to avoid Florida’s open meetings laws. A Circuit Court judge and a panel from the 1st District Court of Appeal agreed wholeheartedly.
So given Laquidara’s track record on this subject, she should be the last person to be used for Sunshine Law advice.
The city’s Office of General Counsel should have been used instead. And in that regard, General Counsel Jason Gabriel told the Times-Union that he would advise using another process for evaluating the JEA’s CEO, though he did not see a technical violation of the law in this case.
Barbara Peterson, an attorney and president of the Florida First Amendment Foundation, said: “What they did was an end run around the Sunshine Law. It’s that simple.”
Carla Miller, the city’s ethics officer, said the Sunshine Law prohibits using a third person as a liaison in order to develop a consensus without a public meeting. Since there apparently was no two-way communication, it appears the liaison boundaries were not crossed. But that just looks like another loophole in this case.
The fact that the board members felt no need to discuss the CEO’s bonus in a public meeting raises suspicions about the entire process.
And to top this off, Laquidara’s offer to do this work for free also raised concerns with Miller.
“In my ethics trainings, I discourage receipt of any gifts from vendors who are contracting with the city,” she told the Times-Union.
Clearly, the JEA board needs more training on Florida’s Government in the Sunshine Law.
In the future, JEA’s board needs to follow the procedures of other independent agencies and public bodies. Evaluations of CEOs ought to be written for the public record. And discussions ought to be noticed, so the public can attend — and minutes taken.
In conclusion, JEA’s CEO is a public official. The JEA is a public body.
The people JEA serves deserve to be involved in its business from start to finish.
Open government is the tradition in Florida.
It’s also the law.
If JEA acted legally on its bonus decision for its CEO, then the law needs to be amended.