The Florida Times-Union by Nate Monroe
January 31, 2020
COMMENTARY | The employment contract for ousted JEA CEO Aaron Zahn says any legal dispute he has with the board of directors’ decision Tuesday to terminate him for cause must take place in private arbitration, where the proceedings and any settlement, award and findings could possibly remain confidential.
Confidential arbitration appears to be highly unusual in Jacksonville government generally and new to Zahn’s tenure at JEA specifically: The contract for his predecessor, Paul McElroy, contained no such provision.=
During his time in private business, Zahn pursued confidentiality agreements with individuals and contractors his former company did business with, as well as in at least one case with a city. (He said when questioned about this in 2018 such arrangements are common in private business).
Zahn’s JEA employment contract says, “subject to applicable law,” that an “arbitration proceeding and any and all related awards, relief, or findings shall be confidential.” Zahn and JEA, through that contract, waived their right to settle disputes in the court system, in favor of a neutral arbiter, whose final opinion would be binding. Those findings are extremely difficult to reverse.
It’s not clear such blanket secrecy would be enforceable in Florida, which has robust laws governing what records and meetings must be publicly accessible.
“As a rule, an agency can’t contract away its obligations under the public records or open meetings law,” said Barbara Petersen, former president of the First Amendment Foundation, the state’s leading open-government group.