JEA: What went wrong?

Emily Echevarria, Government Reporter

“It’s just ugly” are the words used by an employee of Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA) to describe the situation the company has found itself in. Over the past few months, JEA has come under high scrutiny from the Jacksonville community and announced a complete change in leadership with the firing of its CEO and the resignation of the entire Board of Directors. What exactly went wrong?

JEA logo.

CEO Aaron Zahn was fired with cause after just over a year in office. His tenure saw controversial plans to privatize JEA as well as a controversial bonus plan. He proposed the Long-Term Performance Unit Plan (PUP) that would allow employees to invest in the company and earn exorbitant payouts if the company was sold.

The privatization venture has cost taxpayers roughly $10 million, and was first approved by the board, along with the bonus plan, at a meeting in July 2019, as reported by the Florida Times-Union

JEA is the largest community-owned utility company in Florida and the eighth largest in the country. It’s governed by a Board of Directors, consisting of seven members who are appointed by the Mayor of Jacksonville and confirmed by City Council members.

The proposed changes within JEA were met with intense public scrutiny and calls for an investigation. City attorneys ruled Zahn’s bonus plan was not legal, and he was placed on paid leave on December 17 while the details of his removal were hashed out. A week later the invitation to negotiate (ITN) with entities interested in purchasing the utility company was canceled by the board.

As reported by News4Jax, an investigation was conducted into Zahn by the Jacksonville Deputy General Counsel to help board members determine whether he would be fired with or without cause. Being fired without cause would entitle him to severance pay. 

The investigation by the DGU turned up over 20 separate reasons for Zahn to be fired with cause, including altering information presented to the board, misrepresenting the PUP to the board, and providing false testimony, as detailed in a document from the Deputy General Counsel. 

After the Deputy General Counsel presented the findings, the board voted unanimously to fire Zahn with cause. Hours after the vote, Mayor Lenny Curry announced that 6 directors would be ending their tenure at the end of February, with the 7th member resigning earlier that morning.

More issues were presented with Zahn, including allegations of misleading the board, through the reporting of Action News Jax and First Coast News

Spinnaker spoke with an anonymous source at JEA, a longtime employee who works closely with the different sectors of the company, about how the controversy has affected employees. Their story focuses on the lack of trust and security that they’ve seen within the company as the investigation has panned out. 

“From the rank and file, there’s been a lot of anxiety all the way through,” they commented on the company’s brief venture into privatization. “You’re talking about 2000 people who are worried ‘Am I going to have a job or not?’”

“It erodes trust, when you don’t trust your leadership,” they continued. “You can see how a lack of trust would affect your ability to count on your employment, but it affects your interpersonal relationships within the company.”

“People were checking their resume, watching the want ads, all that stuff, and then watching to see what comes up in the newspaper about JEA, because that’s how we find out what’s going on.”

In their experience over the past year, employees of JEA found out about many of the major changes with the rest of the community — from the news. 

“We find out on the news,” they said. “You can tell. Guys walk into the job each day and the first thing they do is check what’s going on in the news. There’s been a big lack of trust. They only tell us what’s going on because it’s in the paper.”

Their worry extended beyond whether current employees would still have jobs. “We’re worried about people wanting to work at JEA also… Is the best candidate going to put in for the job when they don’t know if the company will be there?” they questioned.

The investigation into Aaron Zahn and the privatization efforts has just begun. State Attorney Melissa Nelson recently announced that the controversies would be investigated by the federal justice system, but did not specify exactly which entities would take the lead. 

“I’m waiting for someone to go to jail,” said the employee. “I’m welcoming a federal investigation, and I figure it will touch the Mayor’s Office. It will touch our former CEO and our board, and other people who have contracted with them.”

Zahn is not the only person to come under scrutiny, but he is where the focus has been.

“Aaron Zahn knew nothing about energy. When they hired him the only reason they said he got the job was because he has– and these were (the board’s) words– gravitas. He had no qualifications,” said the employee. 

The positive side the employee sees– “This is all public record so he will not be able to worm out of it.”

“What I want the public to know,” concluded the employee, “is that it’s not us. It’s not the employees at my level. We go to work every day and try to be good stewards of the rate payer’s money.”


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