The Jacksonville committee tasked with vetting a new general counsel, one of the city’s most powerful positions, agreed Tuesday to conduct a two-week job search after City Council members said the committee’s plans to coronate the mayor’s preferred pick would violate the integrity of the process.

Mayor Lenny Curry waited two months after former General Counsel Jason Gabriel announced his departure before scheduling the first meeting of the General Counsel Qualification Review Committee.

Curry’s preferred candidate is acting General Counsel Jason Teal. Teal, one of Gabriel’s top deputies, may serve in that role for 90 days. If he is rejected by City Council, he would get a 60-day extension while the review committee considers other candidates.

As of Tuesday, when the mayor scheduled the review committee’s first meeting, Teal was already 38 days into the job.

The committee must consider Curry’s preferred candidate, but it can also search for other qualified candidates.

Committee members said it would be difficult to search for candidates, vet the candidates, recommend someone, have the mayor formally nominate the person and then have City Council go through its own vetting process within Teal’s remaining 52 days.

Because the timeline was too tight and because the new general counsel’s term will end July 2023, the committee members wanted to forego any search, not accept applications for the position and select Teal after asking him a few questions.

As the committee began talking to Teal, City Councilwoman Brenda Priestly Jackson spoke up.

“I don’t think it’s going to have the same level of integrity and process if everything is done in one meeting,” she said. “Believe it or not, I only found out about this meeting on Friday. I didn’t know this was going on today. People in the general public don’t have any idea or understanding of what this looks like. There’s a certain level of opaqueness to them.

“If everything happens summarily here today, it will erode the confidence and trust of what happens here with this committee.”

City Councilwoman Randy DeFoor (left) speaks after the General Counsel Qualification Review Committee indicates it plans to interview and recommend acting General Counsel Jason Teal. [Andrew Pantazi]

OPENING UP THE PROCESS

Former Mayor John Delaney, who is serving on the committee, took Priestly Jackson’s comments in stride.

“We’re getting political advice from two members of City Council,” he told his fellow committee members, referring to Priestly Jackson and City Councilwoman Randy DeFoor. “It would probably jeopardize Jason [Teal] if we don’t consider more candidates.”

Fellow committee member Braxton Gilliam reiterated his concerns with the short timeline.

“We’re out of time,” he said. “That’s my point.”

The committee agreed to post an ad next Monday and accept applications for two weeks before making a recommendation the week of Oct. 11.

The Jacksonville general counsel is one of the most powerful positions in local government. The city’s lawyer serves as a sort of prosecutor, defense attorney, consigliere and as a quasi-Supreme Court issuing opinions about what is and isn’t allowed under city, state and federal law.

The position offers legal rulings to every aspect of the city and county government. If a city or county government agency is doing something, that agency abides by the general counsel’s rulings, for better or worse.

HARD TO FIND INFO

Even though the mayor appoints the general counsel based on recommendations he receives from the committee, that lawyer must serve the whole city, not just the mayor. The mayor, the law said, must “give due consideration for the needs of the entire consolidated government.”

It does not appear, however, that the mayor’s office notified the other constitutional officers or independent authorities and agencies about the first meeting.

The city posted no information about who was on the General Counsel Qualification Review Committee on its website. Initially, the city posted the only public notice about Tuesday’s meeting on a bulletin board at City Hall. In response to questions from The Tributary, the city posted the notice online Friday.

Curry’s chief administrative officer, Brian Hughes, ignored questions about why Curry waited until more than two-fifths of the 90-day window had passed before scheduling the meeting, but he answered other questions in a statement.

Hughes’ statement:

“The Mayor and his administration followed the requirements of the City Charter. He selected a highly skilled and qualified OGC attorney as interim, Jason Teal. The mayor decided that Mr. Teal was also well-qualified to be advanced to the Qualifications Committee for their review. Consistent with the City Charter, the committee will review the qualifications of Mr. Teal and additional candidates who they may see fit. Consistent with the Charter, that committee will conclude their review and the mayor will advance an applicant to City Council. The public notice for the meeting you attended complied with legal requirements for notice, as will all additional meetings the committee decides to set. As OGC is an appointed position there was no requirement for it to be posted, and as discussed at the committee, the mayor believes Mr. Teal to be a highly-qualified choice for their review. Ms. Conway serves as the administrative support for the committee until they conclude their work. In that role she will facilitate and support their function.”

Former City Council President Bill Gulliford, who helped lead the effort to amend the way the committee operated through a ballot referendum in 2015, said the intent of the committee’s structure was so it would operate independently of the mayor since the general counsel must serve all of the city’s elected officials.

The committee is made up of Gabriel, former Mayor Delaney, Gilliam, employment attorney Michelle Barnett and Jacksonville Bar President Michael Fox Orr.

Gabriel, Orr and Gilliam all said they’ve worked with Teal and praised his work. “I don’t have a question about Jason’s qualifications,” Gilliam said.

THE GENERAL COUNSEL IS THE LEGAL CHIEF FOR ALL OF JACKSONVILLE’S GOVERNMENTS.

Deep breath here but that includes the mayor, the City Council, the School Board, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, Jacksonville Fire and Rescue, the tax collector, the property appraiser, the elections supervisor, the county clerk of court, JEA, the Jacksonville Transportation Authority, the Jacksonville Port Authority, the Jacksonville Aviation Authority, the Jacksonville Housing Authority, the Downtown Investment Authority, the Jacksonville Housing Finance Authority, the Police and Fire Pension Fund, the Jacksonville Public Library, Kids Hope Alliance, the Public Service Grant Council, the Tourist Development Council, Northwest Jacksonville Economic Development Fund and overseeing the city’s more than a hundred interlocal agreements.

A SHORT TERM

Gabriel said he’d argue that even at the start of a mayor’s term, the committee should only consider lawyers with experience in the office, but that is especially true for a 20-month term that leaves no time to learn on the job.

Teal has worked in the office since October 2000.

“Even if we were to pick the best, most brilliant attorney in the nation, plop him in there as general counsel, it’ll take them three years to figure out what happens on the third floor with the council auditors,” Gabriel said.

He and others presented this as if it were an anomaly, but in fact, of the 14 general counsels since Jacksonville’s consolidation in 1968, eight served terms of two years or less. Gabriel is one of only three general counsels to have served longer than a four-year term.

Steve Busey, whose law firm was hired by City Council to investigate the botched attempt to privatize JEA that sparked a federal grand jury, told The Tributary the city’s founding leaders always intended for the general counsel to be an elder lawyer who would only serve about two years anyway.

The committee noted that no one had yet applied for the job and that indicated a lack of interest, but the city hasn’t posted information about how to apply.

Gilliam told The Tributary that applications will go through Sharon Conway in the mayor’s office, even though the committee is ostensibly independent.

“That’s obviously concerning,” said City Councilwoman Randy DeFoor, who also attended the meeting. Applications should go directly to the committee through Gabriel, who was selected as its chairman, she said.

The artificially shortened timeline, the argument for an internal candidate and the lack of transparency around the committee’s composition and meeting time can only mean one thing, Busey said.

“The fix is in for Jason Teal. You know that.”

DeFoor even said at the meeting it’s possible Teal is the right person for the job, but it was important to her that the committee still search for candidates and vet them.

GENERAL COUNSEL’S RECENT HITS

The city office of general counsel has taken a starring role in many of Jacksonville’s recent controversies, some of which directly involved Teal.

It wrongly said the city and Police and Fire Pension Fund could negotiate in private sessions.

It wrongly said the mayor could end a special pension created by the Police and Fire Pension Fund. This decision has likely sparked the fund defying the Office of General Counsel and seeking its own lawyers.

It wrongly said the School Board couldn’t sue the city, with Teal as one of the lawyers who unsuccessfully represented the city in court. The city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting the School Board. The case settled before a court could rule on the office’s unorthodox opinion that “sometimes, ‘shall’ means ‘may’”.

It wrongly said it was constitutional to give the sheriff the ability to approve who was allowed to be a stripper in the city, with Teal representing the city in federal court.

When the city passed an anti-discrimination ordinance, the ordinance was initially struck down because it said that the Office of General Counsel would later write the actual text of the ordinance, which either never happened or never got properly enacted.

And last fall, Teal ran afoul of First Amendment experts when he drafted rules for the Duval County Canvassing Board that was condemned by Republicans and Democrats alike and various First Amendment organizations.

He advised the board that it could issue a prior restraint forbidding photography of public proceedings, even though Florida law requires that board meetings allow non-disruptive photography.

Teal, at the time an assistant general counsel, offered little rationale. When pressed, he pointed to a public records law, even though a separate law handles how meetings are held, and courts have ruled that public records laws don’t apply to meeting procedures.

He also invented a novel interpretation of a law giving elections supervisors the discretion to redact signatures. He argued printed names, initials and even write-in candidates’ names printed on the write-in line could all qualify as signatures, giving the supervisor a much broader authority to refuse to show parts of ballots that otherwise would’ve been public.

At one point, he said releasing exempt records could lead to the board being sued, which meant it would have to “babysit” reporters covering the meeting. At another point, he reversed course and admitted the law actually leaves such release to the board’s discretion.

HOW FEDERAL INVESTIGATION WEIGHS IN

DeFoor said she’s concerned by the office’s recent record, and she finds it odd that Gabriel is sitting on the committee to select his own replacement.

Particularly considering the federal investigation into the city, she said it makes sense to value outside candidates over internal ones. “There are a lot of issues that are now under federal investigation quite frankly that happened with this body of people in the general counsel’s office, so the thought is it’s probably in the best interest of the city to go outside the general counsel’s office.

“We truly need an independent general counsel. That’s hard to get if you’re already in the general counsel’s office and you’re already appointed by the mayor. It is the most powerful position aside from the state attorney’s. It represents the city in every capacity. I think we need to do a better job of ensuring we have the best and the brightest.”

Cindy Laquidara, who preceded Gabriel as general counsel, said the committee shouldn’t narrow its pool of candidates to people with experience in the office, and almost all of the city’s previous general counsels didn’t come from within the office.

She said she believes someone with experience managing a private law firm would be qualified for the job.

Hank Coxe, an attorney who has represented various city agencies, including the general counsel’s office, said that “in addition to Jason Teal, I could name 25 other Jacksonville attorneys clearly qualified to serve as general counsel.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Delaney concluded it was good the committee was going to take a step back and open up the process to applications.

“The caution from City Council was a good one for us to hear,” he said.

Jacksonville General CounselStarting YearEnding Year
William L. Durden19681969
James C. Rinaman Jr.19701971
Ed Austin19721974
Harry L. Shorstein19741976
Dawson A. McQuaig19761984
Gerald A. Schneider19841987
James L. Harrison19871991
John A. Delaney19911992
Charles W. Arnold Jr.19921994
John A. Delaney19941995
Thomas R. Welch19951995
Fred D. Franklin Jr.19951997
Richard A. Mullaney19972010
Cindy A. Laquidara20102014
Jason Gabriel20142021

Disclosure: Hank Coxe is a financial supporter of The Tributary, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors.  Financial supporters play no role in editorial decisions at the Tributary. Find a complete list of them here. Find our editorial policies here.

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Andrew Pantazi is the founding editor of The Tributary. He and his wife, Lauren, are both Jacksonville natives raising their two sons in the city. You can contact him at Andrew.Pantazi@JaxTrib.org.