20 questions for Jacksonville candidates

In this guest editorial, Jacksonville attorney and author Chris Hand looks toward the 2023 local elections with a list of incisive questions for the candidates running.

They had the first pick in the 2022 NFL draft yet made the playoffs. They took 49 days to hire a new head coach yet became the AFC South champions. They started 4-8 yet won six straight games. They faced double-digit deficits against the Las Vegas Raiders, Dallas Cowboys, Tennessee Titans, and Los Angeles Chargers yet defeated all of those teams. Trevor Lawrence threw four interceptions yet rebounded to throw four touchdowns, leading the Jaguars to the third-biggest comeback in the history of the NFL playoffs. One year ago, the Jaguars had the worst record in the NFL yet won a playoff game the next season – the first team ever to accomplish that feat.

We know what the 2022-2023 Jacksonville Jaguars are about: Grit. Heart. Determination. Persistence. Perseverance. No matter what happens in the divisional round, AFC Championship Game, or Super Bowl LVIII, these Jaguars will always be known as the team that refused to quit. Whenever this glorious football season ends, public attention may turn to another series of contests: the City of Jacksonville elections scheduled for March 21 and May 19. While the current Jaguars are forever defined as the never-say-die Cardiac Cats, it is far less clear what will define the campaigns for mayor and 19 City Council seats.

The field of candidates is set. Voters will receive mail ballots as soon as early February. Early voting begins in less than seven weeks. The March election is a mere 63 days away. Yet with time slipping away, our local elections are at risk of becoming Seinfeld-esque: A show about nothing.

Let us hope that ambiguity will soon give way to clarity. The 2023 City of Jacksonville elections have major importance as our community is at a historic crossroads. Later this year, we will commemorate the 55th anniversary of consolidated local government. Voters will elect a new mayor. Close to half of the council could be new in July 2023 – a figure which will become a majority if multiple incumbents lose. The long struggle with COVID-19 has created or exacerbated challenges in need of solutions but has also brought more businesses, residents, and opportunities to our area. Those realities require that Jacksonville has a well-considered plan, and elected officials ready to execute that plan, to ensure the city is positioned for future success.

With those stakes, our community cannot afford for the current local elections to be about nothing. They have to be about something – and involve a substantive conversation with citizens. Every voter will have questions for candidates to answer. The twenty below are mine.

  1. Fast forward to the last day of your term in office (June 30, 2023, or June 30, 2027). How will Jacksonville be different because of your service at City Hall?

  2. Pretend you are talking to group of college seniors who are considering a move to Jacksonville following graduation. Their decisions hinge on your strategic vision for the community. What would you tell them?

  3. What is Jacksonville’s identity? Should it change?

  4. During the 1967 consolidation campaign, advocates explicitly promised citizens throughout the community that merging city and county governments would result in the paving and illumination of roads, building of sidewalks, replacement of septic tanks, enhancement of drainage systems, and provision of potable drinking water to neighborhoods previously lacking those amenities. Though there have been some efforts to address these challenges – most recently the enhanced gas tax to help with drainage and convert several neighborhoods from septic tanks to sewer – many promises remain unkept. As an elected official, how will you work to fulfill the promises of consolidation?

  5. Former Illinois Governor and United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson said it best: “As citizens in our democracy, you are the rulers and the ruled, the law givers and the law abiding, the beginning and the end.” As an elected leader, what specific strategies and tools – e.g., town hall meetings, budget workshops, office hours, virtual interaction, crowdsourcing, enhanced use of technology – will you use to ensure that citizen engagement is a key component of your local government decision-making?

  6. Jacksonville will commemorate the 55th anniversary of consolidation on October 1, 2023. What changes, if any, would you make to the City of Jacksonville Charter?

  7. Voters in all but one of Florida’s 67 counties can adopt a half-cent sales surtax to support public health. The exception is Duval County. Because Jacksonville is a consolidated government, Florida law excludes our community from this funding source even if citizens wanted to consider its use. Had this revenue measure been in place when COVID-19 appeared in 2020, Jacksonville could have generated nearly $100 million annually for needed health services such as primary, preventative, hospital, and trauma care. If elected, will you urge the Legislature to correct this disparity with other Florida counties?

  8. Earlier this month, The Florida Times-Union reported that Jacksonville saw “163 homicides in 2022…the second-worst total this century exceeding 2019’s 162 by one.” It is often said that crime control is a blend of enforcement, prevention, and intervention. Under our local government structure, the independently elected Sheriff is responsible for law enforcement. As the next mayor or council member, what prevention and intervention strategies will you pursue?

  9. Under current law, the new mayor will have just two weeks after taking office on July 1, 2023, to present a proposed budget of more than $1.5 billion to the City Council. Council members will then have slightly more than two months to revise that proposal and finalize the annual City of Jacksonville fiscal plan. What are your top three operational funding priorities and top three capital funding priorities?

  10. The St. Johns River and its tributaries are among the most defining features of the Jacksonville geographic landscape and are crucial environmental, economic, and recreational assets. As an elected official, what actions would you take to enhance the health and utilization of the St. Johns River system?

  11. According to a recent media report, the Jacksonville Jaguars have selected an architecture firm to design major renovations to the existing TIAA Bank Field. That same report estimated “the renovations in Jacksonville could reach $1 billion” and noted the Jaguars’ “plan is to form a public-private partnership to finance the upgrades.” What monetary and non-monetary contributions should the public (taxpayers) and private (Jaguars) partners make to the stadium renovation project?

  12. In 2022, the Downtown Investment Authority (DIA) turned 10 years old. Are you satisfied with the current DIA structure, funding, and Downtown revitalization plan? If not, what would you change?

  13. Consolidation skeptics argue that our local government model is too big and unwieldy to serve individual neighborhoods effectively. Durkeeville, Mandarin, Phoenix, Riverside, Oceanway, Argyle Forest, the Beaches, Arlington, and other neighborhoods have distinct needs. As an elected official, would you support updating and codifying the Neighborhood Bill of Rights to ensure neighborhoods have sufficient say in the funding, planning, zoning and other local government decisions that impact them?

  14. Jacksonville is known for having one of the biggest urban park systems in the nation yet still aspires to be one of the best. Though Jacksonville is the largest city by area in the contiguous United States and the 12th largest by population in the nation, the Trust for Public Land has ranked Jacksonville as the 81st best park system. How would you elevate our local parks?

  15. Here in Jacksonville, we have a long history of convening task forces, asking citizens to study key local issues and provide recommendations, and then letting those reports sit on shelves and collect dust. With climate change and sea level rise already producing significant local impacts like flooding, will you read and act upon the Final Report of the City Council Special Committee on Resiliency?

  16. In 2021, the Duval County School Board completed a process which resulted in the renaming of local schools previously named for Confederate figures. In contrast, the City Council still has not implemented Mayor Curry’s request to remove a large Confederate statue from a local park. Less mentioned in those debates has been Jacksonville’s rich civil rights history. The 2018 Task Force on Civil Rights History chronicled and recommended numerous ways to highlight that history. Will you collaborate with fellow elected officials and other local leaders to implement those recommendations?

  17. The Florida Constitution codifies the important principle of home rule, which recognizes that cities and counties are often best positioned to address their own needs. Yet in recent years, the Florida Legislature has passed numerous laws pre-empting local control in favor of a Tallahassee-knows-best philosophy. This approach has produced some deep dives into the weeds of local governance. If elected, will you urge the Duval Legislative Delegation and other legislators to defend home rule and local control?

  18. According to the Florida Housing Coalition, 33.3% of Jacksonville households are cost-burdened – meaning they pay more than 30% of their annual income toward housing. As Mayor or a City Council member, how will you help Jacksonville residents in need of affordable/attainable housing?

  19. In November 2021, the federal government enacted the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act which contained numerous provisions to help local communities. The August 2022 Inflation Reduction Act provided additional city and county assistance with clean energy, resilience, conservation and other priorities. How will you leverage these federal investments for the benefit of Jacksonville?

  20. Which Jacksonville taxpayer-owned or supported facilities (e.g., parks, community/senior centers, performing arts venues, museums, arenas, stadiums) have you visited? Do you have a favorite?

Though media and public attention often focuses on Washington and Tallahassee, local government decisions have the most immediate impact on our lives. Over the next few months, voters will make electoral choices that affect the next decade of local governance in Jacksonville. Candidates should tell us how they would govern at City Hall. Between now and May, those potential elected officials have an opportunity and a responsibility to engage our community in real dialogue that makes these local elections about something rather than nothing.

Guest editorial by Chris Hand. Hand is a government law attorney who served as Chief of Staff at the City of Jacksonville from 2011-2015. He previously co-authored America, the Owner’s Manual: You Can Fight City Hall – and Win and authored the 50th anniversary update to A Quiet Revolution: The Consolidation of Jacksonville-Duval County & the Dynamics of Urban Political Reform. He wrote a previous version of this column in January 2022.