Understanding Consolidation with Rick Mullaney

October 28, 2009 87 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Rick Mullaney, as the General Counsel for the City of Jacksonville, has an engineer's view of how our Consolidated government works. Join us as he explains the machine that is our unique form of government, its history, things we learned along the way, and how structural changes and political fads have altered the original intentions. The following is an adaptation of a speech by Mr. Mullaney to the Charter Revision Commission in three parts. The History of Consolidation. The applications and benefits of Consolidation, and the Possible futures of Consolidated Government.

My name is Rick Mullaney, and I'm General Counsel for the City of Jacksonville.

Thank you for having me here.

A little more than a year ago, I addressed a subcommittee of the Florida Legislature on The City of Jacksonville Charter regarding Consolidated government in a three-hour hearing.  The focus of that subcommittee was primarily on ad valorem savings in Duval County.

Given the fiscal crisis around the state of Florida and the challenges around the state, they were primarily interested in the fact that Jacksonville had the lowest ad valorem rate of any large metropolitan area in the state, and rightfully attributed much of this to our Charter, this consolidated government, and some of the efficiencies that are possible as a result of it.

While I discussed with the subcommittee of the Florida Legislature those savings and did not minimize the ad valorem rate, I tried to stress to the Florida Legislature that while that was important, I hoped they wouldn't miss that there was much more to our charter and Consolidated government than simply the ability to have lower ad valorem rates.

In fact, I suggested to them that the foundation for the transformation that has taken place in Jacksonville over the last 40 years, was very much the Charter that was adopted on October 1st of 1968 and that The Consolidated government that we here in Jacksonville enjoy gives us a competitive structural advantage in the creation of public policy the other 66 counties in the state of Florida do not have.

It is my hope to help impart the best I can why I believe that is so; why, under this charter, under this form of government, which is the only one of its kind in the state of Florida --- why we have the potential and opportunity under this structure to address issues like transportation, infrastructure, environmental, and now, quite frankly, financial matters in a way that is structurally advantageous over the rest of the state.

And I hope in my discussion of this charter that I can help impart to you why I believe that is so and why the work of the Charter Review Commission is so important.

I will tell you that a couple months later, after testifying before the Florida Legislature, I flew to Escambia County and I did so with one of the members of Charter Review Commission as well as Council President Michael Corrigan, and the reason we did was that they had taken a look at our charter and they wanted something similar.

They looked at where they were 40 years ago and what had happened. Then they took a look at us and said, "What has happened in Jacksonville? Please explain this charter and this structure to us." ---- In fact, they went to The Legislature this spring to try to emulate what we have.

And this is actually common: I would like to tell each and every one of you that I get calls from all over the country, from Maine to California to Kentucky -- Louisville recently Consolidated -- regarding this form of government and our City Charter.  And the reason I believe I get those calls is because they see the remarkable change that has happened here and they see a structural form that they believe and perceive to be better than theirs, and I think they're right.

Using Jacksonville as an example, Louisville consolidated with Jefferson County in 2003.

And they see what has happened over the last 40 years here.

There's no question that 40 years especially for those of us who were here and were observers and participants ---- that we were in a very different place under the prior Charter. At that time, not just structurally, Jacksonville was viewed by many as a slow-moving, backwards southern town with an inferiority complex.

And one of the commission members once added the word "smelly" to that, that we were a smelly, backward southern town with an inferiority complex.

That was the view of the State of Florida. And, unfortunately, I'd suggest that, at the time, it was the view of the many people who were here in Jacksonville.

Over the course of the last 40 years, after the restructuring, I would suggest -- and many in the state believe -- that we are in a very different place.

They marvel at how the smallest market in the nation got an NFL team, and I hope to tell you how I think that happened because of this structure. They marvel at a Preservation Project that acquired 53,000 acres to take it out of development.

They marvel at River City Renaissance; they marvel that we brought a Super Bowl here; and they marvel, quite frankly, at this Consolidated form of government.

Along with Charlotte, Jacksonville beat out St. Louis, Baltimore and Memphis for the right to add NFL franchises in 1993.

Make no mistake, there are 67 counties in the state of Florida, we have the only one in the state. Sometimes people confuse Miami-Dade. Miami-Dade is the name of the county. They have a county government. They have 35 municipalities. They are not a consolidated form of government.

So around the state they look here and they marvel at it, they are envious of it. In fact, in the words of Hans Tanzler when he first became mayor in '68, "We've become the envy of the state of Florida." And to quote one of the Charter Review Commission members, Mayor Ed Austin, who said -- he believes we have the best form of local government in the state and, quite frankly, the best in the country.

What I hope to do briefly -- it's tough for an Irishman to be brief, but I will try, to outline the fundamentals of this charter and impart as best I can an understanding of how this document has been given life over 40 years, how it really works, and how public policy is created as a result of this charter that has allowed us in the past and will continue in the future to allow us to transform this community.

People have often asked me: What is the charter?

October 1st, 1968, what is it?

Is it an agreement? Is it a contract? Is it a mission statement? And I say, really it's a local constitution. This is the constitution that we live by here in Jacksonville.

I know there are a number of lawyers here, and in law school we spend a year studying constitutional law. We study federal constitutional law because it's the supreme law of the land. And for 220 years this structure has been, I believe, the most successful in history.  We also know that our Constitution sets up the framework for our government, the supreme law of the land, the distribution of powers, and something very fundamental, an executive branch, a legislative branch, a judicial branch, separation of powers and checks and balances, this Madisonlike government.

Now, I don't know if they still have civics class anymore, my children haven't told me, but many of you may know this from ninth grade civics. I will tell you this -- and this is remarkable and important: As much as that structure has made sense for over 200 years -- executive, legislative, judicial, separation of powers, checks and balances -- That is not the structure of local governments around the country and it was not the structure of Jacksonville pre 1968.

It is not the structure of county governments in the state of Florida today. It is not the structure of Florida's local governments.

But on October 1st, 1968, remarkably, through genius and luck, it became ours. We adopted, in effect, a Madisonlike approach to local government. We adopted a federal-like approach to local government.

On October 1st, 1968, an executive branch was created and a strong mayor form of government.

By "Strong Mayor," I'm referring to the fact that administrative and executive authority is vested in the Mayor. The Mayor is not a member of the City Council, as the Mayor is in over 90 percent of the municipal governments around the state of Florida.

Of the 67 counties in the state of Florida, only one has a strong mayor form of government besides us. That's Miami-Dade. The other 65 have a Board of County Commissioners with a chief administrative officer.

So when you take a look at the structure, it was very unique and it was different from what you've seen around the state. And on October 1st of '68, the strong mayor form of government was formed.

Article 6 contains the provision in our charter in the creation of the Mayor's office. And when you go to The Charter, it invests that authority in the Mayor's office and in the executive branch to: propose a budget, to veto, to appoint department heads---all part of a strong mayor form of government, and the creation of accountability and responsibility in the running of a government.

It also created a legislative branch, which does what legislative branches do, it appropriates money and passes laws, but, significantly, it also receives and reviews the budgets of Constitutional Officers and Independent authorities, which is absolutely critical to the overall operation of this consolidated government enterprise.

So an executive branch in Article 6, and a legislative branch contained in Article 5 of the charter.

In Articles 8 through 12 we have the five constitutional officers.----And, historically, I will tell you that the Constitutional officers have resisted being a part of consolidated government.

They, understandably, are very enthusiastic about their mission; but they often view budgetary review as a restraint on carrying out their mission; and, historically, we've even had litigation,----as we did with the clerk in the early 1970s, regarding their desire not to be a part of consolidated government.

But in putting these structures together, the executive branch, legislative branch, five constitutional officers, eight independent authorities --

Those eight independent authorities include:

The JEA, which is the largest public utility in the state of Florida, the eighth largest in the country, about a $1.5 billion a year operation.

The School District, 19th largest in the country with 120- to 125,000 students.

The Seaport, one of 14 seaports in the state of Florida.

The Airport Authority, with four different airports.

The Housing Authority.

The Police and Firemen plus Pension fund and trustees,

The water/sewer expansion authority---

There are eight independent authorities and over 50 boards and commissions.

The Duval County School Board operates the 19th largest school district in the country.

If you take these five categories the Executive branch, Legislative branch, Constitutional officers, Independent Authorities, and Boards and Commissions -- that enterprise is about a 4.5- to $5 billion a year operating budget, which is different from the billion dollar operating budget that we hear about in the press.

Our budget as a Consolidated Government is significant and it is larger than six states---the enterprise is that significant.

And so on October 1st of '68, this structure was created.

It also created the Office of General Counsel. And in the Charter -- three significant things:

One, it had one little old sentence that said the General Counsel's Office shall provide legal services to The City and its independent agencies, all parts of the Consolidated Government.

That sentence in the Charter was a significant reform of the pre'68 model. The pre'68 model, as Judge Durden, liked to say, included 68 different bodies and individuals and entities, all with their own lawyer, driving up costs, slowing down the process, and, quite frankly, bringing government to a halt.

One of the fundamental reforms of consolidated government was to create centralized legal services where all parts of the consolidated government had the same lawyer.

A second part of the Charter is that the General Counsel is the chief legal officer for the entire consolidated government.

One of the subtle things -- I hope I can express it well enough in a moment -- that we have as a Consolidated Government, unlike other local governments around the state, is the structural ability to speak with one voice and to leverage our assets to accomplish missions, such as bringing the NFL to town. Having a chief legal officer is a piece of that speaking with one voice and speaking as an enterprise, and I'll talk about that in just a second in terms of what I think that means.

In addition, The Charter provided one other provision, that the General Counsel would have the authority to issue what are known as binding legal opinions in the event there was legal disputes within the consolidated government, and there have been over 370 of those since consolidation.

As General Counsel, during my term, I have issued ten binding legal opinions, --- most of those involve the placing of limitations of sovereignty, limiting the sovereignty of various parts of this consolidated government. A legal opinion, for example, that told the Mayor's Office they could not transfer money from one department to another without City Council approval. A legal opinion that told City Council they couldn't pass special relief legislation. A legal opinion that told the Property Appraiser they were subject to audit.

And, as some of you may remember, a legal opinion that told the School District that they had to competitively bid school bus contracts.

So the General Counsel, in the words of former General Counsel John Delaney, acts as sort of a Supreme Court for the consolidated government, providing legal services to all parts of it and acting as a Supreme Court for legal disputes.

All this provides sort of an overview of the structure.

And now you should ask yourself, how do we give this meaning?

End of Part 2.

Join us tomorrow as we conclude the series with the final articles in the series: The Benefits and Future of our Charter and Consolidated Government, along with a companion piece that was a question and answer session with Former Mayor and Former State Attorney Ed Austin on proposed changes to the Charter.

All throughout the day Rick Mullaney will be available for conversation and questions regarding the structure and functions of Consolidation and the City Charter.

Check out the first part of this series The History of Consolidation.