Fight over children's commission grows

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on May 30, 2012.

A behind-the-scenes fight for control of the Jacksonville Children's Commission is spilling into the public, bringing the City Council into the mix.

The heart of the matter: Should the agency, which gets a third of its $60 million budget from the city, report to an independent board or directly to the mayor?

The issue came to a head last week after a month of efforts by the commission to hire an interim executive director were stymied by Mayor Alvin Brown.

Executive Director Linda Lanier retired in March, and the commission first appointed an existing employee as acting director - a move the board saw as mollifying the mayor, who had asked them not to appoint a permanent replacement.

Brown is looking to change the commission's structure so he directly appoints the executive director, although city law now requires the commission to do so.

In April, the commission voted to hire Jill Dame as an interim director, with a planned start date of May 7.

When the city's human resources department was notified of the hire, though, employees there said they couldn't process the paperwork until the mayor signed off on it, commission Chairman Ken Wilson said.

As weeks went by and Brown didn't do so, Dame instead agreed to work as an "advisory volunteer, " a position that wouldn't let her sign documents or handle other official tasks.

The city pushed back against this, too, Wilson said, saying that Dame couldn't volunteer without a background check.

The commission did a background check, but by then Wilson had had enough.

In a letter to Councilman Bill Gulliford, Wilson asked for the council's help in getting things moving.

"As to the specifics of our board responsibility related to this issue, it is very clear, " he wrote, going on to quote the legislation that established the group: "The commission shall employ and fix the compensation of an executive director."

The councilman agreed to help.

Then, last week, 35 minutes before the council meeting where Gulliford planned to bring it up, Wilson got a letter from human resources allowing him to move ahead with the hire.


It was one more step in the fight between Brown and the Children's Commission leadership that dates back to December, when the mayor's reorganization plan called for him to take over leadership of the group.

That change was nixed by the City Council, and the administration agreed to remove it from the plan to stop the entire thing from stalling.

The days before that vote, though, were filled with behind-closed-doors conversations with commission supporters in which the mayor's staff argued for the changes.

At times, Wilson said, the situation seemed to turn personal. "I think I offended the mayor when I disagreed with him, " he said. "The mayor was very upset with us."

The Mayor's Office denies the situation is personal, but Chief of Staff Chris Hand said the issue is one Brown feels strongly about.

"His vision is to focus on how we best serve children, " said Hand, the administration's point person on Children's Commission issues. "Given the importance of that goal, it's a priority of his to see if we can enhance the job of the Children's Commission."

Enhancing the job means adding family issues to the mix, something Wilson said the commission supports - although he'd like more details on what that entails, including where funding would come from and what metrics would be used to measure success.

"We've asked for a plan, " he said. "We haven't received one."

Hand said the administration is considering a number of ideas for broadening the mandate but nothing has yet been solidified.


If the commission's mandate is to become broader, keeping politics out of it becomes even more important, said one of the founding members.

The commission was set up the way it was to keep it insulated from politics, said Richard Sisisky, its first chairman, allowing programs to have continuity even as they span administrations.

"I don't know what more you could want of a quasi-independent group, " he said. "This is a model that is working and has worked well for 19 years."

Rather than continuity, though, Brown's office is focused on accountability, Hand said.

"The amount [the city provides] could increase if the mandate broadens, and Mayor Brown would be held accountable, " he said.


With the interim executive director on board, things have quieted down a bit - but one of Dame's main jobs is to find a permanent successor, which will soon turn the flames higher.

However that search proceeds, Brown may have one advantage in getting his plans enacted - one that demonstrates the power the mayor already has over the Jacksonville Children's Commission: Now making their way through the City Council are resolutions appointing four of the 11 voting board members, all of whom the mayor appoints with council approval.


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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