The power of the people is the sword Jacksonville’s ICARE has wielded for the past two decades in its battle to hold elected officials accountable to provide marginalized people the help they need.

 

Now that power of the people is being directed at Jacksonville’s mayor as ICARE tries to convince Lenny Curry not only to attend its next meeting but to atone for a recent private session with ICARE representatives.


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That was the tale told recently before several hundred people gathered for ICARE’s annual Rally, an event that takes place a month prior to the larger Nehemiah Assembly on March 27.

It was a tale told through video of Curry’s last appearance before ICARE alongside an impassioned plea for the mayor to attend this year’s meeting. The attending pastors went as far as asking audience members to personally urge the mayor to attend, something he’s refused to agree to despite invitations.

an advocacy group

After all, ICARE is a venerable community institution that seeks help for doing good works. Its reputation as a caring institution is unblemished.

ICARE is not a study group; it’s an advocacy group that pushes its priorities with a righteous fervor.

Every year for the past 19 years, some 2,000 people from religious congregations across Duval County meet to impress upon invited officials that they must support the poor, the disenfranchised and the homeless. They’ve relied on transparency, love and faith — and, of course, people power — to get their message across.

More often than not, ICARE’s message is heard. More often than not, officials brought on stage during the annual assembly agree, in public and before hundreds, to try to carry out the various social justice programs ICARE proposes.

An exception has been the group’s six-year fight to get the city to fund a Day Resource Center for the homeless that would provide services and counseling during the daylight hours when many residential shelters are off-limits to them.

A day center was opened for a very short time but was closed over a year ago when money ran out.

Its services are missed and represent part of the problems at Hemming Park.

During last year’s assembly, when Curry was asked multiple times on stage to commit to the proposal, he declined.

Indeed, Curry was respectful but blunt in refusing to make promises when he didn’t have the funding to follow through on them. He was totally focused on passing the pension sales tax last year — and justifiably so.

Troubling account of the mayor’s demeanor

Now, according to Pastor Phillip Baber, co-chair of this year’s ICARE, and Pastor James Wiggins, last year’s co-chair, ICARE seems to be facing Curry’s wrath — this time behind closed doors.

In a Feb. 6 meeting at City Hall, according to Baber and Wiggins, Curry launched into a 30-minute tirade regarding who would be allowed to take part in the previously scheduled meeting. The two pastors said they had been told they could bring others, so they were accompanied by a 13-person contingent that was forced to wait outside.

Baber said Curry was “hostile, aggressive and adversarial,” so much so that he was taken aback. “We were just there to talk about the homeless,” Baber said.

But then came an even more disturbing moment, Wiggins told the group at ICARE’s recent rally.

“Mayor Curry … threatened to withdraw his support for the homeless day resource center if ICARE went to the press,” Wiggins said.

Baber readily confirmed Wiggins’ statement and added that the effect of Curry’s apparent threat was alarming.

Asked to comment, Curry’s spokeswoman Marsha Oliver emailed this statement: “That is unequivocally false. The mayor makes policy decisions based on what is best for the city and taxpayers on any and all issues. He met with the small group that requested the meeting and accommodated the larger group that showed up the same day.”

Curry made no promises regarding placing funding in this year’s budget for the Day Resource Center, Baber and Wiggins said. Now ICARE is left to question whether the mayor will ever support the center.

Obviously, we have two totally different versions of what happened during the City Hall meeting. So readers will have to judge for themselves whether they believe the two pastors or the mayor.

As for the Times-Union editorial board, we respect both Curry and ICARE — though that should never be construed as 100 percent agreement in all cases.

But the men and women elected to represent this city should always treat residents with the dignity and respect their office requires.

It shouldn’t matter whether that person is a homeless woman or a well-known pastor of a local church.

So it is troubling to hear stories about threats being made to discourage citizens from contacting this newspaper and other news outlets.

Citizens must never fear their voices won’t be heard if information is provided to the press.

And the news media should not be censored.

As a matter of fact, the actions and behavior of those officials whom city residents have chosen to represent them must always be public. After all, without the kind of transparency that this newspaper provided into the details of Jacksonville’s pension snafu, the scope of the problem might have never been known.

Florida has a proud tradition of open government, that the people have the right to take part in their government at all stages of the process.

Here’s the bottom line:

Curry should attend the next ICARE meeting.

And the mayor should take seriously the concerns that have surfaced regarding his relationship with ICARE.

We all care.