Now more than ever leaders need to step forward in Jacksonville.

 

Unelected officials — the members of the Jacksonville Port Authority board — are about to commit to spending hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to deepen the St. Johns River shipping channel.

This is despite mounting evidence that the project doesn’t make economic sense. In fact, “boondoggle” wouldn’t be too strong of a word to describe it.

But the people you would expect to step up and say, “Slow down — let’s have a thorough public debate about this project” aren’t saying a word.

And why are they so silent?

It’s apparently because they’re afraid to anger either Mayor Lenny Curry or Gov. Rick Scott, both of whom are proponents of this massive expenditure of public funds.

You would think that Curry would be the one calling for a public debate that encompasses both the economic and environmental aspects of the dredge.

When the question before Curry was whether to expand the protections in the city’s Human Rights Ordinance, he set up a series of public meetings to debate every part of the proposal.

Yet Curry, who promotes himself as a skilled businessman and accountant who understands finances, is willing to spend millions of local tax dollars without an equally thorough public airing on a shaky-at-best gamble that a deeper channel will allow JaxPort to steal enough business from other East Coast ports to justify the expense.

If Curry doesn’t lead, how about the JAX Chamber taking that role?

Daniel Davis is the Chamber’s current president. I closely followed his career on the City Council, especially the years he served as the Finance Committee chairman and as council president. And Davis proved himself to be a protector of taxpayer dollars — someone unafraid to face difficult challenges.

Yet now, despite all the valid questions that have been raised about the wisdom of this huge expenditure, all we’re getting from Davis is silence.

John Peyton is the incoming chairman of the Chamber.

He spent eight years as mayor of Jacksonville. He knows the city’s needs. He now runs a huge business.

So what does Peyton have to say about all of this?

Nothing.

Everyone seems to be afraid to give an honest answer to this question: If what is sure to grow to a billion dollars to be spent on a gamble were your personal money, would you invest it this way?

The City Council is dodging that question as well. The way JaxPort has set up its financing scheme, the council won’t have a real say on whether the public’s tax dollars should be spent on the project until it’s too late. The dredge will already be underway, and the argument will be that stopping it would be a waste of the money already spent.

When Alvin Brown was mayor, such a shenanigan would have had council members howling. Now from the current council members, many of whom were the chief critics of Brown, crickets.

This lack of leadership leaves it to you — the members of the public — to step forward.

You must demand a timeout.

You must demand a public debate that includes all sides.

Is the project economically feasible? Or is it not? What are the true costs of the entire project, not just the money that will be spent on deepening the channel? What are the impacts on the health of the St. Johns River? And how will the damage be mitigated?

True leaders would say such a debate is critical to the future of Jacksonville.

And those who argue that it has already taken place are simply wrong.

What we have had is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and JaxPort pushing their views exclusively.

New information from people with expertise in such matters continues to come forward that challenges those assumptions.

This isn’t a mundane issue that simply can be blown off with the assertion it’s a done deal. The deep dredge will consume hundreds of millions of dollars that won’t be available to meet Jacksonville’s other critical needs.

Why are the project’s proponents so afraid of the answers that could emerge during a public debate?

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ron.littlepage@jacksonville.com (904) 359-4284