I’m still dumbfounded.

 

The unelected members of the JaxPort board are committed to spending a half-billion dollars to dredge the St. Johns River shipping channel, and our elected officials are mostly twiddling their thumbs and looking the other way.

Attempts for a public debate on what could very well turn into a financial and environmental debacle for Jacksonville have fizzled because JaxPort has taken its ball and gone home.

The excuse that JaxPort uses is that the private lawyer the board hired to represent it told port officials not to talk in a public forum because of a lawsuit the St. Johns Riverkeeper organization has filed to stop the dredge.

Of course, if port officials spoke the truth, there shouldn’t be any fear that something said could be used against the dredge in court if the project is really all that JaxPort has cracked it up to be.

Besides the Riverkeeper didn’t sue JaxPort; it sued the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

JaxPort asked to intervene in the suit, which conveniently gave it a curtain to hide behind just as groups concerned by the lack of transparency were ramping up calls for a public airing.

Among those were people with the credentials to challenge JaxPort’s rosy economic projections for the dredge.

Not satisfied with shutting down public debate, JaxPort officials have taken to disparaging those who question their plans.

It’s become more like “On the Waterfront” than good government.

Meanwhile, the City Council, which I have watched argue for hours over trivial government spending, such as for refreshments, is mostly silent on a project that will end up costing more than a billion dollars when landside improvements are figured in.

Why the zipped lips?

Some of them who have legitimate questions are fearful if they raise them, there will be retribution from Mayor Lenny Curry, who supports the dredge.

They have other projects they are pursuing that will require Curry’s support.

Other City Council members have simply guzzled the cups of Kool-Aid that JaxPort has been handing out to the JAX Chamber and other groups, such as the Civic Council.

City Councilman Tommy Hazouri has at least got a commitment from JaxPort to provide a quarterly report beginning in September that updates “the economic and environmental impacts and data that JaxPort is relying on.”

That’s no substitute for a tough, open debate about what the return on investment will be, what damage will be done to the St. Johns River and its tributaries, and how that damage will be mitigated.

City Council does have a forum available to demand that a debate takes place.

The council has to approve JaxPort’s budget. The debate could take place in the Finance Committee or when the budget moves to the full council.

It would really be quite simple:

No debate, no approval.

At least put the same energy into it as arguing over whether some city agency should buy a couple of hamburgers.

We’re talking perhaps as much as $2 billion here when all is said and done.

And to our friends in the Clay County Chamber of Commerce and the Nassau County Economic Development Board, who have written letters supporting the dredge, we appreciate your interest.

It would be more relevant if you wanted to help pay for this boondoggle.

But it’s Jacksonville that will be on the hook when the dredge goes south and the St. Johns is damaged despite assurances from the Corps that won’t happen and when jobs and revenues from increased shipping that JaxPort salivates over never materializes.

Of course, our current elected officials will be out of office then.

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