Jake Godbold’s long shadow

Jake Godbold (Courtesy of WJCT)

Jacksonville has never known a personality quite like Jake Godbold. He was larger-than-life, omnipresent, visionary, and outspoken. Monuments to his effectiveness can be found all over our city, from the Jaguars to the Southbank Riverwalk to the Florida Theatre to the Dames Point Bridge to the senior centers he loved to visit even after he left office. Anyone who knew him, followed his time in public life, studied his unique leadership style, or read Mike Tolbert’s excellent biography (aptly titled Jake!) is aware that Mayor Godbold was one-of-a-kind.

After leaving the Mayor’s Office, Godbold remained a devoted citizen for the final 33 years of his life. He was working for the betterment of our community until the very end. His advocacy included a call for ensuring that all residents receive the benefits of Jacksonville’s historic 1968 city-county merger, which occurred when Godbold was a member of the pre-consolidation Jacksonville City Council.

In an interview for the 50th anniversary update to the consolidation chronicle A Quiet Revolution: The Consolidation of Jacksonville-Duval County and the Dynamics of Urban Political Reform, Godbold observed that “Jacksonville made some mistakes about overselling consolidation. A lot of promises were made that wouldn’t be kept or couldn’t be kept as fast as we wanted.” He was inclusive and wanted the promises to be kept.

Janet Owens’ lasting legacy

Janet Owens (Courtesy of WJCT)

Janet Owens was an inspiring leader who did some of our community’s most important work at LISC Jacksonville. She was dedicated to advocating for and investing in Jacksonville neighborhoods which had not received necessary attention. As the organization remembered her leadership, “LISC Jacksonville invested millions of dollars in improving Jacksonville’s most challenged inner-city neighborhoods… positive impacts from these efforts will continue to be felt in neighborhoods including Northwest Jacksonville, Historic Springfield, New Town, the Railyard District and others for decades to come.” Former LISC Jacksonville Chair J.F. Bryan said Owens “was a phenomenal community leader whose passion for helping our most vulnerable neighbors was rooted deeply in her soul, and she radiated that passion to everyone around her.”

Sadly, our community lost Jake Godbold on January 23 and Janet Owens on April 8. But to paraphrase an old movie line, they are not really gone – not as long we remember them. An appropriate memorial to Jake Godbold and Janet Owens would be for Jacksonville to fulfill the promises of consolidation and extend its benefits to all citizens and neighborhoods. While COVID-19 has complicated the mission, we can nonetheless make a commitment and launch the process necessary to address the valid concerns of residents who question whether an initiative to create one Jacksonville has actually perpetuated a tale of two cities.

The promises of Consolidation

Mayor Hans Tanzler and J.J. Daniel, chairman of the Local Government Study Commission and publisher of the Florida Times-Union and Jacksonville Journal bury a time capsule next to old City Hall on October 1, 1968, the day consolidation went into effect. (Courtesy of the Jacksonville Historical Society)

When consolidation passed on August 8, 1967 and took effect on October 1, 1968, African American political strength in Jacksonville was diluted. As Richard Martin wrote in an earlier version of A Quiet Revolution, the African American share of the vote decreased from 41 percent to 20 percent with the dawn of consolidated government. But these political concerns were assuaged by the promise of what consolidation would do to improve “open drainage ditches…unpaved streets, and rundown schools.”

There is little question that promises were made to pre-consolidation Jacksonville neighborhoods. In 1965, the Florida Legislature authorized a Local Government Study Commission of Duval County to review all local government “structures, functions and operations” and recommend any revisions to promote efficiency. The commission’s ultimate report, Blueprint for Improvement, would become the foundation for the consolidation proposal voters approved in 1967. In their report, commission members clearly prioritized core Jacksonville neighborhoods, exclaiming that “[if] we are to prosper as an economic area, as a community of the future, as individuals in pursuit of our goals in life we must insure that our core city is viable and able to speak to the world as a living testimony of our accomplishments. To settle for anything less will inevitably lead to a compounding of our community problems and the infliction of further personal hardships on our citizens as individuals.”

In 2013, then-Council President Bill Gulliford convened a Task Force on Consolidated Government led by Council Member Lori Boyer to review consolidated government. In its final report, Blueprint for Improvement II, the task force confirmed the reality of promises made but not kept. As task force members concluded, “the promise of urban services and the assurance that no one would be taxed for services they did not receive was a major selling point of consolidation and the concept incorporated in the Charter in the distinction between Urban Service Districts and the General Service District. Yet, many neighborhoods still do not have basic public services, such as City water and sewer services, paved roads, and functioning storm water systems, and a renewed commitment to the promise of fundamental governmental services for all is in order.”

Historians need not rely on reports alone. Personal accounts from the consolidation era also tell the story.

No eyewitness is more credible than Alton Yates, one of the most notable figures in modern Jacksonville history. On Aug. 13, 1960, Yates and fellow NAACP Youth Council leader Rodney Hurst courageously led fellow Youth Council members to sit in at the segregated Woolworth’s store lunch counter west of Hemming Park. Woolworth’s employees closed the counter rather than serve the African American youth. A group of white bystanders hurled racial epithets. Two weeks later, on the way to another lunch counter protest, Yates and other Youth Council members were attacked by a mob of white assailants wielding baseball bats and ax handles.

“Ax Handle Saturday” became a watershed moment in Jacksonville race relations — one that led to the desegregation of Downtown lunch counters, government facilities and other public establishments. But it was not the end of Alton Yates’ efforts to make Jacksonville a better place. Later in the 1960s, he worked for the Greater Jacksonville Economic Opportunity Program as a community organizer, helping to fight the War on Poverty.

In 1967, Earl Johnson Sr. invited Yates to join the consolidation campaign. Yates’ role was to visit core city residents and encourage them to speak up about problems in their neighborhoods. “It was kind of a secret that people were drinking water that was unhealthy, dealing with septic tanks which were backing up and overflowing, and living in neighborhoods where streets had never been paved,” remembered Yates in 2018. “There was dilapidated housing and children couldn’t go to school because of extreme poverty in which they lived.”

Yates remembers serious misgivings among African Americans about consolidation. “Many people in the black community were not in favor of consolidation,” Yates recalled. “They saw it as a way for the white community to maintain control just as the city was on the verge of electing a black mayor because of the demographics of the city at that time.”

Leaders like Earl Johnson Sr. and Yates attempted to persuade skeptics. Even though many observers thought that Johnson would have been the first African American mayor had consolidation not occurred, Yates said his colleague was less interested in his own political prospects than the city as whole. “He wanted to see improvements to be made for all of the citizens for Jacksonville,” Yates said. “If consolidation passed with major black participation, the black community would benefit as much as the white community. I felt the same way. In my mind, a change in government was needed so that all people would be afforded services on an equal basis.”

When asked if promises were made, Yates was clear in his recollection. “The promises were very, very explicit,” he remembered. “The campaign targeted problems people were experiencing and sold people on the notion that these were the kinds of problems that consolidation would fix. People were told paving of streets and improvement of water and sewer systems would be a result if we consolidated the city and county governments. Consolidation did some of that, but not nearly enough.”

Yates had an especially good vantage point for the implementation of consolidated government. From 1973 to 1995, he was an aide to four mayors – Hans Tanzler, Jake Godbold, Tommy Hazouri, and Ed Austin – and played a key role in executing Tanzler’s directive to make the City of Jacksonville as accountable and responsive to citizens as possible. Fifty years later, Yates looked back and saw major improvements from consolidation for the core city neighborhoods: re-accreditation of the public schools; rooting out of local government corruption; end of the overlap in services; better Council representation; and a strong mayor system which made city government far more responsive. But he also saw the challenges that prevented promises made from becoming promises kept.

“When people talked to us about unpaved roads and septic tanks, we couldn’t deal with them because we simply didn’t have the resources to deal with those challenges,” Yates recalled in 2018. “When we were selling the notion of consolidation, we just didn’t know how massive the job was going to be. We underestimated the cost of taking out septic tanks. Once we solved the major problem of sewage outfalls into the St. Johns River, there was little funding left. We eliminated some septic tanks. We paved some streets. But not nearly enough to satisfy the needs of people who are still waiting today.”

Other former and current public officials agree with Yates’ conclusion. “We have really shorthanded the core city which voted for consolidation,” observed former Mayor Godbold in 2018. “We got cheated in our infrastructure and haven’t been able to run sewer and water out to a number of people. Streets and roads and ditches haven’t been corrected in the way they should have.”

Deferred promises, rising costs

While funding was a problem from the start, deferred promises led to increased costs. Former Council President Warren Jones recounted the City had to invest $33 million for water, sewer, and drainage in just one neighborhood, Grand Park, after two residents died in a 1989 flood. Nearly 20 years later, his District 9 successor Garrett Dennis was told that needed improvements in the Kings Road/Beaver Street corridor would cost $50 Million. “If we had just started in 1968 and invested $1 million a year, we could have finished the project by now,” he noted in 2018. Former Council President Anna Brosche observed “the cost of promises made but not kept is such a huge number – potentially in the hundreds of millions if not over a billion dollars. I think sometimes people look at that number and say it is just too much to whittle away. Yet if we never try, we never will.”

Some observers think of the infrastructure shortfall as largely confined to Northwest and East Jacksonville, and there is little question those areas have seen many of the worst impacts. But the challenge of unkept promises is community wide. Visit Jacksonville CEO Michael Corrigan, who previously served as Duval County Tax Collector and City Council President, described family members in Miramar never receiving the water and sewer they were promised in 1967-1968. Council President Scott Wilson, whose Southside district stretches between Atlantic and J. Turner Butler Boulevards, observed in 2018 that “older neighborhoods tend to be left behind. Much of my district doesn’t have water and sewer. We have drainage ditches.” Council Member Joyce Morgan from Arlington described challenges with sidewalks and stormwater drainage systems. Former Councilman Matt Schellenberg, whose district included Mandarin, said that many homes still utilize septic tanks.

The promises to pave roads, build sidewalks, and replace septic tanks with city water and sewer throughout Jacksonville were complicated not only by increasing costs but also insufficient revenue. Mayors Hans Tanzler and Jake Godbold were under pressure to reduce taxes because consolidation was sold as a solution to expensive governmental duplication. That tradition carried forward. Between the end of Godbold’s final term in 1987 and the present, the City of Jacksonville reduced the property tax rate in at least 14 separate fiscal years. The result was a large amount in unrealized revenue that was unavailable to be spent on unfulfilled promises.

“The keeping of promises became such an expensive undertaking that nobody wanted to step up and ask for the kind of money that was necessary,” observed Alton Yates in 2018. “We never really got the job done and still haven’t to this day.”

To be sure, the City of Jacksonville has at times invested in infrastructure. In 1986, the City of Jacksonville levied a half-cent gas tax to help pay for road maintenance and construction. In 1993, the City launched the $235 million River City Renaissance. Seven years later, in 2000, voters approved the Better Jacksonville Plan, a $2.25 billion comprehensive growth management program funded by a half-penny sales tax to provide “road and infrastructure improvements, environmental preservation, targeted economic development and new and improved public facilities.” In 2014, the Jacksonville City Council extended the half-cent gas tax until 2036.

“When I was running for mayor, I kept hearing about the need for infrastructure and economic development north and west of the river,” said former Mayor John Delaney, who was involved with the River City Renaissance as Mayor Ed Austin’s Chief of Staff and launched the Better Jacksonville Plan as mayor. “I also knew that one of the weaknesses of consolidation was the reality that neighborhoods did not receive the attention they would have in a non-consolidated county, where places like Arlington would probably have become their own municipality.”

In addition to the Better Jacksonville Plan, Delaney’s response to these challenges was to focus all City of Jacksonville economic development incentives in Northwest Jacksonville and Downtown. He also created a Neighborhoods Department and established “intensive care neighborhoods” to give long-neglected parts of the city enhanced service in housing, infrastructure, and public safety.

Each of the City of Jacksonville initiatives from 1986 to 2014 had important community benefits and directed investment to core neighborhoods. But for numerous reasons, including a challenged economy in the last decade, none evolved into a sustained effort across time and City administrations to fulfill consolidation promises. While some progress has been made, much more work remains to be done.

Some of the needed work has already started. In 2016, the City of Jacksonville and JEA agreed to invest $30 million to replace failing septic tanks. The project prioritized old city neighborhoods. The City’s relatively new bicycle-pedestrian master plan emphasized key areas like the Phoenix community east of Springfield. As former Council President Greg Anderson noted, the City Council Capital Improvement Program (CIP) Committee provided a structural foundation for future assistance “by creating real public works project lists and funding those projects according to a transparent process.”

Next page: 5 steps toward fulfilling Consolidation’s promises