‘I hate them:’ Airbnb owner claims he was targeted by Jacksonville’s Office of General Counsel

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Action News Jax investigator Ben Becker has learned a local Airbnb owner claims he was targeted by Jacksonville’s Office of General Counsel because the city’s former top lawyer was a social acquaintance of a neighbor who made noise complaints.

“I hate them,” said small business owner David Willis, who runs numerous Airbnb’s in Jacksonville, including one in a residential section of the San Jose area.


“The general counsel came after me, they sued me,” Willis said, referring to former general counsel Jason Teal, who is now assistant general counsel.

In 2022, Willis was cited by the city for violating code, claiming he used the home as a motel because people were staying for less than seven days, which resulted in a $500 per day fine.

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OGC sued in circuit court and offered Willis a $121,500 settlement and if he didn’t take it, his fine would jump to $3,000 per day.

A judge saw the city’s lawsuit differently and dismissed it, ruling city lawyers did not make a “good faith” argument and that city code conflicts with state statute.

The city was ordered to pay nearly $50,000 of the $120,000 in legal fees that Willis accrued.

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“What does it suggest when a judge orders someone to pay attorney’s fees?” Becker asked Action News Jax Law and Safety Expert Dale Carson.

“That they were wrong in bringing the litigation to begin with,” Carson said.

Carson said code enforcement cases like this are rarely filed in circuit court unless there’s an immediate threat to the public.

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The city spent nearly $29,000 in taxpayer money to pursue this case over 18 months, with seven attorneys and two paralegals.

So, what happened here?

Emails obtained by Becker show a former neighbor of Willis’ who made the noise complaints was at least a social acquaintance of Teal.

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In one email, the neighbor wrote a group of people, including Teal, about getting together for a “game.”

Teal responded, “I’m in.”

There’s no indication what game they are referring to, but sources tell Becker it was poker.

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Becker obtained dozens of OGC emails, many of which showed Teal had direct knowledge of the case, including editing the complaint and directing his office to file motions, which sources tell Becker isn’t a typical level of involvement for a general counsel in a code enforcement case.

“What are the optics here?” Becker asked Carson.

“They’re not good,” Carson said.

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Becker also learned the OGC is plagued by high turnover.

The city said out of an office of 80, there are currently eleven vacancies, including three attorneys under current General Counsel Michael Fackler, although it appears turnover issues started under Teal.

Becker found out on Teal’s watch from August 2021 to June 2023, 11 of 46 attorneys left the office -- overall, 25 employees departed.

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Office of General Counsel Statement:

“After review, we are confident that Mr. Teal did not have a conflict of interest, and we reject the assertion that Mr. Teal misused his position as General Counsel for an acquaintance.

“By way of background, the City has historically regulated short-term vacation rentals (those offering stays of less than seven days) as it regulates hotels/motels: short-term rentals on properties zoned for hotels/motels. See minutes from City Council Workshop on Short Term Rentals (November 15, 2018, comments from Folks Huxford). Mr. [redacted], a social acquaintance of Mr. Teal, complained to his district council person, at large council person and City code enforcement, and alleged a violation of the Zoning Code, consistent with the City’s regulation for short-term vacation rentals. The complaint was properly routed to the City’s Municipal Code Compliance Division (“MCCD”) as the City agency charged with enforcing the Zoning Code. Mr. [redacted] complaints were processed and addressed as a typical code complaint, and OGC followed a request from its client, MCCD, to move forward with a complaint to enforce the City’s interpretation of the zoning code.

“We have reviewed your request for a statement and the information therein regarding the turnover of employees at the Office of General Counsel. While it is always possible to find a particular snapshot with higher numbers, these departures are not concerning. The departing employees left for a variety of reasons, unique to the individual employees. Some left for other opportunities within the City or private practice, while others moved on for other mundane reasons like the relocation of a family member. We appreciate the work and dedication of our current and former employees, and we continue to wish the departed employees the best of luck and continued success in their future endeavors. Additionally, we constantly strive to provide the best working environment for all of our employees, including engaging an outside consultant to evaluate compatible law firm salaries and other workplace policies to remain a desirable workplace destination for the best and brightest legal minds in Jacksonville. As the City enters a new budget cycle, the Office is working with our elected officials to evaluate the salaries of all OGC employees to ensure OGC remains the dynamic place to work for outstanding attorneys.

“In conclusion, we would reject any assertion that OGC has anything other than a positive culture and motivated workforce. To suggest otherwise would be a disservice to the previous General Counsels and unfair to the current employees who work diligently for the good of the City.”

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