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City officials declare "war" against losing control of GRU at $1.7B in debt under their leadership

Nora O'Neill Correspondent




Gainesville city commissioners expressed their concerns with a drafted bill from the Florida House of Representatives that would remove its authority over Gainesville Regional Utilities decisions.


The bill, drafted by Rep. Chuck Clemons, would create a five-member GRU authority board with members appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and take away all the city's decision-making abilities for the utility.


The commissioners voted unanimously to pass a motion with three parts in an effort to fight the bill in its current state. They agreed to be prepared to hire an outside consultant on the constitutional legalities of the bill should it be signed, request to meet individually with lobbyists, and continue to work to meet the requests of the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee which grilled city leaders in February about utility oversight and the city’s plan to tackle $1.7 billion in debt.


“I want folks in Gainesville to know that we understand that it is our job to keep the lights on,” said Mayor Harvey Ward. “I can’t, with a straight face, go to any of our constituents and say I trust that everything’s going to keep working if this passes.”


Ward said he believes the bill may be amended once it is filed, but exactly what actions can be taken to thwart the bill are still unclear. The commission hopes hiring this outside counsel will help provide a clearer direction.


There are also concerns about the time available to make amendments. The bill is expected to be filed on April 10, according to Ward, with it then moving to one or two committees before it will need to pass the House floor and be added to a consent bill the Senate will consider toward the end of the legislative session which adjourns May 5. Then it would need to be signed by DeSantis.


Commissioners pointed out the unusual way the local bill was presented, as these types of legislation are typically put forth and discussed prior to the Florida legislative session rather than during.


“I do believe that the way that it's moving forward does not indicate a level of deep concern for the people,” Ward said. “This is a big, big change, and to do it without a tremendous amount of study and forethought seems irresponsible to me.”


Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut, who raised the motion, said the bill had severe constitutional defects. She called for making sure the city could obtain outside counsel to help them fight what she called a battle.


“This is not a little, nice gentlemen's agreement,” Chestnut said. “This demands some action.”


In 2018, Clemons sponsored a bill that gave voters the choice to appoint a GRU board. Roughly 60% of the city's electorate shot it down. The difference this time, however, is there will be no vote by the people.


“I feel like our voters spoke in 2018 when they said they wanted direct accountability over what happens to their utility,” said Commissioner Bryan Eastman, who led the campaign against the GRU referendum five years ago.


The draft obtained by The Gainesville Sun shows the proposed GRU Authority would be made up of volunteers spread out among the utility's service area.


One member would be a major commercial user and another a resident outside city limits. It would be the first time ever that someone outside city limits has the ability to cast a vote affecting the utility. The remaining three members "shall be competent and knowledgeable in one or more specific fields substantially related to the duties and functions of the authority, including, but not limited to, law, economics, accounting, engineering, finance, or energy," the bill states.


The implementation of the board would have a first round of staggered terms of one, two and four years, before moving to regular four-year terms.


At the meeting, Commissioner Casey Willits called the bill novel and experimental. He said Clemons should pursue the opinions of people who live in Gainesville and work for GRU.


“It’s a radical consolidation of power to the state level,” he said. “It’s truly ridiculous. I hope we don’t go down this road.”


Willits added he hopes other cities with municipal utilities will recognize similar bills could be put forth targeting them and choose to fight alongside and support the efforts of Gainesville commissioners.


“We mean business,” he said. “We have to go to war.”


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