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Thursday, May 06, 2021

Gainesville City Commissioners welcomed medical marijuana dispensaries, heard the resignation of the city manager and approved the creation of a utility advisory board during Thursday’s City Commission meeting.

Medical Marijuana Dispensaries Approved

Commissioners voted 5-0 with two members absent to amend land-development code to allow medical-marijuana dispensaries in certain city zones.

Thursday’s meeting was the first of two readings. Commissioners will have to hear and vote on the recommendation again on Nov. 19 before it can take effect.

“This would allow these medical-marijuana dispensaries permitted use in these districts, basically where drugstores are allowed now,” City Plan Board Liaison Dean Mimms said.

Mayoral hopeful Donald Shepherd said he was against the dispensaries. “If we allow this, we’re going to be allowing more marijuana throughout the state of Florida,” he told commissioners.

“I would not pass something like this in my city,” he added.

The dispensaries will follow guidelines outlined in the Compassionate Medical Cannabis Act of 2014 that Gov. Rick Scott signed into law.The act authorizes licensed physicians who fall under certain state statutes to order low-THC cannabis — also known as Charlotte’s Web — for specified patients.

The specification is narrow, allowing use only for patients suffering from cancer or physical medical conditions that chronically produce symptoms of seizures or severe and persistent muscle spasms and only if no other effective treatment options exist.

Florida Department of Health Communications Director Mara Gambineri wrote in an email that five licenses will be issued to dispensing organizations that sent in applications — one for each of Florida’s five regions.

“The three application reviewers are in the process of evaluating the applications submitted to the department,” Gambineri said.

City Manager Resigns

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City Manager Russ Blackburn surprised citizens when he announced at the start of the meeting that he is resigning, bringing an end to his decadelong career.

Blackburn discussed resigning with city commissioners before announcing his decision Thursday.

“As I reviewed that 10 years of service, I began to think about, ‘Was I the right fit? Was I the right person to go forward?” Blackburn said during commission recess.  “As a result of that self-examination, I talked to the commission, and we decided that it would be a good time for a transition.”

As city manager, Blackburn was responsible for more than 1,100 city employees and the city’s general-fund budget, according to the city website. His role involved administration of city departments and oversight of government programs and services.

“I just think he’s a professional in what’s he’s done,” Commissioner Todd Chase said.

“I really love this city, and I hope that showed in my work,” Blackburn said. He praised city employees — calling them “some of the best in the nation” — and spoke highly of past and future city projects.

“I was not for it, that’s all I can tell you,” Commissioner Harvey Budd said about Blackburn’s resignation, adding he thought the decision was “premature” because “it breaks up the continuity” of city government.

“You can move two steps forward, and now we’re moving one step backwards,” he added.

Late Thursday, commissioners voted Interim Planning and Services Director Anthony Lyons as the interim city manager. Blackburn said earlier he would work with and assist Lyons until a new city manager is brought into office.

GRU Advisory Board

After months of discussion, commissioners voted unanimously to establish a Gainesville Regional Utilities advisory board.

City Commissioners will still have to review and approve the ordinance one more time during its Nov. 19 meeting before the board takes effect.

The new advisory board, called the Utility Advisory Board, will advise the City Commission on the city’s electric, gas, telecommunications, water and wastewater utilities.

The board will be made of seven members who reside in utility service area, receive utility service and are not city employees. In addition, members will meet certain requirements and qualifications, such as having utility management experience or being a licensed attorney. At least one member will have to reside outside city limits.

Board members will serve four-year terms. However, the City Commission will designate three of the initial seven members to serve two years. Members cannot serve more than three consecutive terms.

Board members may be removed by City Commission if cause is found. A previous ordinance draft allowed the commission to remove members without cause.

While the commission unanimously approved the ordinance, some expressed concern with filling the board with a diverse membership that meets the required qualifications and expertise.

Commissioners will have the opportunity to tweak parts of the ordinance before it is completely approved.

GRU General Manager Ed Bielarski Jr. favored the board, viewing it as a kind of professional partnership with members from a nongovernment perspective.

"I think the utility, I think management, will be better off by having this,” Bielarski said.

Contact Hunter Williamson at hwilliamson@alligator.org and follow him on Twitter @hunterewilliam

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