The Gainesville City Commission’s vote to fire Gainesville Regional Utilities General Manager Edward Bielarski Thursday ended with a new bid for mayor.
At the beginning of the meeting, City Commissioner Harvey Ward proposed the motion to fire Bielarski, which passed with a 4-2 vote. Commissioners Desmon Duncan-Walker and David Arreola opposed.
Ward also commended Bielarski for his successes as general manager. He recognized that Bielarski saved the city $900 million dollars and turned the Deerhaven Renewable Plant into one of the city’s most productive energy producers.
However, Ward noted a pattern of failure in three projects by Bielarski in the past three years: a Florida Power & Light partnership, a power purchase agreement for a 50 megawatt utility scale solar installation and a bid for a UF contract.
“Given the concerns I have illustrated with three consecutive significant enterprise level project failures or stalls, the lack of follow up reporting and accountability processes and the necessities and opportunities before us as an organization, I move now that we terminate Mr. Bielarski’s contract Immediately,” he said.
The board gave Bielarski an opportunity to speak before the vote.
Bielarski defended the ventures previously described as failed by Ward and conveyed pride in his past work.
“I think I will leave the utility in a better place than when I first came here so that does my heart well,” he said.
Before ending his speech, Bielarski said he would be running for mayor and slammed down his book on the podium.
“The one thing I got from Commissioner Ward was swing big. We swing big and then you don't hear anything because we're running our business, but I'll take that to heart. I’ll swing big. I'll run for mayor,” he said.
Duncan-Walker was concerned that because the meeting was a General Policy meeting rather than a general commission meeting, there weren't many listeners.
City Attorney Daniel Nee, however, explained that the meeting was a publicly noticed meeting and therefore the commission could take action.
City Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos and Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe both said they supported the firing, while Arreola felt the motion was not a good idea and would not support the motion.
During the public comment period, six people spoke. Every citizen who spoke was against the firing, including commissioner-elect Cynthia Chestnut. Chestnut won the special run-off election Tuesday and will be sworn in Feb. 17
Chestnut previously supported Bielarski when the commission discussed his resignation in September. She stated it was unfair of the commission to spring this on the about 800 GRU employees who were working and unable to attend the meeting.
“Finally, I’m very concerned about what kind of person, what kind of employee we will attract,” Chestnut said. “We are becoming known as the city that is in interim. We are an interim city because all we have are interim employees.”
Jenn Powell, an organizer for the Communications Workers of America Local 3170, also spoke during public comment.
The organization sent out a survey the night before the meeting because they heard rumors of Bielarski’s termination. According to their results, more than 60% of GRU employees were against Bielarski’s firing.
“They are already running short staffed. I don't know if they can handle any more of this type of turnover in the middle of a pandemic,” Powell said.
Bielarski’s assistant, Robin Baxley, called into the meeting via Zoom and also expressed concern.
“When I called the first time I was really kind of angry. Today I'm just sad and I'm gonna do my best not to cry,” Baxley said.
During the public comment period, Poe changed the motion to include that the termination would be without cause and that a negotiation would take place with Tony Cunningham for the position of acting general manager.
Arreola disagreed with Poe’s amendment to contact Cunningham for the position, suggesting that the Chief Financial Officer of GRU, Claudia Rasnick, should be promoted to the position instead.
The motion was amended to include Poe’s suggestions.
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Melanie Peña is a freshman majoring in Business (hoping to specialize in pre-law) and journalism. This semester she is the City and County Commission reporter. When she's not writing an article, she's probably designing a graphic or exploring coffee shops in Gainesville.