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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Rep. Chuck Clemons files Gainesville Regional Utilities bill

HB1645 would put GRU under state control, give board hiring power for director

On Monday morning, Rep. Chuck Clemons (R-Newberry) filed legislation, House Bill 1645, that would put Gainesville Regional Utilities under state control if passed. 

The measure puts the power to manage regional utilities in the hands of five volunteers making up the GRU Authority. The volunteers would be appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, and they would have the power to vote on issues previously within the City Commission’s jurisdiction.

One member of the board must be a GRU customer with “substantial knowledge” of the utility. Another must be a private customer — such as the owner of a business that uses GRU. The remaining three members must be competent in one or more of six fields: law, economics, accounting, engineering, finance or energy. 

Clemons intends on submitting several amendments to the bill soon, said Mike Murtha, Clemons’ aide. Amendments include adding a requirement for all five members to be GRU customers and a requirement for at least one member to live outside the city limits. 

An amendment also allows the GRU Authority to hire, fire and manage the salary of the GRU general manager — though it keeps utility managing power in the hands of the general manager. However, the GRU Authority would still have the jurisdiction to raise or lower rates, obtain or sell assets and manage the GRU budget.  

The bill also specifies if the number of electric meters outside the city limits exceeds 40%, then the next appointee must be a GRU customer living outside of Gainesville. Clemons was unavailable for comment in time for publication, but this is in line with Clemons’ past critiques of regional utilities. 

Because people outside of Gainesville are served by GRU but can’t elect city commissioners, Clemons thinks the way the city manages regional utilities is undemocratic, he said. 

Mayor Harvey Ward is surprised by Clemons’ actions, he said. During the March 16 Alachua County Legislative Delegation meeting, Clemons told Ward and other Gainesville residents in attendance the bill was written as a “placeholder” until Clemons could hear from residents and make amendments. 

However, Clemons’ amendments still don’t make substantial changes, Ward said. He hopes Clemons will still consider keeping GRU under local control. He also views the amended draft as too experimental, since it doesn’t appear to emulate any existing regional utilities system, he said. 

“It’s some of the strangest legislation I’ve seen,” Ward said. 

He also thinks it's unlikely Clemons will submit the drafted amendments, given how close the Florida House of Representatives is to ending its legislative session. 

As it stands now, the proposed legislation leaves too much room for interpretation, Ward said. The city had already been considering pulling in outside legal help to examine the implications of the bill, and now Ward thinks that might be necessary. 

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“I don’t really say this to be provocative at all or to be too difficult,” Ward said. “But the bill doesn’t really work as it is written.” 

Commissioner Bryan Eastman also found the news disheartening, he said. 

When the 2018 referendum bill — which had GRU Authority members appointed by the City Commission — was on the table, several local businesses and other groups were on board with it, he said. However, he hasn’t seen the same amount of support for moving local utilities into state control, which is what Clemons’ bill aims to do. 

To see that part of the bill unaltered was unexpected, he said. 

“It was frustrating and surprising to wake up and see the exact bill in the form he had put on the table originally,” Eastman said. 

As of Tuesday, the bill still has no amendments. 

Contact Siena at Follow her on Twitter @SienaDuncan.

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Siena Duncan

Siena Duncan is a sophomore journalism major and the graduate school beat reporter for the Alligator. When she's not out reporting, she's typically bothering her friends about podcasts or listening to Metric on repeat. 

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