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Monday, April 15, 2024

New state-appointed GRU board sets precedent in U.S. history

New GRU board is confident in its future decisions, citizens remain skeptical

This article has been updated to clarify House Bill 1645.

In a crowded Gainesville City Hall on Sept. 4, a historical precedent was set as the new governor-appointed Gainesville Regional Utilities Authority board met for the first time.

At the meeting, board members established meeting times and location and sought a direction for the future of Gainesville's utilities. 

Four out of the five new members were present, including CEO of North Florida Hospital Eric Lawson, former City Commissioner Craig Carter, retired Marine Robert Karow and James Coats IV, with an intelligence data analysis and entrepreneurial background.

Tara Ezzell, the fifth state-appointed member, was not present at the meeting.

This is the first time — not only in state history, but in U.S. history — where a municipal utility board has been appointed by the state legislature, Commissioner Bryan Eastman said.

“This is a terrible precedent to set that in the state of Florida the governor can simply take over parts of a municipality in spite of all of the protections within the Constitution,” Eastman said.

Prior to the meeting, many Gainesville residents were skeptical about the residential status of the GRU members.  However, according to the new legislation, House Bill 1645, at least one member must live outside the city limits, but the law doesn’t specify how many members must live within the city’s boundaries. 

Four of the five on the board do not live within city limits. Carter has been identified as the sole member living within Gainesville jurisdictions.

Tyler Foerst, a 33-year-old field representative of the North Central Florida Central Labor Council, advised the board to make thoughtful decisions.

“I would encourage [the board] to move cautiously, given the uncertainty surrounding the constitutionality of this board, and frankly, some of [its] appointments,” he said. “[Make] sure your decisions rest on firm footing.”

Bobby Mermer, a 36-year-old co-coordinator of the Alachua County Labor Coalition, demanded the board publicly promise they will not sell GRU to private electric utility companies such as FPL and Duke Energy.

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“I want to know if they are open to selling off the utilities because the events that led up to the creation of this board are very similar to the events that led up to the attended sale of Jacksonville Electric Authority (JEA),” he said.

The GRU board did not address Mermer’s concerns and demands. 

After being sworn in by Gainesville Mayor Harvey Ward, the members were required to designate a person to chair, now Carter, and vice chair, filled by Lawson. 

The board established monthly meetings with prior public notices at GRU’s administrative building on the first Wednesday of each month and a meeting time of 5:30 p.m.

Mermer shared his experiences living in the Tampa Bay area, where he had to pay a monthly extra flare fee under Duke Energy to fund the rehabilitation of the Big Ben nuclear power plant, which was never built, he said.

“People do not know how bad it is to live under an investor-owned utility where you can’t have public comment… because I wasn’t a Duke shareholder,” Mermer said.

Armando Grundy-Gomes, a 46-year-old East Gainesville resident, encouraged GRU to be more curious and vulnerable and ask questions, he said.

“There is a time to turn the page on what is happening," he said. "All of us back here are now delegating to you to have more sunshine, more transparency."

Grundy-Gomes believes GRU has a lot of work to do since he thinks the organization is not where it needs to be, he said.

“The health of the utility and the financial structures are not where it needs to be,” he said.  “There’s a lot of things to look at and I don’t think you could do that monthly or in an executive summary.”

Mayor Harvey Ward said he has faith that GRU will continue to provide excellent utility services. 

The City of Gainesville filed a lawsuit July 21 against House Bill 1655, which would transfer control of Gainesville regional utilities to the state. 

On Sept. 29, Judge Angela Dempsey of the Second Judicial Court in Leon County ruled in favor of the state. Angela Dempsey dismissed the City’s claims due to a lack of sufficient evidence and standing. 

“I wish that we'd had a different outcome [in the City’s lawsuit against the state] but I respect the judicial processes and legislative processes. And that means I have to respect the results of those processes," he said. “I will do everything I can to help the members of the authority be successful, but I have exactly as much ability to influence that authority as you [Gainesville residents] do."

Eastman hopes the new GRU Authority will keep the best interests of Gainesville residents in mind, he said.

The failure of the City of Gainesville’s lawsuit against the state and all events leading up to the new GRU appointment were met with hyper-partisanship, he said. 

“It feels like we're being dragged into something that isn't really to the benefit of the ratepayers of GRU," he said. "And as someone whose job it is to look out for my constituents... It's incredibly frustrating."

Robert Arnold, president of Gainesville's utilities union, said GRU has traditionally been an economic powerhouse for the people of Gainesville.

“[The union’s] concerns are that they will preserve the utility and keep it intact," he said. "In the long haul, we want to see it stay, create jobs, and give people a way to support themselves."

Contact Kat Tran at ktran@alligator.org. Follow them on Twitter @kat3tran.

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Kat Tran

Kat Tran is a second-year journalism major and is the City & County Commission reporter for Fall 2023. They are also interested in a pre-law track (entertainment law). You can find them daydreaming about rainbows, unicorns, and sunshine in their free time. Currently, they are recovering after seeing Lana Del Rey live. 


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