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Monday, May 20, 2024

Gainesville residents, organizations fight GRU bill

Locals are wary of political motivations of new board

With Gainesville Regional Utilities now under the rule of a board appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, some Gainesville residents are taking action in the form of lawsuits.

The law went into effect July 1. It establishes the Gainesville Regional Utilities Authority, a board made up of five governor-appointed members to oversee GRU in place of its general manager. The board took over Oct.1.

Since its implementation, several lawsuits have been filed against the law, including those by Gainesville Residents United, a nonprofit organization aiming to bring awareness to local issues and the takeover detailed in the bill.

Robert Hutchinson, a 71-year-old Gainesville resident, serves as the president of the organization. The law breaches the constitutional rights of local residents, he said.

“The primary problem we have is that it’s undemocratic,” he said. 

Local officials have no say in the appointment of authority members, Hutchinson said.

“No local elected officials appoint these people [or] can discipline them,” he said. “Nobody locally can fire them. Only the governor can do that.”

According to Hutchinson, there have been five lawsuits filed against the law and two more that are pending. The lawsuits are split among federal and state courts, he said.

“Right now, we’ve got essentially two cases in federal court, two in state court in Tallahassee and one in state court in Gainesville,” Hutchinson said.

The lawsuits have been losing defendants in recent rulings. In the latest ruling Dec. 21, a judge dismissed DeSantis as a defendant in one of the lawsuits, leaving only the City of Gainesville as a defendant, according to a WCJB article.

With the recent rulings, members of Gainesville Residents United are considering their next steps if their lawsuits are ultimately dismissed, Hutchinson said.

“We’ve gotten a couple of bad rulings,” he said. “They’re not final yet, but if and when they are, we may choose to either refile those complaints in another venue, or we might decide to appeal.”

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Lawsuits are somewhat of a last resort to the local organization, Hutchinson said. Amending the law remains among their top goals, he said.

“Most of the focus seems to be on the lawsuits, but we also educate, advocate and negotiate,” he said. “Right now, we’re advocating for a revision to [House Bill] 1645. That’s up in the legislature right now.”

If the proposed revisions were to be passed, the lawsuits would be dropped, Hutchinson said.

“We have told the legislature that if they pass our amendments, as we have presented them, that all of our lawsuits will go away, or at least most of them will,” he said.

Some Gainesville residents remain wary of the new GRU authority.

For Jessica Forbes, a 37-year-old Gainesville resident, the increasing rates of GRU bring about enough concern on their own.

“I feel bad for those who are having a hard time being able to afford paying utilities,” she said. “I think it’s also kind of hurting all of the community because it’s forcing more people to live out east just to get out of GRU.”

With the governor now in charge of appointing board members to the authority, Forbes has new concerns about potential ulterior motives. This is especially true given DeSantis’ political history, she said.

“I do wonder what’s up his sleeve,” she said. “This was the same governor that kind of changed the law, saying that he could keep his seat in case he doesn’t win the presidency.”

DeSantis signed Senate Bill 7050 in May which went into effect in July. This made multiple changes to state elections and voting processes and removed Florida’s resign-to-run law, allowing the governor to remain in office while running for president.

Dylan Kovach, a 29-year-old Gainesville resident, has been following the “legal back and forth” of the law since its creation and believes that the motivation for the change is largely political, he said.

“From my understanding, it’s politicized as a way for the state to be more involved in democratically held regions of the state,” he said. “It’s political showmanship at its finest.”

Kovach said the law reminds him of DeSantis’ “vendetta” against Disney, in which the governor took away Disney’s ability to self-govern its special tax district, the Reedy Creek Improvement District — a case that was taken to court in April.

While Kovach feels the law’s legal standing is ultimately “something for the courts to decide,” he believes that lawsuits against it might have a point, he said.

“GRU is publicly owned in the city of Gainesville as an entity, and they’re basically putting people in that are swaying the message that’s being portrayed by that entity,” he said. “I think that there might be a case that it’s unlawful.”

Contact Bailey Diem at Follow her on Twitter @BaileyDiem.

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Bailey Diem

Bailey Diem is a first-year journalism major and a metro general assignment reporter for The Alligator. When not reporting, Bailey can be found playing guitar or getting lost in a book.

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