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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Gainesville City Commission approves changes to downtown parking, moves to put GRU Authority on ballot

Free parking downtown will become paid, short-term

In its meeting Thursday, the Gainesville City Commission approved changes to downtown parking and moved to draft a ballot measure about the GRU Authority Board.

During a general public comment session, members of organizations such as the League of Women Voters, Alachua County Labor Coalition and Gainesville Residents United expressed concerns about the board. 

Out of the 23 total speakers who contributed to public comment, 18 shared their support to put a referendum about House Bill 1645 — which established the authority — on the November ballot.

Despite not being on the meeting’s agenda, the commission discussed the proposal following the public comment session.

City attorney Daniel Nee confirmed a referendum would be legal for the commissioners to pass. An amendment of the charter could be made by voters, Commissioner Casey Willits said.

“The charter can be amended by the voters or the legislature,” he said. “City Commission cannot amend the charter. All we can do is send a referendum.”

Local residents never got the chance to vote on HB 1645 and the GRU Authority when it was first established, Willits said.

He acknowledged Gainesville residents’ support for the proposal and understands the issue is important to locals, he said.

“It sounds a little odd, but it’s something the citizens and the voters of Gainesville could and should have an opportunity to vote on,” Willits said.

While the referendum could be put on a ballot through a special election, the commission would prefer to add it to an upcoming election ballot, said Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut.

“This would be part of the normal election process, and I think the people have not been heard from and they want to have their voices to weigh in on this,” she said.

Mayor Harvey Ward is in favor of giving local residents the chance to vote on the issue and has been since the authority was established, he said.

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“If we were to do that, what we are doing then is saying exactly what I asked the legislative committee to do a year ago: just let the people decide,” Ward said.

As Gainesville mayor, Ward believes it is his job to give residents a voice, he said.

“If I didn’t believe that people want to be heard on an issue like this, then I’m in the wrong seat,” Ward said.

After it is drafted by the city attorney, the proposal would require two readings, through which it would have to be passed by supermajorities — six out of seven commissioners.

Ward would support the proposal if it were to be “a simple approach.” He doesn’t want anything too complicated for the average voter to understand, he said.

“I would not want something that has a tremendous amount of detail on it,” he said. “Just, ‘Who do you want to run this thing?’”

Returning the ownership of GRU to the city would not automatically solve residents’ complaints, Ward said. Even before the GRU Authority took place, there were problems.

“I think if the city commission is in charge of the utility, there are a lot of things we can do by future ordinance that would make it more clear and more comfortable for the community going forward,” he said.

Commissioner Bryan Eastman moved to direct the city attorney to draft an ordinance that would put a referendum striking the section of HB 1645 that creates the GRU Authority on the ballot. Commissioner Reina Saco seconded the motion.

The motion was passed unanimously, with Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker absent. The decision comes a week after the resignation of all four members of the GRU Authority.

Downtown parking

Later Thursday afternoon, the commission discussed changes in downtown parking. 

Deborah Leistner, a public works planning manager for the city, said the changes were originally proposed by the Transportation Department after a survey completed in February. 

Some of the changes include creating paid spaces in the “core area” to increase turnover of short-term parking, extending enforcement on weekdays and simplifying time rates. The proposed changes would also change the location of the valet parking service offered by Hyatt Place, Leistner said.

The proposal simultaneously lowers the cost of parking in the “periphery,” with parking lots on the outskirts of the downtown area costing less, and remaining free in some cases, she said.

Leistner also recommended new pay stations that would “enhance the payment options” by accepting both coins and credit or debit cards.

To Commissioner Reina Saco, the proposed changes are a suitable middle ground.

“I know a lot of folks are against any paying on the parking,” she said. “No parking is free.”

Commissioner Bryan Eastman appreciated that free parking is still available to those who want it, but they might have to park further away.

“If you want the most primo premium spots, you’re just going to have to pay 50 cents an hour, which is very, very low compared to other cities,” Eastman said.

The changes help to rework downtown Gainesville’s parking infrastructure, which Eastman originally thought was “bizarre.”

“This is creating the infrastructure that allows us to figure out how to price things correctly so there is parking that’s paid where it needs to be and free parking where there needs to be,” he said.

The commission altered the proposal to add additional pay stations — up to six, as opposed to the original two suggested — and to not include changes to valet parking, which will be addressed in the future.

The proposal passed unanimously. The changes will go into effect in the fall.

The City Commission will meet again April 4. 

Contact Bailey Diem at Follow her on X @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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