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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Gainesville City Commission approves first reading to put GRU board control on the ballot

Voters will get the final say on the source of GRU appointments

Gainesville City Commission passed its first reading to potentially let voters change how the Gainesville Regional Utilities Authority operates in the November election. 

The Gainesville City Commission voted unanimously in favor of a proposed charter amendment to remove state appointment of GRU board members from its meeting Thursday.

Following the approval of HB 1645, Gainesville’s public utilities have been overseen by a governor-appointed board. If the charter amendment were to appear on the November ballot, voters would have the opportunity to put the power back into the hands of the city commission and charter officer. 

The referendum will read in part, “Shall the city of Gainesville charter be amended to delete article VII, eliminating the Governor-appointed Gainesville Regional Utilities Authority and its appointed administrator that manage, operate, and control the city of Gainesville’s local public utilities, and placing that responsibility with the elected city commission and charter officer.”

Mayor Harvey Ward said the amendment would have his support.

“It would give the opportunity to the people of Gainesville to vote on how they would like the utility to be governed,” Ward said. 

Eleven people voiced their opinions on the amendment during public comment.

League of Women Voters of Alachua County President Janice Garry urged the commission to let voters decide.

“During the 2023 legislative session, our voices were muted,” she said. “Our authority over a department of our own city was taken away. State legislators took it upon themselves to pass a law ironically called a local bill that took away the management, operation and control of our local utilities.” 

A vote “yes” will restore democratic processes to Gainesville, Garry said. 

Opponents of the charter amendment accused its language of being “unlawful” and “confusing.” 

Scott Walker, a contract attorney and Newberry City Attorney, said the referendum contradicts the language of HB 1645, putting it at odds with the state. 

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“I contend to you that passing an ordinance that is directly in conflict with this legislative act is rendering it an improper act,” Walker said to the commissioners. 

Alachua County Labor Coalition Coordinator Bobby Mermer disagreed and said the referendum would allow Gainesville constituents to have the final say over the governance of public utilities. 

“I don’t see anything in this ordinance that conflicts with the city charter or HB 1645,” Mermer said. 

The stretched logic the GRU authority attorneys use to negate the ordinance is simply a scare tactic to sway the commission, Mermer said. 

Residents said the actual customers of the GRU authority have no say over who is on the board and they feel a lack of representation by the current board.

“[The current governor-appointed authority] has not acted on behalf of local citizens and fully against the wishes of many local citizens as stated in many of their meetings,” said Jeffery Shapiro, a GRU customer.

The second reading will occur at a special committee reading May 23. The next general City Commissioner meeting is scheduled for June 6.

Contact Morgan Vanderlaan at morganvanderlaan@ufl.edu. Follow her on X @morgvande.

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Morgan Vanderlaan

Morgan Vanderlaan is a first-year Political Science and English major and the City and County Commission Reporter for The Alligator. When she’s not on the clock, she can be found watching, writing and reciting theatre!


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