L-R: Commissioners Bryan Eastman and Cynthia Chestnut at the March 23 General Policy Committee meeting


By JENNIFER CABRERA/Alachua Chronicle

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – At the March 23, 2023 meeting of the Gainesville City Commission’s General Policy Committee, Mayor Harvey Ward put an item on the agenda to discuss the local bill proposed by Rep. Chuck Clemons that would establish an independent governing board for Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU), appointed by the governor. Ward said he put it on the agenda because he has “a tremendous amount of anxiety” about the bill, particularly the uncertainty inherent in working on next year’s budget when the final language of the bill has not been set. Ward said Clemons had encouraged amendments to the draft language, and “this is the best opportunity for us as a commission to have a discussion about that.”

Commission Bryan Eastman said he thought the voters spoke in 2018 when a referendum that would have created an independent board appointed by the City Commission failed. Regarding a governing board, he said, “It’s a structure that can work. Our voters didn’t want that structure, but it can work.” However, Eastman a board appointed by the governor “experimental” and said it could “force us into odd angles that we’re not sure where they’re going to go.”

Eastman preferred a referendum or at least getting input from the Greater Gainesville Chamber of Commerce or the Finance Department at GRU to get “a replicable, just normal authority, board, that is not as experimental as this is.”

Commissioner Casey Willits agreed that the bill is “experimental, even the word ‘radical,’ it’s a radical consolidation of power at the state level, as opposed to the local; I think it’s hard to argue against that.” He said he hoped Clemons would seek feedback from “people who live in Gainesville, people who have been active on our Utility Advisory Board, people who have been active on this commission in the past who have been, you know, the board of GRU.” He wondered whether the City Commission would continue to set the salary for the GM or would have to pay a salary they have no control over. 

“We cannot sit back, let it happen, and not take any action. So we need somebody out there fighting our battle for us because it is a battle. This is not a little nice gentleman’s agreement; this is not a little nice gentleman’s bill. This demands action on our part.” – Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut

Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut recommended continuing to work on their response to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, cutting the General Fund Transfer from GRU to General Government, and sitting individually with their lobbyist to discuss amendments to the bill. Chestnut asked her fellow commissioners to “seek a consultant or outside counsel to assist us in this process. As Professor Little pointed out to us, there are severe constitutional defects in this bill. We cannot sit back, let it happen, and not take any action. So we need somebody out there fighting our battle for us because it is a battle. This is not a little nice gentleman’s agreement; this is not a little nice gentleman’s bill. This demands action on our part.”

Ward said, “Folks have come to understand over the decades that it’s the job of the people that sit up here to deliver [City] services, through our excellent City staff of more than 2,000 Community Builders. What I’ve read from the bill put in front of us… leaves so many questions open that I cannot, with a straight face, go to any of our constituents and say, ‘I trust that everything’s gonna keep working if this passes.’ I can’t say that with a straight face.”

“Nothing being contemplated is going to change your pensions.” – Mayor Harvey Ward

However, Ward said he was confident that “nothing being contemplated is going to change your pensions… Beyond that, particularly as it pertains to the utility, there are so many unanswered questions in this draft bill that I can’t tell you that everything’s gonna work just fine… We, I believe, have a responsibility to make sure that the people of Gainesville are cared for… and that if they are not, we speak loudly enough so that they know we’re on their side.”

Ward said the situation is “entirely unique” because the local bill was filed in the middle of the legislative session, “not before the legislative session, as the constitution requires.” The legislative dates document for the 2023 legislative session states that March 7 (the date Clemons announced the draft bill) is the deadline for a bill to be approved for filing.

Commissioner Ed Book requested that staff provide a full update on the City’s response to JLAC at the April 6 City Commission meeting “because that April 10 deadline looms large, and if there’s any opportunity for us to say, ‘Wait just a minute–we are taking very significant fiscal actions,’ that’s the date.”

“For example, if there’s going to be a board, I want a seat [representing this commission] on that board… maybe two.” – Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut

Chestnut said, “The lobbyist must sit down with us. The lobbyist must know what we would like as amendments in the bill. For example, if there’s going to be a board, I want a seat [representing this commission] on that board… maybe two.” She added, “If we don’t work to get anything in the bill, we get nothing… We’ve got to ask.”

Chestnut made a motion, which was seconded by Willits:

  • Hire outside counsel to help defend the City of Gainesville constitutionally from this bill.
  • Set individual meetings with the City’s lobbyist to provide amendments. 
  • Continue to meet the requirements of JLAC and look at a “severe reduction” in the GFT. 

Chestnut said they would need an attorney “to take this into the federal courts.” City Attorney Daniel Nee said the Commission should wait to see what comes out of the legislature. He said that having a board appointed by the governor “is a significant twist that might have a fatal flaw in it, when it comes to review in the federal courts. That is a twist that provides an executive empowered to do what is typically a legislative function, but we don’t know if that’s what it’s going to be.”

Eastman said, “My hope for how this whole thing turns out is–Clemons says, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, I had a bad day. I’m gonna go back to being Speaker Pro Tem,’… that he come out with something we can live with… Whatever happens with this, it’s all on Representative Clemons.” Eastman said they need to be prepared “right afterwards” to react. 

Chestnut said the commission needs “to get a seat or two on that board, to protect our citizens, because the citizens will not be represented on that board. The citizens are only represented by their elected representatives–that’s who represents them. We need a seat on the board. That should be very clear.”

Willits said, “We have to go to war to fight for what is truly worthy and important and vital for our residents and our neighbors… We need a full-court press.”

Book said, “I do believe that regardless of the track we take, we would want to push for proportionate representation. That’s the default… If something is in fact legislated, then we would need to have a seat at the table, and it wouldn’t be one seat… my preference would be all the seats, but it would be that proportion thing.”

Ward said a board like the Gainesville Regional Airport Authority makes sense; a majority of those members are appointed by the Gainesville City Commission “because we own the dirt, the people of Gainesville own the land under the airport, so that authority is mostly appointed by the Gainesville City Commission on behalf of the people who own the darn thing.” Ward added that the GFT will probably be less than half what it has been recently.

After public comment, which was mostly in favor of the motion, the board voted unanimously for the motion. Nee asked for a clarification on the timing of hiring outside counsel, pointing out that the City already has relationships in place with law firms who specialize in utility services. Chestnut replied, “Let’s prepare and be ready to jump into action once the bill is signed… maybe we can get an injunction.” 

Alachua Chronicle asked Rep. Clemons whether he had a comment about the City’s intention to sue if they don’t like the bill. He responded, “This proves why the bill is necessary. Instead of addressing the issues, they continue to sidestep the problem. I look forward to opening up their books and their entire operations during the discovery process, should they choose to litigate. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. This won’t end well for the City.”

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