GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The Gainesville City Commission and Utility Advisory Board (UAB), along with Rep. Yvonne Hinson, hosted a rare Friday night meeting tonight to discuss Speaker Pro Tem Chuck Clemons’ local bill (HB 1645) that would create a governor-appointed board to govern Gainesville Regional Utilities.
UAB Chair Barry Jacobson said his board had requested the meeting because the draft bill was a “general outline,” they had questions, and “it’s time for everyone to talk.”
Mayor Harvey Ward said, “The bill before us doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me… How it’s implemented, I couldn’t tell you. I expressed that concern to Rep. Clemons, and he told me it would be fine, don’t worry about it. I do worry about it, and it’s my job to worry about it because we, the City Commission, were hired to worry about such things. I’ve heard some ideas about it, that are not accurate, that it will lower rates. Nothing in there that says it’s gonna lower rates, and I will tell you what I probably should have been saying more often, is that I would be the most popular guy in Gainesville if I could lower your rate responsibly… Our staff makes a pretty darn good case that lowering your bills just to lower your bills, to be popular, is a really bad idea, that we have a utility to run, and we need to run it responsibly.”
Ward continued, “We are told by our bond counsel… that there are many questions they have about this bill, and those questions aren’t answered in the latest version of the bill. They’re simply not. That means that the folks who buy bonds from us are going to be nervous, realistically. That means when we have to borrow money, which, by the way, we do regularly and so does every other utility, they’re likely to charge more money to buy our bonds. That means that’s going to be passed on in your bills, more than likely. That could be incorrect, but that’s what the odds are.”
UAB Vice Chair Jason Fults said he had hoped that more members of the legislative delegation would be at the meeting and that limiting citizens to 30 seconds at the April 19 House State Affairs Committee meeting was “shameful.”
“There’s a dark side to it”
City Commissioner Ed Book asked Hinson if she wanted to say anything, and she said she just wanted to listen but then added, “It’s a local matter. I’m fighting this fight because I’ve seen it for ten years. I mean, it didn’t just begin. It began in 2012, I know, and maybe before that, when I became a commissioner. It’s not like this just began, that’s how I know there’s a dark side to it. I know that. I’ve been to Tallahassee as a commissioner twice, to fight this same kind of legislation from these same legislators, so there is a dark side to it and I’m not sure what it is, but it exists.”
She said she had filed two amendments to the bill, which were voted down: “This is par for the course. When it hits the floor, they’re gonna vote lock and step together. I’m thinking what could be done, short of getting a very stubborn governor to veto it–nothing, except legal consequences.”
City Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut asked the people in the room to write the governor and ask him to veto the bill: “Start it now. But let’s not stop with Gainesville, because there are 37 other utilities in the state of Florida that are owned by the public, so I want you to call your cousins, your aunt, your uncles, have them also write to the governor to veto this bill. He needs to see a campaign, not just in Gainesville, because this doesn’t affect just Gainesville. This has implications for all 36 other utilities across the state.”
Chestnut continued, “And I won’t get to the issue of democracy and having a voice and not being silenced… Start tomorrow. All of you are excellent letter-writers; I can look at your faces and tell. I know you are… Let’s have letters from Key West to Pensacola to the governor’s office.”
City Commissioner Bryan Eastman questioned assertions made in Tallahassee that various amounts of money were taken from GRU above its earnings: “The fact is, we don’t take more money from the utility than we spend… It’s a made-up statistic… What is being forced upon our community, to me, is clearly unprecedented… I wanted to just run a city; that is what I ran for, that is what I wanted to do. I wanted to make a good city, and instead I’m sitting here, just trying to make sure, how do we mitigate the pain that my constituents will feel, and it’s very frustrating.”
During public comment, 18 people spoke against Clemons’ bill, and three people spoke in favor of it. Many of those who spoke also spoke at the House State Affairs Committee on April 19. Many expressed the fear that the bill is a thinly-veiled attempt to sell GRU to an investor-owned utility.
During public comment, Ward gave Hinson the opportunity to respond to a comment. She said, “I know we’re not supposed to be speculating, but they left me scared… Can this board sell, or can we make sure this board can’t sell the utility? [Clemons] said this board can do whatever it wants; it will be the Authority.”
What does the bill say about selling assets?
However, the bill language states in 7.03(1), “The Authority shall have the following powers and duties, in addition to the powers and duties otherwise conferred by this article:… (f) To dispose of utility system assets only to the extent and under the conditions that the City Commission may dispose of such assets pursuant to section 5.04 of Article V.” That section states: “The commission may not, in any manner, dispose of or agree to dispose of the following city utility systems, or any part thereof… Unless the commission first adopts an ordinance approving of the disposition and submits that ordinance to referendum vote and such referendum is approved by a majority vote of the qualified electors of the city voting at the election for the purpose of approving the ordinance.”
Ward said he got a “great idea from some of this… A thing I’m going to work on this weekend is writing an editorial that–I love the Gainesville Sun. I love the Gainesville Sun. I miss being able to publish in the Gainesville Sun in the op-ed section. Some papers, not a lot, but some papers in Florida continue to offer that opportunity, and I’m going to reach out to each one of the papers that do, that have a municipal utility in their community, and offer them an op-ed. You might consider doing the same.”
UAB Member Tim Rockwell said, “I truly hope, barring working this out through the democratic process, I truly hope there are legal actions that can be taken if this goes through because people have been put out from the process, and I don’t think they have any intention of bringing people into the process.”
Ward concluded, “I would again urge you to speak your mind to your representatives, your senators, and others, to reach out to your cousins, your aunts, your uncles, your brothers, your sisters, your old friends, anybody you know, reach out to them and let them know what’s going on here. And I would urge you again to focus on the reality that this thing is a mess, and chaos should frighten you.”
Chestnut added, “The strategy for Rep. Clemons is to have the governor sign this bill as soon as it passes, so that means it’s going to be signed in May… But that is the reason that we really need to get to people across the state to help us.”
Hinson concluded the meeting by saying, “I want to remind you that the best offense is done in quiet. I know this is a publicized meeting, and it has to be publicly noticed, but whatever strategies that evolve based on someone’s recommendation–there should be a strategy; it should not be publicized. I’m just saying.”
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