2019 Year in Review
BY JENNIFER CABRERA
As the year comes to a close, we want to thank everyone who reads, likes, and shares our articles; everyone who donates to keep the lights on; and our advertisers. We are deeply grateful to all of you and hope you will continue to support us in 2020, as we continue to bring you local news.
Since we only started publishing mid-year, our “year in review” starts in March:
The March 21 Gainesville City Commission meeting included an early indicator of the rule changes that were passed later in the year. City Commissioner Gail Johnson talked about what she described as an “escalation… of underlying simmering rage from a few people.” She went on to say that “depending on what happens in these chambers over the next few weeks, I will be asking our City Attorney, I will be consulting with our Office of Equal Opportunity, and I will be talking with our City Manager about things that have happened in this chamber and continue to happen that are deeply, deeply concerning.” At the same meeting, the commission voted to take on new Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) debt, against the advice of citizens and several members of the Utility Advisory Board.
In April, City Auditor Carlos Holt presented Part A of the Reichert House audit to the City Commission (Part B is still not completed). There were several items of concern in the audit, but Interim City Manager Deborah Bowie responded by stating that Holt had a conflict of interest because the Gainesville Police Department had been called to his house multiple times.
Later in the month, the City Commission began discussing how to make up a projected $3.3 million deficit in its FY20 budget.
On May 14, City Auditor Carlos Holt sent a letter to the city, stating that he was preparing to file a complaint with the Gainesville Office of Equal Opportunity. The letter alleged that former City Manager Anthony Lyons had sent personal information about Holt and his family, including his minor children, to various members of the public.
In the May 16 City Commission meeting, Commissioner Johnson gave a presentation about race and equity and proposed that the city make equity part of its strategic framework, make every city decision go through the Equal Opportunity department, form a Race and Equity Subcommittee, and include equity in the city’s Comprehensive Plan. She also requested $300k per year for the subcommittee in FY20 and FY21 and two new city Equity Administrator positions, for a total of $470k/year. Her proposals passed unanimously.
In a May 21 budget meeting, the commissioners added over $1 million in new spending to the FY20 budget.
On May 28, the Utility Advisory Board decided not to make a recommendation on GRU rates for FY20. Instead, they gave city commissioners a table that tied rate increases to the General Fund Transfer (GFT). Although the Acting CFO of GRU, Claudia Rasnick, told the board that failing to reduce the GFT could affect GRU’s credit rating, some members of the advisory board said they supported the city’s proposed spending increases and wanted to give commissioners flexibility.
On June 6, at the conclusion of a Gainesville City Commission meeting, City Auditor Carlos Holt was fired without cause.
Also on June 6, Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell asked the City Commission for additional funding to fill 27 vacancies (out of 91 positions) in the 911 call center. The commission decided to have further discussions with the county about the funding before taking any action.
Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe attended a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii. Various media outlets wrote articles about how much was spent for Poe and other Florida mayors to go this meeting, and several citizens mentioned the trip during public comment at the June 20 City Commission meeting, questioning whether it was a good use of city money when they were struggling to balance their budget. Poe defended the trip, saying, “I expect the city and specifically the body with which I serve to benefit greatly, just as conferences and professional development activities that all of our commissioners have engaged in have greatly enhanced their ability to lead, their ability to push forward positive policy, and their ability to help improve our community. So I hope that’s the end of that.”
The City Commission also heard the results of the Broadband Study at the June 20 meeting. The commission had mixed feelings about moving ahead with municipal broadband, and in the end, they voted to ask staff to bring them more information in 4 months.
Also at the June 20 meeting, Interim City Manager Deborah Bowie presented $1.5 million in possible budget cuts. Some of the commissioners were willing to forego their proposed increments, but Mayor Poe argued that they should reject the cuts: “Over the last several months, the commission has, in most if not all cases, voted unanimously to move forward with certain things… I’m sticking with the budget that we agreed on.” Only Commissioners Gigi Simmons and David Arreola voted for the cuts.
Also on June 20, Carlos Holt filed a complaint with GPD, asking for an investigation of who leaked the information about his family.
In early July, Alachua County Commissioner Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson sent a letter to the Gainesville City Commission, proposing that they work together on a one-cent sales tax referendum. The “infrastructure” sales tax would be used to build a solar power facility for the county, provide infrastructure for high-speed internet, provide low-income housing, and extend Wild Spaces Public Places funding. The tax would start in 2025 and extend for 20 years.
During a zoning discussion at the July 18 City Commission meeting, City Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said, “… moving forward I’m not going to support any land use or zoning changes that allow single-family sprawling housing zoning.”
Tempers flared at the July 18 meeting when several people applauded members of the public who criticized the commission’s attitude toward citizens who speak at meetings. Mayor Poe singled out Jo Beaty, a senior citizen who often attends meetings, and had her escorted out of the meeting, although it was clear that she wasn’t the only one clapping. Faye Williams conducted a sit-in near the podium.
At the same meeting, the commission proposed a property tax millage rate that was 15.64% higher than the rolled-back rate (the rate that would bring in the same amount of money in property taxes as they collected last year, given this year’s property values).
At an August 8 meeting, the City Commissioners discussed various changes to the rules for public participation in their meetings. They also discussed whether to continue publishing their emails, a topic that attracted a great deal of interest. The county publishes all emails; the city publishes only the emails that are marked “read” by commissioners, resulting in an email portal that looks like it lists all emails but actually doesn’t.
On August 15, Alachua County Sheriff’s Office Colonel David Huckstep asked again for funding for the 911 call center. Mayor Poe said the city would not be providing the funding: “The city has approved our tentative budget for the next year and so we did hear loud and clear but we’re, you know, sort of already approved the budget.”
Also at the August 15 meeting, the City Commission approved 270 hours of staff time to do more work on the municipal broadband proposal.
They also passed a plastic straw and stirrer ban, which will go into effect on January 2.
During the August 20 County Commission meeting, the commissioners expressed frustration with the City Commission and discussed ways to make up the funding for the 911 call center.
The Gainesville City Commission repealed their ban on single-use carry-out plastic bags and polystyrene containers after a court ruling struck down a similar law in Coral Gables. The Alachua County Commission was working on a similar ban but decided to set it aside while they waited for the court case to play out.
At the September 12 City Commission meeting, members of the public asked the commission not to increase GRU rates. The commissioners voted for the rate increases 4-2, with Commissioners Harvey Ward and Gigi Simmons voting against the increases and David Arreola absent.
At the same meeting, many of the same people came back up to speak against various city fee increases, accusing commissioners of lying and being “profoundly disrespectful” to the public. Some complained that the commissioners were not listening to the very people who had worked to get them elected.
When the rate, fee, and property tax increases came up for a final vote at the September 26 meeting, 33 citizens asked the commission to vote against the increases. The increases passed 4-3, with Ward, Simmons, and Arreola in dissent. The increases included a 15.64% property tax increase, a 6% increase in residential electricity rates, and a 32% increase in the Fire Assessment Fee.
On October 3, the City Commission selected Lee Feldman as their new City Manager. He started work on November 4.
On October 8, the County Commission voted to reject all proposals to purchase Camp McConnell and re-start the process of deciding what to do with it.
On October 22, the County Commission decided to fully fund the requested raises for the 911 call center.
On October 28, a September 27 letter from the Florida Department Economic Opportunity (DEO) to CareerSource of North Central Florida became public. The letter documented “failures of the Board to provide services in an open and transparent matter and outline[d] how the Board has refused to comply with requests and failed to follow guidance issued at federal and state levels.” The letter stated that the DEO would immediately stop providing funds in advance, which prompted a crisis that is still ongoing.
On November 7, Gainesville’s Office of Equal Opportunity was renamed to the Office of Equity and Inclusion.
At the same meeting, the commission set a framework for new meeting rules, including adding an Early Comment period and limiting citizens to speaking at one of the three General Comment periods. They added a rule that members of the public must register in advance before speaking at meetings, but they didn’t decide how far in advance.
They also discussed changes to their policies for publishing commissioner emails, including adding a 7-day delay between the time an email is received and when it is published. They also decided to allow commissioners to decide whether to publish their emails at all, and by the next day, all emails of Commissioners Hayes-Santos and Johnson that were sent or received after October 31 had been removed from the email portal.
On November 14, the State Joint Legislative Auditing Committee voted to audit the City of Gainesville. In the backup documents for the meeting, more details emerged about financial irregularities at Reichert House.
At the November 21 City Commission meeting, the commission discussed how they should respond to the County Commission’s decision to put a sports arena at Celebration Pointe.
On November 25, Former City Auditor Carlos Holt filed an employment discrimination suit against the City of Gainesville.
At its December 5 meeting, the City Commission passed rules requiring pre-registration before speaking at its meetings, along with the other changes discussed above. The rules passed 6-1, with Arreola in dissent. They still have not announced how far in advance registration will be required, and there has been little public education about the new rule.
On December 10, Congressman Ted Yoho announced that he would not run for re-election in 2020.
Also on December 10, the County Commission agreed to provide CareerSource of North Central Florida with working capital while they sort out their issues with the state.
At the end of that meeting, Commissioner Hutchinson announced that the county would not continue working on his proposed infrastructure sales tax. The proposal will likely come up again in 2022.
On December 17, parents asked the School Board to slow down on their plan to move Howard Bishop Middle School students to temporary buildings at Westwood Middle School for a year while Bishop is being renovated.
On December 18, the City Commission selected Virginia “Ginger” Bigbie as their new City Auditor. Mayor Poe was asked to begin contract negotiations with Bigbie.