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Updated: Bielarski fired at General Policy Committee, announces he’s running for mayor

Ed Bielarski

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

At today’s City of Gainesville General Policy Committee (GPC) meeting, the published agenda did not indicate that Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) General Manager Ed Bielarski’s job would be on the line, but Commissioner Harvey Ward had hinted strongly last week that he would soon be leading an effort to fire him.

During the adoption of the agenda, Ward asked to move member comment to the top of the agenda, following the approval of the minutes. No public comment was taken on the motion to adopt the agenda as modified; when Nathan Skop, a citizen in attendance, questioned whether they would take public comment on adoption of the agenda, which is standard at these meetings, Mayor Lauren Poe replied that it was “an administrative item.”

Once the minutes were approved, Ward began, “The fair thing to do for our neighbors, my colleagues, staff, the other charter officers, Mr. Bielarski, is to be very clear about my thought process.” Ward said he had already told Bielarski that he thinks highly of him personally and that GRU’s employees are “phenomenal.” He continued, “The consistent, over-arching direction from the commission to [Bielarski] has been three-fold: One, deliver the most reliable, economical utility service you possibly can to our neighbors; two, take care of your people on our behalf; and three, move us to 100% renewable energy production… Notably and credibly, Ed successfully and creatively saved our city $900 million and changed the Deerhaven Renewable plant from a rarely used curiosity into one of our least expensive, most productive energy producers. That was in 2017, and it remains a very big deal. It was an audacious and audaciously successful effort.”

However, Ward said, “Sadly, since then we have missed – big – on three other large ventures.” He said that a proposed partnership with FPL in 2019-20 “essentially disappeared.” He said he had been “thrilled” about a Power Purchase Agreement for a 50MW solar installation: “This is exactly the sort of thing we’ve been asking for as a commission and a community. As the process moved on, however, it became apparent that our partner, and as a result, we, had not done the proper due diligence with the community surrounding the installation… This has been a blow to our City’s efforts at promoting and achieving racial equity and to our progress toward 100% renewable energy production.” 

Ward said that the third issue was GRU’s failure to make the short list for UF’s Central Energy Project: “Ed told the commission in a tense meeting in September that he was certain he was the right man to lead this project forward and that he felt strongly that we would be successful.” Ward’s comments last Thursday on Bielarski’s failure to provide a report to the city commission about why GRU did not make the short list were the first public indication that he hoped to gain enough support from the other commissioners to fire Bielarski. 

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Ward concluded, “It is completely acceptable to swing big, and I encourage it. But if we swing and miss, we can’t pretend we were never up to bat and quietly move on to the next game… I don’t expect the trend is going to turn around… Missing the [100% renewable energy by 2045] goal is unacceptable… Now is the time to build an operation where both sides of the house are working in the same direction, rather than competing for resources… I move now that we terminate Mr. Bielarski’s contract immediately.”

Commissioner Reina Saco immediately seconded the motion.

Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker said she thought a GPC meeting “may not be the proper forum” for terminating charter officers, and she asked Interim City Attorney Dan Nee whether GPC has that authority. Nee replied that it was a “properly noticed meeting of the city commission” and that terminating charter officers is not on the list of prohibited actions at GPC meetings. 

Duncan-Walker asked Ward to “bring this matter before a general commission meeting” because not many people listen to GPC meetings. Ward replied that the issue “has been in the paper” (he neglected to say that there was no notice that it would come up at this particular meeting) and “essentially went out to 800 GRU staffers this morning, means that people are fully aware. They may not be aware of the motion, but they’re aware of the issue… There’s been a lot of chatter.”

Duncan-Walker continued that she gets concerned “when we, as a body, give direction to our staff, and they meet the benchmarks, and we turn around and we say that’s not good enough” and that she would not support the motion.

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos, who attended the meeting via Zoom after filing an affidavit, said he agreed with Ward’s concerns: “I do think it’s time that we move into a new direction… I support the motion.”

Commissioner David Arreola pointed out that Commissioner-elect Cynthia Chestnut was in the audience, unable to vote, but would be sworn in on February 17: “I don’t think this is good form, so I can’t support the motion.”

Poe, who led the unsuccessful effort to fire Bielarski in September 2021, said, “I appreciate the structure that Commissioner Ward laid out and how he approached this decision. When I first brought this matter up, it was for different reasons… for me, we need to have the right people in the right place at the right time. And I believe, for a significant amount of time, when Mr. Bielarski came on board with the City, he was that person… I also do not believe that he is that person right now. I am more concerned about his management style, his ability to work collaboratively with this elective body as well as advisory boards, his ability to work collaboratively with his charter officer colleagues. And again, that is not any sort of indictment of his character or who he is as a person.”

Poe continued, “We are moving in an incredible trajectory as a City… and the only way that we achieve these community goals is to have six charter officers that are completely collaborative, and they are able to take this body’s direction and vision and work towards accomplishing it successfully and sustainably. I think that Ed will be a great fit and a great hire at any number of utilities around this country. I will give him an excellent recommendation. I just don’t feel, and haven’t for some time, that he is the right fit for Gainesville right now and as we move forward… This is a decision I wish we had made several months ago so we could already have been moving in that direction.”

“This reckless, irresponsible, and unwarranted action will not be viewed positively by the credit rating agencies” – Nathan Skop

During public comment, attorney and former Florida Public Service Commissioner Nathan Skop said,  “This reckless, irresponsible, and unwarranted action will not be viewed positively by the credit rating agencies… you want ‘yes’ people. You don’t like the fact that he tells you what you need to know rather than what you want to hear… You should demand your own resignation, Commissioner Ward… You talk about racial equity. Dumping a solar project in the back yard of a historic, rural African-American community is not equity, Commissioner Ward. Blaming Ed for that is unwarranted. And again, Rule 7: ‘the purpose and intent of this committee is to allow the mayor and commission to discuss general policy matters that are referred to the committee during a regular or special commission meeting.’ There was no referral to fire Mr. Bielarski. It’s an improper forum.”

“I do not feel that it was honest to put something on an agenda and then throw in something as serious as this because people would have planned to be here if they had known.” – Jenn Powell

Jenn Powell, representing CWA 3170, the union that represents the employees of the City of Gainesville and GRU, said the president of the union was not present, and since the item was not on the agenda, he didn’t know he needed to make arrangements to be there. She read a  statement from the president, Robert Arnold, saying the proposed “termination… gives us grave concerns over the stability of GRU.” He pointed out that when Bielarski’s termination was on the agenda on September, speakers were “overwhelmingly” in favor of keeping Bielarski. That meeting went until 1:30 a.m., with people staying through the whole meeting and still calling in at the end. She said employees are concerned and that she was concerned about people quitting. She concluded, “I do not feel that it was honest to put something on an agenda and then throw in something as serious as this because people would have planned to be here if they had known.”

“I’m very concerned about what kind of person, what kind of employee we will attract. Gainesville’s name is just being drug through the mud. We are becoming known as the City that is an interim. We are an interim City because we have interim employees.” – Commissioner-elect Cynthia Chestnut

Commissioner-elect Chestnut said, “Mr. Bielarski was given a very impossible task in trying to negotiate with the University of Florida, and that’s why we were given a [low rating] in looking at our debt. We were doomed from the beginning to get that contract, doomed… To spring this on us, I think, is unfortunate, and it’s not fair to the citizens. It’s not fair to the employees… they’re at work. We want them at work… This is not fair today, the attorney… said … it would need to be a referral… from the commission. This is not a referral… I think the strong thing to do… is to face the people… Don’t do it in a meeting that is not really something the public can participate in… Finally, I’m very concerned about what kind of person, what kind of employee we will attract. Gainesville’s name is just being drug through the mud. We are becoming known as the City that is an interim. We are an interim City because we have interim employees.”

“This … is absolutely wrong, it’s not the day that it should be discussed because had other people known, this room would have been packed, and outside… Our community is in an uproar right now.” – Evelyn Foxx

Evelyn Foxx, president of the local NAACP, said, “This caught me by surprise today. I had no idea this was on the agenda… This … is absolutely wrong, it’s not the day that it should be discussed because had other people known, this room would have been packed, and outside… Our community is in an uproar right now.” She pointed out that a majority of the commission will change this fall, and “I think some of these decisions should be made by the new commissioners.”

Robin Baxley, Bielarski’s assistant, called to speak in support of Bielarski: “Today I’m just sad… He’s working on these issues that you’re asking him to work on, but he’s taking a slow, methodical approach… trying to make sure we get it right… The last thing 800 GRU employees need is more uncertainty, more turmoil.”

Jennifer Jones called the action “a complete ambush… This shows your true colors as a commission.”

When the discussion came back to the commission, Poe asked to add the appointment of Tony Cunningham as Interim General Manager to the motion. Arreola disagreed and wanted to appoint GRU CFO Claudia Rasnick, but he did not succeed in bringing that to a vote. Ward also changed the motion to indicate that they were firing Bielarski “without cause.”

At that point, the call-taker indicated that he had more callers on the line, but Poe would not let them speak, saying it was the same motion and they had already taken public comment. 

“I will tell you that the actions you’re taking are scaring the living boots off employees… You say that you care about the employees, but the employees follow my leadership, we do the things that make it a safe, reliable utility… we do our job, we do it well… One thing I got from Commissioner Ward was swing big…. I’ll swing big. I’ll run for mayor.” – Ed Bielarski

Bielarski spoke to the commission, saying, “We’ve had our differences and some of them have been more dramatic than others, but I think I will leave the utility in a better place than when I first came here… The last time I was in this position… hearing all the love I got from my folks was, really, in a lot of ways, the end of the story. There didn’t need to be any more. I had accomplished what I wanted to do, I had turned the utility around… I feel their love… It’s why I fight every day… I will tell you that the actions you’re taking are scaring the living boots off employees… You say that you care about the employees, but the employees follow my leadership, we do the things that make it a safe, reliable utility… we do our job, we do it well… I say what I think, I mean what I say, and say what I mean… There’s certain regulatory restrictions that stop this from being the One City on a shining hill that you all want. There’s one thing that gets in the way of that, it’s the city charter… We do communicate, we don’t do each others’ jobs… One thing I got from Commissioner Ward was swing big…. I’ll swing big. I’ll run for mayor.”

The vote to terminate Bielarski was 4-2, with Duncan-Walker and Arreola in dissent.

The City, which has six charter officers, now has four interim charter officers: Interim City Manager Cynthia Curry; Interim Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Director Zeriah Folston; Interim City Attorney Dan Nee; and now Interim GRU General Manager Tony Cunningham, assuming contract negotiations are successful.

Commissioners indicated at a recent meeting that their intention is to keep all the interims in their positions until a new commission is elected this fall. City Auditor Ginger Bigbie and City Clerk Omichele Gainey (who resigned and then rescinded her resignation in September 2021) are the non-interim charter officers. Curry made major personnel moves at City Hall on January 10, including moving Police Chief Tony Jones over to City Hall as Interim Chief Operating Officer of the City and moving Director of Public Works Phil Mann to a special assignment as a special advisor to the City Manager. 

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