City Commission approves another $250,000 in legal fees for GRU lawsuit

Mayor Harvey Ward speaks about the City’s lawsuit against the Governor


GAINESVILLE, Fla. – At their Special Meeting on September 14, the Gainesville City Commission authorized another $250,000 to pay a law firm representing the City in its lawsuit against the Governor regarding HB 1645, which turns over the management of Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) to a Governor-appointed board on October 1. GRU is currently governed by the Gainesville City Commission.

Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut made a motion to approve staff’s recommendation to authorize an additional $250,000 (the first $250,000 was authorized on June 22, with GRU reserves as the funding source), payable in response to monthly billing invoices from the Akerman firm. Commissioner Ed Book seconded the motion.

Commissioner Bryan Eastman said he “hated being in this position in which we are, you know, allocating funds for this… Our job is to represent our constituents here in the city of Gainesville, and our constituents have spoken in unequivocal terms that they are opposed to this takeover. They voted against it in 2018 by very large margins.” 

The 2018 referendum would have set up an independent board appointed by the City Commission to govern GRU; the bill was opposed by local Democrats, including former City Commissioner Susan Bottcher, who warned, “This is indeed a slippery slope to privatize our citizen owned utility. If the GRU Authority referendum passes, we’d be powerless to change that.”

Eastman: “It essentially eliminates the home rule that we’re granted under our constitution”

Eastman said that if the lawsuit fails, Gainesville would be “the first city in the history of the state of Florida that is half-controlled by the Governor of our state. And if that is possible, for the Governor to take over a portion of the city, it essentially eliminates the home rule that we’re granted under our constitution… And so I feel like we have to vote on this.” 

Eastman suggested taking the funds from General Government since “it would make more sense to have that evenly split.”

GRU General Manager Tony Cunningham said he did not think the funds should all come from the utility because “this is a City action and we have a cost allocation plan, that we allocate funds that the City Attorney uses, and I believe it should go through that cost allocation plan.”

Chestnut said, “I think that we have engaged an attorney, we’re halfway there. And I think we have an obligation to provide the funds for that attorney, who’s there defending us… I think that has to come from GRU; if the body decides to vote otherwise, I’ll go along with that.”

$219,135 billed so far, with another $150,000+ anticipated

In response to a question from Book, City Attorney Daniel Nee said the first billing for May and June was $121,130. He said the July billing came in at $98,005, for a total of $219,135. Nee anticipated that the August billing would be in the $70,000 range, which would exceed the $250,000 that was previously authorized. 

Nee said the City had a “productive” meeting with opposing counsel, and they agreed there are no material facts in dispute, which eliminates the need for extensive discovery and depositions; the judge has scheduled a hearing on September 22 to consider the legal issues. The City has already filed a motion for summary judgment, the State is due to file their motion for summary judgment by the end of today, and the City will respond to that next week. Nee said both parties hope the judge will issue a ruling before October 1.

Nee expects another bill in the $70-80,000 range for September, and then bills after that will depend on the judge’s ruling and whether an appeal is filed. 

Saco: “I really am not happy with the number”

Commissioner Reina Saco said that, despite understanding that “at a certain level of lawyering, this is the standard of the fee because so few people do it… I really am not happy with the number… I’m less than happy with the whole situation.” She asked how the cost allocation approach would break down the contributions of GRU and General Government.

Nee said that it’s usually clear which department is responsible for legal costs, but “this is a matter of governance of the City, meaning both General Government and the utility. It does appear to be focused on the utility, but it is an attack on the City. I keep harping on it over and over again: the utility isn’t separate from the City; it’s part of the City, just like all other departments are.”

Saco asked whether the funds could be pulled from City reserves instead of contingency, “given the extraordinary nature of where we find ourselves?”

City Manager Cynthia Curry said that since the bills are in the 2022-23 fiscal year, “I believe that we have flexibility with carry-forward… funds moving into fiscal 2024… It will lessen what goes into fund balance for ’24, but it is available.”

Saco confirmed with Curry that they can use that method for all bills through September 30, and then “we’d have to really come back for kind of a second discussion. And would you be comfortable, up to September 30, up to the amount of $250,000?” Curry said, “I would.”

Saco concluded that she was comfortable with General Government paying the second $250,000 because “what is happening is taking a valuable asset of the City, not just attacking GRU on its own… My preferred path would be using it from the General Government side to try to balance out the scales a little bit.”

Commissioner Casey Willits said, “I will say that my current preference–and it’s not a joke, I’m still serious–I still prefer that this comes from GRU, with the caveat that GRU temporarily suspends, for one year, natural gas appliance rebates as a direct way to find the $250,000. It does change some of their long-term plans… That is my real preference.”

However, Willits said that outside of that, he supported using FY23 funds that would normally go into fund balance at the end of the fiscal year.

Book said that since they already have bills exceeding the funds previously allocated, “we have to pay them.” He did not feel strongly about the source of those funds. 

Konish: “No chance for you to succeed”

During public comment, Jim Konish pointed to GRU’s high rates and high debt and said they should not spend “hundreds of thousands, if not millions, on a lawsuit that has no chance for you to succeed, and appeal would automatically pause the ruling. And they will appeal. They have infinite resources and have very good connections with the appellate courts that will get these cases. You end up in the Supreme Court, in DeSantis’ backyard… You act as if the utility belongs to the City Commission or to City Commissioners, and that is false. The utility belongs to the citizens, and our elected state officials have decided that this body is not qualified anymore to have anything whatsoever to do with the governance of GRU.”

Following public comment, Ward said he would “be comfortable either way; I do see some wisdom in spreading it a little bit back to the General Government.”

Eastman agreed that “it’s fairer this way.”

Funds will come from General Government

Chestnut modified her motion to take the funds from General Government, and Book agreed. 

Willits said he had thought about “where we go with this long-term, this lawsuit. Just because it gets expensive is not the best excuse to stop fighting for justice, because we’re talking about constitutional issues.” He said he would love it if other cities joined in the lawsuit but realized that was unrealistic. He said he supported the motion but that the “conversations will get harder and harder after October 1.”

Ward said the lawsuit is not just about whether the law is constitutional but “it’s a question of logistics and mechanics. How does this work–and it’s not clear how it works… It’s not [easy]. It’s not. It’s incredibly complex and complicated.”

Ward: Bill “leaves many questions to be answered”

Ward pointed out that the only way to set utility rates is to pass an ordinance, and the only body that can do that is the Gainesville City Commission. “But according to those same changes, we’re not supposed to have anything to do with it… This is a mechanical and logistical issue that, if we don’t get it worked out, leaves many questions to be answered about how we provide these lights that are on right now to all 100,000 or so customers… We were elected to make sure that the power stays on… The big issues really are big, they do matter, but the little issues are big, too, and that’s all wrapped up in this multi-point suit that we have filed, and that’s why we’re paying for it.”

The motion passed unanimously.

    • Right, they love to spend other people’s money! But they as so ignorant. Eastman’s ignorant comments about the city half owned by the state and half the city. GRU having separate directors doesn’t change any ownership, it only gets rid of rip off commissioners who love to raise rates and spend its profits AND rate payers funds that would cover costs (that aren’t profits. Then ignorant ChessNUT concludes we hired them so we have and obligation to provide more funds…and all from GRU! Outrageous! No obligation to keep ordering new services, and sure she wants it to come from GRU so her spending money won’t be cut. Mr knee knows it will be several million dollars in the end, but wants to be a big shot. A goofy ignorant group that deserves each other, but on our dime!

  • You, city commissioners, do not deserve to have the right to spend our $$$$$$$$$$$ or have control of GRU since you have proven you are irresponsible to the citizens of the City and Alachua county.

  • Oct 1 can’t come soon enough for GRU customers who want to get out from under the COG thumbscrew. If only there were a way for power customers to choose their provider from among competing companies.

  • For an organization that begs the federal government for housing funding, begs the county to pay it’s, (the city’s), portion of an agreed upon financial commitment, rapes the residents by increasing the tax burden and raising utility rates because they say they’re “short” funds – they sure have a lot of money to waste. The only thing they’re short on is intelligence and fiscal competency.

    The Democrat voters in Gainesville are the most ignorant, gullible, idiotic voters I’ve ever come to be around. What’s it going to take for you people to get it? How many more people do you want to put out on the streets and sidewalks? How many more people must suffer some type of crime against them?

    You’re as much to blame as those you elected.

  • I’m ready for some entertainment in the newly created “entertainment” district.
    Would love to see these idiots forcible removed from office by the state for embezzlement of funds. If that doesn’t work, a come to Jesus meeting with a homeless person would suffice. That’d make for some AWESOME ENTERTAINMENT!
    I’d buy those tickets for a $1.00.

  • Greaseman’s 2018 reference is out of date . Its 2023 and the pillaging of GRU, GRU Customers , and Citizens of Gaineville is deplorable. In the days and months ahead for the Bankrupt City of Gainesville he will continue to seek shelter in the past. He as well as the rest of the fired Commission will be ordered to return this money and the $68 million they took over the last several years. What a slimy bunch.

  • Incompetent money wasting stumblebums! Show me a city in America that has not been wrecked by Democrat idiots and psychos. Everything they touch turns to crap.

  • It’s not their money so do you think they care? Just more dumb ass Dems as are the people that vote for them.

  • So, the city got caught manipulating utility bills to put more money in their budget and now they are spending tax payer money because they are made that they got caught. They could have paved some roads with that money.

  • Any chance a lawyer would pick up a class action suit against the city for the tax payers that got robbed to offset the GRU “offset”?

  • complaining, residential citizen’s is how and why, the Governor is trying to take Gru over, there is more here than meets the eye.

  • All they do is squander taxpayer’s money. More money down the progressive drain. Fix the damn roads and leave us (and OUR utility) alone!

  • It’s a pity they didn’t spend this much time and energy trying to sue the people who sold us the biomass plant.

  • Is this the same Ackerman law firm representing the NRA & their nefarious stealing of members money?
    City hall will keep throwing money at their lawyers hoping all this bad ju-ju will disappear.
    And yet ya’ll keep voting these recycled politicians into office.

  • Good. Anyone who supports home rule and the simple enforcement of ownership rights should support the commission on this.

    • Hopefully the JLAC people will write their letters to the governor as promised, then Jazz”man” will really have something to cry about.

      • If and when DeSantis fails to win the Presidential nomination, I hope DeSantis comes through town like a whirlwind and cleans it up. All he’s got to do is show where they’ve violated state law and/or violated their oaths of office. If the state digs deep enough they’ll find something. I think that’s why they don’t want anyone looking into GRU’s books.

    • Ownership?? The utility is supposed to be owned by the citizens, NOT by the commission as their personal piggy bank. Get out of here with your continued liberal talking points. The commission has proven time and again that they DO NOT care about its citizens, as evidenced by its $1.7 BILLION debt.

  • I wish they would do what they’ve caused GRU to do, drive over a cliff. Without seatbelts, without airbags and without a parachute. All of you lemmings should go with them.
    If there’s any single group that should be run out town it’s the City Commission and the Mayor.

    • Look yoyo, you absolutely can do that to the those who run GRU now – they serve at the discretion of the citizen of Gainesville. The coming board – if it’s legality stands up – will answer to no one except the Governor, who never comes here and hates Alachua County. Of course most of you posting here seem to hate it to, so WTH are you doing here?

      • Glad to see you’re still getting Jizzy with it. If you don’t like the boards, don’t read them. Until then, we’re all aware which way you go; whatever way Harvey tells you to.
        There’s not much to like about what city leaders are doing unless you just like taking things up your rear end. Maybe you just derive a certain degree of masochistic pleasure in reading about the incompetent leaders you envy.
        You’re right about one thing, I don’t care about the policies and fiscal incompetence of local leadership. Unfortunately there aren’t many ways to correct it given the demographics and ignorance of voters.
        Until then, there’s nothing keeping you here reading what an idiot you are but you.
        If you don’t like that, too bad.

        • I think you meant to say your Daddy in Tally is taking it for you because you, guest, and the captain can’t get it together to actually win an election in the place that owns the utility.

          • You keep saying the people in Gainesville own the utility but you can’t seem to get through that thick skull of yours the residents, NONE OF THEM, voted to increase the utility rates and taxes. Maybe you should change your moniker to “Dumbarseman.”

          • Look up “represent” you idiot.
            How about “listen”?
            Maybe “incompetent”?
            How about “misappropriate”?
            “Without” works as well.
            Good argument for “lacking” too.
            While you’re at it look up “bray.”

            Explain why the city leaders fail to “listen” simply because they’re too “incompetent” and would rather “misappropriate” funding from GRU because without it the City would be bankrupt and the local voters who are severely “lacking” common sense, (you’re but one), don’t know any better.

          • Look up the term yourself. Since I, and many others, live OUTSIDE the city but are FORCED to buy from GRU, we absolutely do NOT have representative democracy. What about us? Why can’t WE have representation in OUR utility? On the soon-to-be-enacted JLAC, we WILL finally have a representative who REPRESENTS our needs.

          • Yet, on the floor of the House, Rep Hinson offered an amendment to Clemon’s bill that would have allowed county residents to opt out of GRU service. With no discussion it was voted down on party lines (GOP majority). Clemons and Perry didn’t want something workable, they wanted to take over that which they’ll never control from being elected in Gainesville.

            By the way, customers of FPL and Duke don’t have “representatives” on their boards, nor will anyone locally on the new appointed board if they are allowed to take power.

  • Speaking of Tallahassee, that’s another university town with a huge non-taxpaying business. In fact two, with state Capitol. Why aren’t they struggling to make ends meet up there? Does Tally have a city until it’s or private? Does FSU use it, or do they use a private line like Duke or FPL, instead?
    These questions need to be answered before suing the state.

    • Local control by democracy is the issue Jeff, not the details of running utilities. If this wasn’t a coup by the Prince of Newberry and the FPL lapdog state senator, the “concerned” legislature could have dictated any number of requirements other than stealing a utility from the citizens of Gainesville.

      • How about the city stealing from GRU to fund the idiotic ideals that 40% of the customers can’t vote in elections because we live in the county I am all for GUR stopping at the city limits and the county residents go with Clay, electric, Duke, energy, florida power and light then you idiots who voted them in office and support them like you do can deal with the GRU rates increase along with property tax raises

        • GH, on the floor of the House, Rep Hinson offered an amendment to Clemon’s bill that would have allowed county residents to opt out of GRU service. With no discussion it was voted down on party lines (GOP majority). Clemons and Perry didn’t want something workable, they wanted to take over that which they’ll never control from being elected in Gainesville.

  • This will make the City of Gainesville . Alachua County Commissioner’s, and the School Board Happy.
    “Gainesville was ranked the second-most expensive city with the high price of groceries and utility bills contributing to the ranking.” We could not achieve this without your ineptness and agenda.

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