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City commission considers development moratorium, Rental Housing Draft Ordinance, budget, and alleged social media posts by a GRU employee

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

After talking about COVID-19 and broadband and solar at their July 16 meeting, the Gainesville City Commission discussed a moratorium on building in certain neighborhoods, including near the university, Porters, Springhill, downtown, 5th Avenue/Pleasant Street, and the Waldo Road corridor. Commissioner Gail Johnson said, “A moratorium is a pause. It’s a pause to allow us to have the update of our [Comprehensive] Plan… to put in policies and strategies to mitigate some of this displacement and gentrification that’s happening.”

Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said, “If we want to end the significant racial disparities in Gainesville, one of the things that we must do is end the systemic racial zoning that we have in our city. We need to take action to put in place laws that will enact inclusionary zoning, that mandate affordable housing, fund community land trusts, eliminate exclusionary zoning.” (He has said in the past that single-family housing is exclusionary zoning.) He said these are things the commission can do quickly. He said they should mandate affordable housing for new larger developments and provide incentives for affordable housing in smaller developments. He continued, “Exclusionary zoning is a policy that was put in place to keep lower-income people out of certain neighborhoods in Gainesville and around the country. These exclusionary zoning laws were put in place when the Supreme Court said you couldn’t actually segregate based on race… these were ways to get around those laws…”

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He also spoke in favor of a vacancy utility fee that would penalize people for buying vacant land and then leaving it vacant for some period of time, perhaps while they wait for property values to rise. There would be exceptions for agricultural land and conservation land.

Hayes-Santos said he was not in favor of a moratorium because he believed that a moratorium would increase the cost of housing in those areas. 

Commissioner Harvey Ward said he was concerned that a moratorium would open the City up to lawsuits from developers, but the commission could do land use and zoning changes right away, without waiting for the updated Comprehensive Plan. 

Mayor Lauren Poe said he hasn’t seen enough evidence that moratoria advance the goals that were expressed by Johnson. He suggested putting “equitable development” as the only agenda item on their first General Policy meeting in August. 

Rental Housing Draft Ordinance

Without making a decision, the commission moved on to the next time-certain item, the Rental Housing Draft Ordinance. The proposed ordinance includes a four-year inspection cycle for all rental properties and mandatory efficiency standards for rental units, and eleven additional City jobs will be needed to do the inspections. It also increases the number of regulated rental units from the current 4,000 to 10,000. The revenues from the program are expected to cover the new jobs. The new program would take effect on October 1, 2021. 

Hayes-Santos recommended some changes to the Draft Ordinance, including having the City “conduct an Energy Efficiency rating system” of each unit every 8 years, including duct testing. He also recommended requiring R-19 insulation in the attic of each unit by October 2021 and R-30 by 2026. He added requirements for a programmable thermostat within 5 years and toilets with 1.6 gallons/flush by 2026. He added that inspections for state living standards could start October 1, 2020. 

Commissioner Reina Saco said they had received a “million” emails about the costs of complying with the new standards and “that the cost of any of these upgrades will be astronomical and that all of the costs will be passed on to the renter. To that I want to very bluntly say, if there is a home that will require thousands upon thousands of dollars of upgrades and renovations, that is not a home that should be on the rental market. The standards that we’re proposing are basic building code, and the energy efficiency standards are very small-cost, high-payout upgrades. So if someone is saying my property will require thousands of dollars of change to meet this standard, I want that to be the first property we inspect because there shouldn’t be a reason for that.”

During public comment, Jeremiah Tattersall, the co-chair of the Alachua County Labor Coalition, said the ordinance would be “the most progressive renters’ rights ordinance in the southeast.”

Another caller who said she is a property manager asked for protections for landlords in the ordinance, saying that tenants sometimes destroy the property or fail to maintain it to basic health standards. “I have landlords ask me every day if they should sell.” 

Debbie Martinez said the regulations would drive up rents and would drive low-income renters out of the county. She said the best way to help the working poor would be to reduce GRU rates. 

Hayes-Santos moved that they bring the ordinance back at the commission’s second meeting in August, with the changes he had proposed. The motion passed unanimously.

FY2021 budget

The commissioners then viewed a presentation about the proposed FY2021 budget, which is an increase of $10.1 million (2.77%) over the FY2020 budget. The commissioners voted unanimously to adopt the budget. 

They also decided to set the proposed millage rate to 5.2974, the same as last year, for advertising purposes. They can reduce the rate between now and the final budget, but they can’t raise it. 

During public comment, Nathan Skop said the commission should adopt the roll-back rate, which is a lower rate that would raise the same amount of revenue as was raised last year, given that property values have increased 6.57%. He recommended going line-by-line through the budget and making cuts, particularly to highly-paid staff positions and their travel budget.

Saco responded, “At least since I’ve been here… we haven’t been traveling, and all of our meetings have been virtual… but if we are traveling and no one told me because I’m new, I’d like to be in on the nice travel, if that’s a thing.” Poe then said, “I’ve also personally given up my meals at City Hall for the last several months.”

Ward then said, “I just wanted to point out… that what we’re asking for does not and will not increase taxes this year.”

The millage rate passed unanimously.

Right-of-way vacation

Poe then turned over the meeting briefly to Arreola, who is the Mayor Pro Tem, while he stepped away. After a brief discussion on second reading of an ordinance about vacating a public right-of-way on NW 4th Lane, Ward didn’t respond to the roll-call vote, and the vote was 4-1, with Commissioner Gigi Simmons, Saco, Arreola, and Hayes-Santos in favor and Commissioner Gail Johnson against. Arreola declared that to be a majority, but Hayes-Santos said they needed 4 votes to pass an ordinance (nobody seemed to notice that the vote was 4-1), and the City Attorney agreed. Poe returned, so Arreola proposed immediately reconsidering the vote. 

Poe said, “I leave for 3 minutes, and this is what happens?”

They voted to reconsider by a vote of 5-1, with Johnson dissenting and Ward absent. They then voted again on the ordinance, and the vote was 5-1, with Johnson dissenting and Ward absent.

Shopping cart ordinance

They then considered the first reading of an ordinance that requires businesses “to implement and maintain a city approved shopping cart retention system.” The ordinance passed 5-0, with Johnson and Ward absent.

Moratorium again

They then went back to the moratorium on development in certain neighborhoods. Poe again proposed putting it on the agenda of the first General Policy Committee agenda in August and asking staff to do more research before that meeting. They did not take public comment or take a vote on that item. 

The moderator reminded them that they didn’t take public comment, so they took a caller who had been waiting “a while,” followed by a second caller. 

Commission comment turns defamatory

During the period in which the commission has held virtual meetings, they have removed General Public Comment and Commission Comment from the agenda. So at this point, this meeting should have been completed except for “Necessary direction to charter officers.” But Ward requested that, since the “temporary” period of virtual meetings has now gone on four months, they should bring Commission Comment back. Hayes-Santos agreed and asked that they consider a Draft Resolution at their next meeting to revisit the meeting rules. Since the item was considered ministerial, they didn’t take public comment. 

Poe then started to end the meeting, but Johnson said she had something she wanted to bring up. She said there had recently been some “problematic” social media posts by a GRU employee, and she had received feedback from the public that the outcome wasn’t satisfactory “and they don’t feel like the process was a full investigative process.” She went on to say that the Facebook post was “violent and racist.”

GRU General Manager Ed Bielarski said that the question presumed that the employee made the post, and the result of the investigation was that it was not a post by the employee. Bielarski said the investigation found that there was a cloning of the employee’s account, and that information was in the report GRU sent to the city commissioners. “Short of getting access to the employee’s computer and/or cell phone, which we’re not allowed to by law, we had no evidence to indicate that that cloned account was… created by the employee, nor were the comments by her.”

Bielarski said that as soon as they learned of the post, the employee was suspended without pay within a half hour, pending the investigation. He said it made no sense that the employee had created a cloned account under her own name to post objectionable content. The employee had also previously hired an attorney to pursue “another party” for “malicious interaction with one of her accounts.”

Johnson was unsatisfied, saying, “I know people who make cloned accounts all the time…I don’t think it’s unusual that a person would have another account, I don’t. There’s also other factors, you know, that I think when you come to a logical conclusion, I also understand that this person has a white supremacist tattoo on her body, et cetera, et cetera, so when we say following logical conclusions about things, I want to make sure that we’re applying the lens that needs to be applied when we’re saying we’re… logically making conclusions based upon x, y, and z. I could come to a different conclusion based upon what I saw.”

Bielarski said the woman does not have a white supremacist tattoo. The tattoo is invisible and “is deemed by the anti-defamation league to be not a racist, white supremacist tattoo.” Bielarski added, “I think we have to be careful what we’re saying about employees. First you said that she made the Facebook post, and then you said that she had a white supremacist tattoo; the evidence doesn’t support that.”

Johnson said, “I’m finished, it sounds like. It sounds like our manager is good with the decision, and that’s how we’re going to handle things moving forward. So be it.”

Poe said, “Well, I’m not satisfied and I’ve had this conversation with the manager. First of all, I believe that Ms. Marshall [EO Director] should have been brought in at an early stage… I think that there was some pretty, pretty serious elements of a hostile working place that either could have existed before or certainly could have existed afterwards. It seems like that extra set of eyes and experience and context would have been helpful as this investigation unrolled… And I will just say, from all of the information that I learned, I felt like there was a high likelihood that we could have obtained more information that would have greatly clarified, one way or another, what actually happened.”

EO Director Teneeshia Marshall said that under City policy, any investigation into potential harassment or discrimination should be reported to her office.

Saco said she felt uncomfortable with the discussion: “As an attorney—I’ve been trying to get Ms. Shalley on the line—I personally don’t feel comfortable about having this discussion about a personnel member’s file out in the public. I think it puts us at great risk, given that it could be grounds for defamation… so I don’t think this is a discussion with so many specifics that we should be having here on the floor… I think Mr. Bielarski did at least a decent investigation in the matter. If we have other concerns, the concerns should be taken up with Mr. Bielarski or Ms. Marshall, not in a public forum for the world to weigh in and have a mess after seven, eight hours of us talking, where nobody is probably in the right mood to be talking about this, least of all in front of the public.”

City Attorney Nicolle Shalley stepped in and said, “When you all hear about employee situations like this, and certainly you can speak to the charter officer, to the extent that you want to have a public discussion, it should simply be about process, process concerns that you may have, not the facts of individual cases.”

Simmons said her concern was about the process, that Marshall should have been brought into the investigation “from the very beginning.”

Poe finished the discussion: “Okay, difficult topic. I think Commissioner Johnson, you reminded us long ago, and come back from time to time to remind us, that these are going to be uncomfortable conversations and we are going to continue to have them, so I appreciate you bringing them up. I also appreciate Commissioner Saco’s reminder to us that it’s not so simple to have these conversations in public when the City has certain responsibilities to due process.”

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