BY JENNIFER CABRERA / NOVEMBER 23, 2019
This is the second of two articles on the November 21 Gainesville City Commission meeting. Part 1 can be found here.
Open Letter to the School Board
During the afternoon commission comment segment, Mayor Lauren Poe brought up the Open Letter to the Alachua County School Board that has been circulating recently: “I think if we sign it as a commission, we are saying we, as a body, with all of the resources that we have to bear, are committing to being a part of that solution. That is my preference. I would like us to unanimously support that letter… If there’s not, we can each do it individually if we want or not, and that’s completely our right as citizens of this county, but I think it’s more impactful if we’re unified and if we act as a body because whatever we do will be as a body, that’s how we operate.”
Commissioner Helen Warren said she supported signing the letter and seconded the motion.
Commissioner Harvey Ward was more cautious: “I do need to point out that if we are promising to bring whatever resources we have to bear, and I’m not trying to be snarky here, but are we talking about unbudgeted resources? Are we writing a blank check?”
Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos asked to delay the item to the evening meeting so he could have a chance to read the letter carefully.
Commissioner David Arreola was also cautious, saying that they would work with the school board regardless of whether they sign the letter, and he is concerned about one governing body signing a letter to another governing body.
Hayes-Santos said the letter has language that could be interpreted as personal attacks: “‘… Reflect a systemic failure of the central district office of the administrator of these community schools.’ That’s a strong thing, as a government body, to say about another government body.”
Johnson said, “I think we need to stick to the overarching goal of the community, which is all of our children read on grade level by the third grade, then supporting the community-wide effort towards this.”
Poe tabled the issue until commission comment at the end of the evening.
After a short break, the commission considered Warren’s request to “Consider a Proclamation Recognizing that We Are In a State of Climate Emergency” (our story on the details of that is here): “The request that I have is to be able to make a statement that we are in a climate emergency, and that’s not to create chaos or you know, to put us in a state of panic, but similarly to how we deal when we get a statement and the weatherman tells us there’s a hurricane coming, there’s a way to be prepared, and there’s a way to act and move forward…So I feel that now I could say, ‘What would Greta do?’ … my generation has done a lot already to try to make changes, but it’s not enough, and we as civic leaders in this community will always find that we have an opportunity to do the right thing while we are here and pass the baton on to the next generation, and I want the next generation to see that we have done as much as we can to give them the setting that they will continue to work with.”
She continued, “My ask is twofold. One is that we agree that we’re willing to take a statement and proclamation of climate emergency, and then the second ask that I would include would be for us to… have our staff to look at ways that we can address this issue with our Comp Plans and our policies, similar to what we’ve seen across the street with the County, to really bump up this conversation, and for an example, just the other day when we were doing our solar discussion, and we were focusing on what we can do to have renewable energy by 2045… there’s often been the comment ‘Can we bring it up faster than that?’ too.”
Ward added his own request to the motion: “I’d like to direct our GRU General Manager and City Manager to develop a dashboard that indicates our carbon footprint and shows which way we’re going with it… and put that on the city’s website.”
Two men from the League of Women Voters of Alachua County spoke in favor of the motion. Jim Konish criticized the city for its use of inefficient non-LED lighting and other practices: “You are far and away the largest polluter; you burn trees, you burn coal full of mercury, you spill your sewage all over the place with complete impunity around the clock through your decrepit clay sewer mains, and you have the audacity to pontificate upon the state of the global climate when you destroy a relatively pristine place that has been my home since 1972.”
Nkwanda Jah, representing the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Committee, thanked Warren for stepping up to the plate. “We know it’s always our most vulnerable citizens who suffer… the greatest in a crisis.” Two more members of the public also spoke in support of the motion.
Mayor Poe said this would need to go to General Policy Committee. The motion passed unanimously.
Evening public comment
During public comment at the evening session, Nathan Skop said that it was inappropriate for new City Manager Lee Feldman to call former City Auditor Carlos Holt “disgruntled” on a local news broadcast. He also said it was disrespectful for Johnson to walk out during his comments, as she has consistently done for the past few months. “Likewise, Mayor Poe, you [wrote on Facebook], ‘Mr. Holt tried to extort $250,000 from city taxpayers.’ That is unprofessional; it’s a personal attack; it’s not the civility that you tell us that we need to adhere to. Extortion is a criminal offense. If what you accused Mr. Holt of doing is true, then I would have expected the city to file a complaint with the State Attorney. If not, perhaps you should watch your language because that seems to be grounds to be actionable law. I’m surprised the City Attorney, in the face of this audit, hadn’t told you to shut your mouths… Equally unacceptable is the General Manager of GRU disparaging GRU’s own customers on Facebook.”
Skop also mentioned an item on the Consent Agenda, in which $180k will be borrowed from the city’s General Fund to buy new golf carts for Ironwood. “Ironwood. $180,000 on the Consent Agenda alone from the General Fund, no discussion of the loan, the interest, how it would be paid back, why Wild Spaces and Public Places money wasn’t used for that… But you guys had no discussion of that, but you’ve got time to talk about Green New Deal and climate emergencies.”
Skop then asked the commissioners how they are personally changing their lifestyles to deal with the climate emergency: “What would Greta do? Certainly she’s smart enough to practice what she preaches and takes a sailboat. You jet to Honolulu, Moscow, Boulder, Colorado, all of you up there. What are you doing to support what Commissioner Warren brought up today? What are you sacrificing? Have you stopped your use of fossil fuels?”
Dock Gordon came to talk about sexual harassment that he says has been going on at GRU for 18 years: “The next time you see me it’s going to be in a court of law.”
Gabe Kaimowitz spoke and then refused to leave the podium, as has become his practice. The mayor gaveled the meeting into recess, which turned off the video streaming of the meeting until Kaimowitz had been removed.
Don Fields asked whether the City Commission had approved Mayor Poe’s statement regarding the Joint Legislative Audit Committee audit, which was issued on city letterhead. He listed several examples of audits that found material weaknesses in the financial operations of the city and criticized the city for firing Carlos Holt: “For his stellar service, Mr. Holt was summarily let go amidst charges that when he performed his duties with respect to Reichert House, he had a conflict of interest. It is to have a more efficient and effective city government, with robust and state-required accounting practices, that I support the coming audit.”
Wilbur Holloway commented on several topics: “You guys today had a presentation from Commissioner Warren on climate emergency, a 47-page propaganda piece put out by a psychologist, to ‘move us from normal mode to emergency mode’, climate emergency mode. Seriously? You guys are being audited by the state auditor. You got nothing better to do than pass idiotic proclamations, resolutions? I mean, seriously?
“So on to the audit. Mr. Bielarski writes a letter to the Gainesville Sun today [saying] this is a personal attack on the managers, supervisors, and employees of GRU. That is ridiculous. You’re being audited because we spend 6 million dollars a year on a solar tariff. You’re being audited because of the GREC purchase agreement. You’re audited because of the purchase of the biomass plant. The financial controls at RTS, millions of dollars missing, your failure to supervise the employees of this city. We’ve got theft in Parks and Rec. A chick running around with an 8 thousand dollar butt. We’ve got mushrooming debt with GRU, and we keep kicking the can down the road, refinancing the debt. It’s just ridiculous.
“I mean for the citizens of Gainesville, we are so happy—thank you, Senator Perry, thank you Representative Clemons. We are so happy. East Gainesville: hey, you’re going to have this great million-dollar bus they’re spending money on. You know, they raise our taxes, they raised our… Fire Assessment Fee, you raised our utility… fees. You know, 4 million dollars you were over budget, but you can spend a million dollars on an all-electric bus. That’s awesome.”
Christina Fields said she and her husband “watched in shock as former City Auditor Carlos Holt was removed from his… position… I applaud the state Auditor General for opening an investigation into our city’s financial operations. I have seen where you, Mr. Poe, sent a letter on city letterhead, implying the audit was a result of disruptive citizens and disgruntled former employees, Carlos Holt. This false narrative is clearly a ruse to discredit the need for this audit. This climate is parallel to what we see transpire in Washington, and it’s unhealthy for the functioning of this city.”
Jim Konish spoke about the state audit: “I would like to point out that I asked for this audit at the joint legislative hearing at Santa Fe, which [Commissioner Warren] skipped. Commissioner Simmons was there. A lot of citizens joined in on that question. And on October 24th, Senator Keith Perry wrote a letter. And what we hear from Keith Perry and Chuck Clemons, the staff of the Legislative Audit Committee, and Carlos Holt, is this: Collectively, the concerns and the number of citizens with concerns are the basis for this audit request. That many many many citizens went to our state elected officials with their own independent investigation of the rampant irregularities that we have watched unfold for years, that have led to your deteriorating finances, and that’s why this audit is taking place, sir.
“And the very timing of the audit, to start in the spring and take a year, is carefully designed to minimize the politics of this matter. I personally know Keith Perry. I’m not a Republican. And I don’t agree with everything he advocates. Keith Perry is a man of impeccable intellect, impeccable integrity. He loves the community. He’s a leader in business, he’s a leader in legislation, he’s a leader in spirituality. He’s got an unbelievably beautiful family. And the way you talk about him is disgusting. To suggest that he’s motivated by politics. Why someone like this crawls into the viper pit of politics is beyond me. But the way you characterize him and the way Mr. Bielarski characterized him says a lot about who you are as people.
“And the Auditor General will find the truth, the Auditor General will tell you what you’re going to do about it. And if you know the Auditor General, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble. And everything that the Auditor General finds will be shared with law enforcement. That’s standard operating procedure.”
Green New Deal
Then the commission took up the evening agenda, beginning with Commissioner Arreola’s “Resolution Supporting HR 109 Commonly Known as the Green New Deal.” To introduce the resolution, Arreola said, “I wanted to share a little story. So I was in Washington this past weekend, and I was lucky enough to get a meeting with Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez’s staff to talk about the Green New Deal resolution. They were very excited, and we will be the first city in Florida to voice our support for this legislation if we were to pass it tonight. I thought I would pass it along that we’re on their radar, they’re watching, because it has a lot to say if there’s success nationally… I think we’ve talked a little bit about the importance of combating climate change, so I won’t go deeper into that.”
During public comment on the motion, Nathan Skop came forward (Johnson left again): “While this motion is certainly well-intended—and I see Commissioner Johnson is leaving again while I’m speaking… As a taxpayer, I’m deeply concerned that we’ve wasted taxpayer time and staff resources pursuing this resolution that was implemented by a freshman congresswoman. Speaker Pelosi called it the new green dream or something like that… It’s well beyond renewable energy. It’s tantamount to socialism. Anyone that’s supporting this is socialist or communist… It’s a complete government power grab. It wants to get into every aspect of our lives and have government control over many different things that have nothing to do with renewable energy.
“But we heard that Commissioner Arreola traveled to Washington, D.C., undoubtedly by air travel. CO2. What’s your footprint? Just like you, Mayor Poe—Hawaii, Honolulu, Moscow, Boulder. All of y’all travel all over the place, but yet you [tell] us how we should live our lives. We can’t have plastic straws… Focus on core government, and then you can do extracurriculars.”
Wilbur Holloway said, “This is another meaningless proclamation, resolution, whatever it is. And it’s a waste of time. Do your job, fix the roads, pay the cops, pay the firefighters. That’s what you’re supposed to do. That’s why we organize ourselves into cities.”
Roberta Gastmeyer from the Sierra Club said, “Most scientists believe climate change is real and it is an emergency and it’s imperative that every decision we make takes this into consideration. The decisions we make this year and in the coming years regarding land use, building codes, transportation, infrastructure, and virtually everything else will have an impact on the climate. And will affect the health and well-being of our community, not just for the next decade but for a century or more… The Green New Deal offers us this new economic model, one based on fairness and equity, one that will create jobs and secure clean air and water and counteract systemic injustices. It’s designed to address the cause of climate change as well as its effects and to ensure that everyone benefits financially, and I support the passage of the resolution.”
The resolution passed unanimously.
Confirming Race and Equity as a Core Value
Next up was Gail Johnson’s resolution, “Confirming that Race and Equity is a Core Value that will be Incorporated into the Updated Version of the Comprehensive Plan.”
The backup to this item was missing a definition of “marginalized people,” so Johnson read it: “Marginalized people are defined as groups and communities that experience discrimination and exclusion, social, political and economic, because of unequal power relationships across economic, political, social, and cultural dimensions.”
Hayes-Santos asked to add “exclusionary zoning” to the paragraph at the top of the second page of the resolution, changing the beginning to “WHEREAS, the City acknowledges that structural and institutional racism, including redlining, exclusionary zoning, restrictive racial covenants, and other discriminatory practices…”
Commissioner Gigi Simmons was not convinced that “exclusionary zoning” should be added: “As I was reading the sentence, it also states after redlining, restrictive racial covenants and other discriminatory practices, and I think that’s sufficient. Because other discriminatory practices covers what Commissioner Hayes-Santos has suggested when we talked about exclusionary zoning. It’s already stipulated as in other discriminatory practices.”
So they voted separately on whether to include “exclusionary zoning,” and the vote was 6-1, with only Simmons voting against it.
The resolution itself passed unanimously.
Reclassifying SW 2nd Street
The commission then had a discussion about whether to reclassify the urban zone street designation of SW 2nd Street between SW 2nd Avenue and SW 4th Avenue from storefront street to local street. The east side of the street is currently occupied by parking for the courthouse, so the real questions dealt with the nature of development that the commission wanted to permit on the west side of the street. After a fairly technical discussion, they decided to change SW 2nd St to a local street between SW 2nd Ave and SW 2nd Place and leave the rest of the block as a storefront street. The change in designation had been requested by CHW on behalf of Trimark; they will bring a plan to the commission at a future meeting to build a residential development that is aimed at young professionals. The motion passed 6-1, with Poe in dissent (he wanted to designate the whole block as local).
Second readings of ordinances
The commission then took up the second readings of two ordinances: the rollback of rental fees for lighting fixtures, and “Amending the Land Development Code to Clarify that Parking Structures Have No Max Limit on Parking Spaces.”
Nathan Skop asked whether customers would have the increased fees refunded, since they were supposed to go into effect on October 1. GRU General Manager Bielarski responded, “it’s my understanding from the customer service area that we did not implement these additional rate increases pending the resolution of this. There’s nothing to refund. Never went into effect.”
Both ordinances passed.
During commission comment, Ward pointed out that the million-dollar electric bus was purchased with a federal grant. The commission again discussed signing the Open Letter to the School Board, but they didn’t have unanimous support for that, so they decided to bring some draft letters of their own to a future board meeting and decide at that time if they wanted to send one of those.
The meeting then adjourned.