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City commission sets proposed districts, moves forward on broadband

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

At their March 3 meeting, the Gainesville City Commission voted to approve preliminary redistricting maps and decided to ask consultants to move forward with preparing a business plan for a pilot program to provide broadband internet for some part of east Gainesville.

New city commission districts

The commission heard a presentation from a consultant about new city commission districts, which are required to be set every 10 years, after the census. In the existing maps, District 1 is what is known as a “minority-majority” district; there are two such districts (1 and 3) in the proposed new maps. Mayor Lauren Poe described a “massive demographic shift” in the current District 3, “and as we have historically made sure that District 1 is able to elect a representative of their choosing, I think District 3 has gotten to that point as well, where they need to also be able to have a voice that represents their specific interest.” The new District 3’s minority population is equally split between black and Hispanic voters. The consultants had recommended a different option, but the commission liked having two minority-majority districts.

The final maps depend on the maps adopted by the legislature and where the resulting precinct lines fall. The commission voted unanimously to approve “Option 3” (shown above – none of the maps showed the numbers for the districts).

Broadband

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Following a presentation from a consultant on a municipal broadband project to “ensure high-speed fiber internet services were available to all residents and businesses at an affordable price throughout the community,” Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos proposed moving forward on providing fiber connections and internet connectivity to residences in District 1. Commissioner Harvey Ward disagreed, saying he would prefer moving some of the $9.6 million in American Rescue Plan (ARPA) funds that the commission has set aside for broadband to housing. Ward said they could provide wireless connectivity to a substantial number of people for about $3 million instead of running fiber to residences. 

Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut also favored concentrating on housing instead of focusing on broadband, which “is not our area of expertise.” Poe cautioned her that this meeting was about  broadband, not ARPA funding: “If we’re going to be making decisions about where we put our ARPA funding, I want that discussion to be something that we notice [to the public].”

Commissioner Reina Saco said that even homeless people need internet; it’s “sort of like food and water at this point.”

Hayes-Santos said that providing wireless internet alone has many issues and that “fiber is the future.” He made a motion to ask the consultants to work on the business plan for a priority area as a pilot, with a future option to expand it city-wide, using mainly ARPA funds (limited to $9.6 million) and also create a wireless network in the priority area. 

Ward said he wasn’t prepared to use $9.6 million of ARPA money on the broadband project. Chestnut also said she didn’t support the motion. Commissioner David Arreola said he wasn’t making a final decision but wanted to see the business plan. 

GRU Interim General Manager Tony Cunningham asked Hayes-Santos to add a step where GRU has the opportunity to evaluate the business plan before it goes back to the commission, and Hayes-Santos agreed. 

During public comment on the motion, Aimee Pfannenstiel from Cox said that every unit in the Gainesville Housing Authority is connected to Cox’s network. They have free plans for certain families, and they have $30/month rates. She said the City could help find out what is preventing the residents from having access, whether it’s a computer, knowledge of the available plans, or knowledge of how to connect it. She said that with their wired network already there, the City could provide wireless service for years with $9.6 million, “and you could do it tomorrow. So let’s get creative.” 

The motion passed 5-2, with Chestnut and Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker in dissent.

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