GRU Authority members sworn in; first meeting set future schedule and format
October 4, 2023
BY JENNIFER CABRERA
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Four of the five members of the new GRU Authority were sworn in tonight by Gainesville Mayor Harvey Ward at the beginning of their inaugural meeting.
Once the board members were sworn in, GRU General Manager Tony Cunningham welcomed them, saying he was “optimistic that we can work well together and continue the good quality service of GRU well into the future.”
Cunningham also clarified the roles of the three board members who were appointed last week: Robert Karow has been appointed to the one-year term, James Coats has been appointed to the two-year term, and Eric Lawson has been appointed to one of the two four-year terms.
Coats, Karow, and Lawson were all listed as members who are residents of the unincorporated area of the county, and Lawson was listed as the member representing a private, nongovernment customer consuming at least 10,000 kilowatt hours per month of electric usage during each of the previous 12 months.
Cunningham said he had spoken with Dr. Tara Ezzell, who was appointed today, and she said she was looking forward to serving but was unable to attend this meeting. He then asked the members to introduce themselves.
Craig Carter, who was also appointed today, said he served as a Gainesville City Commissioner from 2014 through 2017, then joined the Gainesville Housing Authority; he is also a commercial realtor and was recently appointed Chair of the Gainesville Airport Authority Board. Carter said the Airport Authority Board works with the City similarly to the way the GRU Authority Board will work with the City.
Eric Lawson is the CEO of North Florida Hospital and has been in healthcare for 35 years, 30 of which were in executive leadership roles. Lawson said when he heard about the Authority, he “wanted to be a part of the solution and not be on the sideline,” so he applied.
James Coats said he has lived here since he was 11 or 12 years old and that a chance meeting with then-GPD Public Information Officer Sadie Darnell in 1990 had led to being introduced to local business owners, which led to food and jobs for him and his family. He said he studied microbiology at the University of Florida, where instructors noticed he had “a very unique understanding of entrepreneurship,” and he created “several large businesses in this community.” He said he has volunteered with the Veterans’ Entrepreneurship Program at the UF Warrington College of Business, as well as the Chamber of Commerce and the City’s Entrepreneurship Program. He has a bachelor’s degree in social sciences, specializing in intelligence data analysis, and is a subject matter expert for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Development Group, the U.S. Intelligence Community, and the National Institute of Justice. He also has an MBA with core focuses in entrepreneurship, law, and quantitative analysis.
Robert Karow said he was born in Marion County and went into the Marine Corps after high school. After retiring from the Marine Corps, he went to law school at UF. His first job out of law school was clerking for Justice James Atkins on the Florida Supreme Court, then he took a job in the energy field in Houston. He is a member of the bar in Texas, Florida, and the District of Columbia. He’s worked in two foreign countries in oil and gas–in construction, in facilities, and in production. He was most recently on the board of an energy company that was the largest producer of oil and gas in the Gulf of Mexico, but the BP disaster ended all exploration offshore in the Gulf, so the company went bankrupt. Karow said he has more than 40 years of experience in oil and gas and various forms of energy.
Cunningham introduced members of his staff and then led the board through some decisions they needed to make about their meetings.
The statute that created the GRU Authority states that the board must meet at least once a month, and Coats proposed meeting twice a month, but Karow was concerned that would put “a big burden on the staff over there at GRU to come up with a dog and pony show for every one of the meetings… I tend more to the monthly meeting.” Lawson and Carter also favored a monthly meeting, with the option for extra “informational” meetings.
City Attorney Daniel Nee reminded Carter that the board had not adopted the agenda, so they stopped to do that. During public comment on the motion to adopt the agenda, Jim Konish suggested that they add general public comment to the agenda. Armando Grundy-Gomes was concerned about having meetings at the GRU Administration Building and suggested holding meetings at the Alachua County Commission boardroom; he also supported more than one meeting a month because “you have a lot to do… There’s lots of things to look at, folks.” Debbie Martinez also urged them to add general public comment to their agendas and asked the board to make sure the meetings are livestreamed, not just recorded.
Cunningham said improvements would need to be made to the GRU facility to make livestreaming possible.
After the agenda was adopted, Coats suggested to the other board members that they start “digging independently, which gives us the ability to have multiplication of ourselves. If we have a public meeting once a month, I’m okay with that… But we owe this community, and we owe this utility, and the work family, presence within it, without confusing leadership.”
Carter said livestreaming was important, so Cunningham agreed to let the board know if the GRU facility will not be ready by the next meeting and present them with options for other locations if it’s not.
Meetings to be on the first Wednesday of the month
Meetings will be at 5:30 p.m. on the first Wednesday of every month, and the board decided to add a general public comment item to agendas.
During public comment on the motion to adopt the meeting procedures, Bobby Mermer said the board members are “already violating the law that established the board that you’re sitting on, so you definitely need to clear that up. I don’t know how you guys want to do that–talk in the sunshine about who should resign, who should not resign? This board is already acting unlawfully.” He also asked members to publicly promise to not sell “GRU or any of its components to Florida Power and Light, Duke, or any other private utility.”
Grundy-Gomes spoke next and said he could answer that: “You can’t, it takes a referendum of the people; you don’t have that ability.”
After some training on ethics and Sunshine law requirements, the board took a final round of one-minute public comments and adjourned.
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