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GRU General Manager hangs on to job after hours of supportive public comments

Ed Bielarski speaks to city commissioners on September 13

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

Saying that the City needs a “reset” of charter officers, Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe added the termination of the contract of GRU General Manager Ed Bielarski to the agenda of tonight’s Special Meeting.

After Bielarski described recent accomplishments and broke down in tears, asking to keep the job “at the utility that I love,” Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos moved to terminate the contract. Commissioner Harvey Ward agreed that it was time to make a change.

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During public comment, Nathan Skop warned that the change could affect the credit ratings of GRU. A large number of GRU employees, including members of GRU’s leadership team, showed up, in spite of the late hour (public comment took place after 11 p.m.), to ask the City Commission to retain Bielarski. Former City Commissioner Todd Chase counseled prudence, given that terminating Bielarski would lead to five new charter officers at a time when it’s possible that there could also be five new city commissioners by 2022. Former State Representative and County Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut remarked on all the GRU employees who showed up to support Bielarski and contrasted that with the fact that no employees came to advocate for City Manager Lee Feldman earlier in the evening, when the commission accepted Feldman’s resignation and considered whether to amend his contract to give him 20 weeks of severance pay. Public comment on the topic of whether to retain Bielarski went on for over two hours.

After public comment, Ward told the GRU employees that he wanted to “make a deal” with Bielarski. He told Bielarski that he needed him to name a Chief Climate Officer and a team to work with the Climate Advisory Committee and the Utility Advisory Board and bring back a plan by January to get to 100% renewable energy. He needed him to “fold some duplicate services together with General Government.” He needed him to “not go to the County Commission building and talk at public comment and fuss at county commissioners. You can’t.”

Bielarski agreed to all the terms, saying he could find someone with a “softer spirit” to be a liaison, and he could work on the duplicate services.

Commissioner Gail Johnson said, “You’re not a manager; you’re a leader. It’s clear.”

Commissioner Desmon Duncan-Walker said the response from GRU employees was “overwhelming.” She said the commission gave an opportunity to Feldman (allowing him to stay after the Equal Opportunity report recommended that he be fired) that they didn’t give to Bielarski: Bielarski was not given the opportunity to correct the perceived problems before Poe put his termination on the agenda.

Commissioner David Arreola said he also had a “sticking point” with Bielarski: “I need full and immediate participation with the City Auditor’s audit plan… It continues to be something that comes up short.” He said it’s important to him that charter officers work together.

Hayes-Santos, seeing that he didn’t have the votes, pulled the motion from the floor.

Poe thanked GRU employees for coming to the meeting. He said he was never against the employees, but that his issue with Bielarski was partially caused by “our system of government… it’s an unbelievably difficult system.” Poe also said Bielarski has to be more respectful toward citizen boards.

The meeting was adjourned at 1:33 a.m.

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