Konish: A brief history of local efforts to reform GRU governance

Letter to the editor

In 2013, a Blue-Ribbon Panel assembled by our local Chamber of Commerce recommended:

  1. A new governance structure for GRU;
  2. That GRU electric rates migrate to “the middle of the pack.”

No language to properly amend the City of Gainesville Charter was developed. In 2014, after patiently waiting for a Chamber report that offered no concrete solutions and was merely aspirational, Keith Perry looked at charter amendment language that had been used in the Vero Beach situation.

There are wide variations in the language of City Charters that require any separate Utility Board to be properly integrated with the appurtenant City Government.

Keith decided to devise his own language. Few people could or would help him. He was being lobbied heavily by a powerful special interest – his wife. Keith initially had trouble obtaining a copy of the City of Gainesville’s Charter.

The initial 52-page bill Keith filed in 2015 came from local citizens. When asked by his colleagues, in a committee hearing, where his GRU bill came from, Keith answered, “the citizens,” and was laughed at by his peers. Keith was told by the legislative leaders to streamline it as it moved through a maze of committees. Keith and his staff worked long and hard with local citizens and many others to do this. It was not easy. There was skepticism everywhere.

Keith’s bill was a local bill calling for a referendum to amend Gainesville’s Charter over the City’s objection. This direct citizen engagement had never been done in Florida. The City countered with a powerless Utility Advisory Board that has no role with respect to the proposed Governor-appointed Authority. This meaningless advisory-only board has served primarily as cheerleaders for the status quo. In 2015, Governor Rick Scott vetoed Perry’s bill on the stated basis that a board member salary of $18,900 was excessive. Perry’s amended bill with zero member salaries passed in 2016. In the run-up to the November 2017 election featuring Keith’s local GRU Bill and his re-election on the same ballot, the City of Gainesville hired a lobbyist with GRU ratepayer money to kill Keith’s bill. The same lobbyist funded a PAC that was opposed to Perry’s direct citizen engagement on a Charter Amendment Referendum to reform GRU Governance.

A former City Commissioner belatedly filed a sham lawsuit naming the City as a “nominal” defendant only – to prevent a vote on the referendum altogether. There was much doubt in 2017 as to whether the then-City Commission should be allowed to appoint the proposed new Authority. Guardrails were installed.

There is now no doubt that the current City Commission is completely unworthy of appointing a powerful Authority over which they would have no control. Simultaneously, an ongoing state audit investigation is looming and raising serious issues. While Perry’s referendum failed in 2017, Chapter 2017-200 remained on the books.

The draft bill proposed by Clemons is exactly the same as what the voters considered in 2017, except the Governor gets to appoint the Authority Members. There will be necessary changes before the bill is filed, and possibly more amendments as it works its way to the House floor. What is totally different now is that our disgraced and irresponsible City Commission will not appoint Clemons’ GRU Authority. The passage of Clemons’ bill will activate a change in GRU governance without voter approval.

Once appointed, five (5) Authority Members will immediately prepare to usurp nearly all relevant powers of the City Commission in regard to GRU. Moreover, Section 3.06 of the City Charter is to be repealed, and thereby nearly all powers of the GRU General Manager will also be usurped, except for personnel matters. The new GRU Authority will thus be formed.

In a meeting with prominent attorneys representing concerned citizens defending the 2017 referendum against legal challenge, a well-known attorney, who would know, told me that he doubted that the City Commission would even make the appointments, much less provide the cooperation expressly required in the Charter Amendment.

Do not be surprised if the City’s recalcitrance becomes Trumpian. A lack of cooperation might lead to the removal of our Mayor and others from office if the bill passes. Clemons’ amended yet-to-be-filed 2023 bill would strike half a page from the current 15-page City Charter and add 12 new pages. There are currently scant provisions regarding GRU in the City’s Charter, and citizens continue to pay the price.

Jim Konish, Gainesville

The opinions expressed by letter or opinion writers are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of AlachuaChronicle.com. Letters may be submitted to info@alachuachronicle.com and are published at the discretion of the editor.

  • Thanks for the briefing, Jim.

    There’s many – including myself – who see no logic whatsoever in the reasoning the commission uses to justify a continuation of mismanagement and debt of GRU.

    However, the introduction of lobbyists and a PAC fighting reforms of GRU governance has all the markings of a money trail leading straight to the city commission.

    It is difficult to imagine a city commission claiming the state is impinging on its local control while pandering to outside influences for its own political (and financial?) gain.

    Perry and Clemons have produced bills in plain view. To their credit they have not characterized the commission’s relationship with GRU as criminally corrupt.

    That may change, however, through discovery and deposition processes the commission will be obligated to join in its threatened lawsuit. What they say under oath – under perjury consequences – may be different than what they are saying now.

    • RE: Commision lawsuit.

      Such a lawsuit has all risk, no gain.

      Because the Florida Constitution allows the state to take the proposed action against the city/GRU entity, there really isn’t any ‘local control’ defense.

      Claiming the state is usurping the authority of a duly elected city government, thus imperiling the rights of its citizens, also falls short due to the structure and performance of GRU which has a 40% customer base outside the city limits.

      Thirdly, the customers have no other recourse for the mismanagement and high utility rates because the city enjoys an immunity from civil suit by the very residents whose ‘best interest’ the commission claims to serve.

      Lastly, Florida case law has several cases addressing the nebulous financial and management relationship between cities and utilities and does not favor the city. For the very reason facing Gainesville, utilities should never be an extension of political governance; that’s ‘third world’ thinking.

  • Perhaps Jim, Keith, and Clemons should run for office in Gainesville. Oh, that’s right, Jim has and none of them could ever get elected! They only win in hostile takeovers. By the way, how much control will those 40% of GRU customers have when the power company backing Perry and Clemons takes over?

    • As usual, your comments are all opinion based! Nothing factual, just threats and fear mongering! Thanks Mayor!

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