Keep GRU Local

by Susan Bottcher

It’s a bit ironic that “Local Referendum 1” is the title Rick Scott has given one of the most outrageous attacks on local control in Florida history.

There’s nothing local about any of it.

This is purely a scheme to take over Gainesville Regional Utilities, backed by a bill sponsored by Chuck Clemons and Keith Perry and pushed by special interests around the state.

If it passes it would put our community-owned utility in the hands of unelected political appointees. Furthermore, since it’s a Tallahassee bill, the state legislature has the power to make changes to it without involving GRU, the governing board, the city commission or you, the citizens.

This is the first time in Florida history that the legislature has forced a charter vote on a local city against their wishes.

Currently GRU is overseen by the people of Gainesville who elect the City Commission to govern how it is run. The governing board model, called the Authority, that Tallahassee is pushing on us, would be appointed by the commission.

But that is where the oversight ends. Even though they appoint them, the city commission cannot remove any members of the Authority, short of a criminal conviction, nor can you vote them out of office. The commission will be prohibited from changing any decisions the Authority makes. The Authority will write its own code of ethics and rules of business conduct and will be given complete control over GRU’s checkbook and assets. This is a recipe for corruption.

So how did all this begin? It all started in the back rooms of the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce Building when a group of lobbyists, energy company owners, and other business executives began looking at GRU reform. They produced a document called the Energy Competitiveness Report which outlined four recommendations they insisted the city commission meet. 

The city commission quickly met three of the four recommendations. The fourth was to turn GRU over to an independent board of appointees who would govern the utility. The city commission had reservations about this, so they countered with a reasonable compromise: They wrote an ordinance to create the Utility Advisory Board. It has most of the same characteristics as what the Chamber wanted in its independent board, but without final decision making authority. Today the UAB makes recommendations to the city commission on all matters regarding utility governance.

The main difference between the type of board the Chamber wanted and what the UAB does centers on the concept of “independence.” The Chamber wants a fully independent board that answers to no one.

The commission disagreed with this model knowing a city-owned utility is a citizen-owned utility and that citizens’ right to vote for its board of directors is protected in the city’s Charter and should remain so. 

The Chamber was not satisfied getting three out of four demands met, so turned to their friend, then state Representative Keith Perry for a Tallahassee solution.  Along with his Chamber connections and other unidentified special interests he created a GRU governance bill. It failed in the 2014, 2015 and 2016 legislative sessions.

Finally in 2017, now state Senator Perry along with Rep. Chuck Clemons resubmitted the bill (HB759) which was passed and signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott.

So in November, Gainesville is being forced to vote on a referendum our citizens did not ask for, defined through a bill written by Chamber and Tallahassee special interests.

Rep. Clovis Watson, who has fought this bill every step of the way for the past four years said this, “Never in the history of the Florida legislature have we had a change in municipal governance in this manner. In this bill we would be surrendering all local control.”

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