Say no to GRU takeover

by Hutch Hutchinson

The epic battle raging between Cruella DeSantis and Mickey Mouse’s corporate parent has gained the attention of pundits and legal scholars all over the globe. 

In our community, however, the story is how Gainesville is under assault by Goofy’s clumsy desire to run off with our locally-owned utility company. “Goofy,” in this case, is Rep. Chuck Clemons and Sen. Keith Perry, who for a decade have been doing the bidding of the Legislature’s corporate overlords in attempting to wrest Gainesville Regional Utilities from the City Commission.

House Bill 1645 has passed out of the Legislature and awaits the Governor’s signature. If it becomes law, the Governor will appoint five volunteers to make all of the decisions about how our electricity, water, wastewater, natural gas, and other services will be managed. This unelected Utility Authority only has oversight or can be removed by the Governor, will not be bound by financial disclosure and ethics regulations as elected officials are, and can set their own rules about whether public input is even allowed at their meetings. As a preview, the Legislature provided short notice for their one public hearing about this law, required citizens to travel 150 miles to speak, permitted each person thirty seconds to voice their concerns, and then ignored every proposed amendment.

If this new Utility Authority takes over, their members and the Utility Manager they hire, by State law, must consider the “pecuniary impact of decisions on the utility system” (their words, not mine). They are forbidden “consideration of the social, political, or ideological impacts” of GRU’s services, policies, or programs. 

This new state law’s suspension of the First Amendment’s right to free speech is breathtaking in its over-reach and cynicism. For DeSantis and his mini-Me’s, this is not a bug, it is a feature.

Utility companies are hard to love, and GRU in recent years has faced challenges. They eliminated an onerous contract that had increased electric rates. The cost of natural gas prices fluctuated due to world events, and GRU, (like all utilities) has to pass these through to customers. Staffing shortages have led to delays in meter reading.  

None of these real or alleged shortcomings, however, are addressed by the proposed takeover. In fact, total customer bills could increase if the new, unaccountable, Authority chooses to stop funding customer conservation programs, solar net metering, etc., all in the guise of “improving the bottom line.” And the bottom line is all that the new Authority may consider. 

Any customer that needs financial assistance for energy conservation, or wants solar power on their roof, or who waits for power to be restored after a storm, or any employee who works with a union contract, or retiree who relies on pension investments should take notice. Because what may be best for that Authority’s «bottom line» may end up hurting yours.

A diverse coalition of organizations and individuals were politely lobbying the Legislature to amend the bill. But having been completely ignored, they are now lawyering up and will be filing challenges in State and Federal courts to overturn or de-fang the law. There’s a lot to do in a short timeframe; fortunately, Gainesville has many attorneys and citizen experts volunteering to do some of the research and writing. Even so, the cost of trying and appealing these cases is prodigious, so creative fundraising ideas are being sought. GRUpalooza anyone?    

For the latest developments to this rapidly changing issue, or to get personally involved:

Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson was a GRU employee for nine years and an Alachua County commissioner for twelve years.

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