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Lawsuit settlement says majority of board members on Gainesville Regional Utilities Authority must live within the city’s limits

GRU entry sign displayed on the corner of Southeast Third Street. (Micah Page/WUFT News)
GRU entry sign displayed on the corner of Southeast Third Street. (Micah Page/WUFT News)

All four board members of the Gainesville Regional Utilities Authority are resigning.

That comes after months of pushback, and a lawsuit, from Gainesville residents questioning the governor’s ability to appoint multiple board members who don’t live within the city’s boundaries.

Robert Hutchinson filed the lawsuit in October along with Jeff Shapiro. Both are board members of Gainesville Residents United, a group of citizens concerned by the state’s control of the utility. Hutchinson is the group’s president.

“It's a shame that a citizen's group has to sue the state of Florida and the governor, who's the chief law enforcement official at the state, just to follow the law,” said Hutchinson.

Governor Ron de Santis made four appointments to the five person board last year. Three of those people do not live within the city limits, one does, and the other seat is still vacant.

According to House Bill 1645, which the governor signed into law last year, at least one person on the utility’s authority board must live outside of Gainesville, but the law did not set a maximum for that number, which caused a gray area.

Hutchinson says it’s been frustrating seeing nonresidents discuss cuts to the utility’s multimillion dollar General Services Contribution, which funds the city’s police department, firefighters, parks and roads.

“Non-residents of the city of Gainesville were at multiple meetings making motions to completely end the financial support that the utility provides to the city, and that only disadvantages city residents, not the non city residents,” said Hutchinson.

Following a settlement, the five person board will now be made up of four people who do live in the city limits.

Board chairman Craig Carter says the new makeup should lessen tensions between locals and the GRU.

“I would say that the citizens would feel better about that knowing that there was a four to one ratio,” said Carter. 

All current members of the board will resign after the governor appoints new members within 60 days.

“We’re still going to conduct business until the governor appoints a new board and it’s business as usual and then we’re going to get the new board up to speed as fast as possible,” said Carter.

Carter says he plans to reapply since he lives within the city limits.

Despite the 60-day deadline, Gainesville Mayor Harvey Ward says he expects changes to GRU’s administration to last for another year or so.

“We need to get comfortable with the ambiguity right now and just know that at some point, we’ll be able to look back on it and say that was an interesting time. But right now, ‘interesting’ is what we got,” said Ward.

Áine Pennello is a multimedia reporter and Morning Edition news anchor for the College’s Innovation News Center. She has a background in video news and documentary and most recently worked at WCBS Newsradio in New York City covering local news and the tri-state area. She has also reported internationally, freelancing from Paris and Berlin during the Syrian refugee crisis. During the Syrian Civil War, Pennello reported from the Golan Heights while on a reporting grant from the International Center for Journalists.