The citizens of Gainesville are likely to have three options over who leads GRU in the next year and a half.
With a stroke of his pen on Tuesday, Governor Rick Scott opened the doors for voters by allowing them to change the governance of Gainesville Regional Utilities. And not a day later, a new option was in the works.
Currently, the Gainesville City Commission dictates GRU, and the governor’s signed bill looks to create an independent board that would strip away power from the commission. This measure would then be voted on during the November 2018 election.
To combat the state bill, the Gainesville Utility Advisory Board met to discuss also creating an independent board to lead the utilities company, but there would be some differences.
Compared to Rep. Chuck Clemons’ state bill’s independent board, the advisory looks for its version to have a stronger local influence.
“We want city commission to still have some role in deciding how some things get done at GRU,” advisory board member Michael Selvester said.
Selvester and the board argue the state’s version will cause the community to lose control, the power ultimately being transferred to state influences.
The Utility Advisory Board’s current draft has two major differences from the state bill.
First, the city commission would keep the power of setting the general fund transfer, which is the rate of return the city gets from owning GRU. In 2014, it was around $37 million.
The Utility Advisory Board also wants the city commission to issue general obligation bonds and have the ability to take private property for public use, or eminent domain. Selvester said both are serious issues that should remain with elected officials and close to the voters.
“People who spend taxes should be held accountable to the taxpayers,” he said.
And the other difference in the draft is to allow the GRU general manager position to keep its power.
“Going forward [we want] the general manager [to] continue to be the actual person on the ground making those kinds of decisions on a daily basis,” Selvester said.
The Utilities Advisory Board chairman Darin Cook said that under the state version the general manager wouldn’t be as influential.
“Under the state proposal, the general manager could be micromanaged,” Cook said. “In other words, the [independent] board technically controls GRU.”
He said micromanagement would be one of the negative outcomes of appointing an independent board.
“They could say you’re spending too much on coffee,” he said. “I don’t know any type of manager who’d want that kind of scrutiny.”
Overall, the idea of having an independent board, state or local, has been met with praise.
The Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce applauded the move for “supporting Gainesville citizens’ potential to strengthen utility governance.”
Because Gainesville residents pay some of the highest utilities in the state, as well as having the biomass plant deal controversy, the idea of an independent board settles well with some Gainesville residents.
“Either way we have to have an independent board,” Gainesville resident Debbie Martinez said. “The city commissioners are part time employees. They can’t do it. Our utility has been run into the ground.”
However, city commissioners have responded against the idea.
“I don’t think we should have appointees being put onto a board,” Gainesville city commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos said. “I think it’s important to have the control of GRU as close to the voters as possible, and we do that with elected commissioners. That way if someone does something wrong, they can get kicked out of office.”
Hayes-Santos said he hasn’t had the chance to read the local draft, but he said Governor Rick Scott’s move is a special interest takeover of the community-owned utilities.
“With political appointees, you have that extra layer of bureaucracy costing more money and causing, I think, kind of a higher cost as well,” he said.
The advisory board is still drafting the bill and would have to get it approved by city commission. It would then appear on the spring 2018 ballot. If the state version in November were to get approved over an already voted on local version, it would become law over the local bill.