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Judge Halts Lawsuit Against GRU Authority Referendum, Keeping It On November Ballot

(Courtesy of Gainesville Regional Utilities)
(Courtesy of Gainesville Regional Utilities)

As of Thursday, Gainesville voters will still have the chance to decide in November who will control Gainesville Regional Utilities in the future.

Currently, voters elect Gainesville city commissioners, who then approve utility rates. If approved, a ballot referendum would shift that control to an independent authority.

Three former city commissioners have sued to block the ballot measure, but a circuit judge ruled Thursday that they didn't prove their case.

Former city commissioner Susan Bottcher helped bring the suit in May and is in favor of future city commissioners continuing to control the utility.

"As a GRU customer for more than 40 years, this impacts me," she said. "This impacts my ability to have my voice heard."

Gainesville city commissioners would appoint members to the independent authority, who then would decide rates.

Attorney Patrice Boyes represents Thomas McIntosh, who lives in Gainesville and has intervened in the case. She said they were pleased with the judge's ruling.

"This means that the voters of Alachua County can vote yes or no on the GRU independent authority referendum," she said.

McIntosh said he hasn't yet made up his mind how he'll vote. Bottcher takes issue with the referendum's wording:

“Shall the Charter of the City of Gainesville be amended to create the Gainesville Regional Utilities Authority as the governing board of Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU), whose responsibilities shall include, but not be limited to, examining and establishing utility rates for all customers, and whose members shall be GRU customers, shall be diverse and representative of the community, and shall be nominated by citizens and appointed by the Gainesville City Commission?”

"I do think it's important for people to have an opportunity to vote, but the whole purpose of the lawsuit is that the referendum language is confusing and deceptive," Bottcher said. She does not think it is clear enough to voters that they will no longer choose the officials who set the rates.

Bottcher and her co-plaintiffs, Thomas Hawkins and Yvonne Hayes Hinson, now have about two weeks to submit a new complaint to Judge Monica Brasington. Joe Little, their attorney, thinks his clients can still show how they have standing in the case. In other words, he thinks they can show they would be harmed by the measure passing.

"What we'll have to do is amend the complaint to make that clear enough to satisfy the concerns of the order that we have before us now," he said.

GRU, with approval from the city commission earlier this month, is set to raise the base electric rate by two percent in October.

Read more of WUFT's coverage of campaign 2018.

Ethan is the Managing Editor in the Innovation News Center, home to WUFT News.He is a Pennsylvania native who found a home reporting Florida's stories. Reach him by emailing or calling 352-294-1525.