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State seeks to toss out resident lawsuit against GRU law

Gov. Ron DeSantis smiles after his 2020 State of the State Speech in Tallahassee, Fla. (Justin Bright/Fresh Take Florida)
Gov. Ron DeSantis smiles after his 2020 State of the State Speech in Tallahassee, Fla. (Justin Bright/Fresh Take Florida)

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis and other top state officials are urging a federal judge to toss out a constitutional challenge to a new law aimed at overhauling the municipal utility in the Gainesville area.

Lawyers for DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Secretary of State Cord Byrd on Monday filed motions seeking dismissal of the lawsuit filed in July by the non-profit group Gainesville Residents United and six individual plaintiffs.

The law, approved during this year’s legislative session, creates the Gainesville Regional Utilities Authority to replace the longstanding Gainesville Regional Utilities agency. DeSantis will have power to appoint the authority’s board members, after Gainesville Regional Utilities has been under control of the city commission.

The lawsuit includes a series of federal and state constitutional arguments, but a key issue is part of the law that the plaintiffs contend will improperly restrict speech rights. That part of the law says the authority “shall consider only pecuniary factors and utility industry best practices standards, which do not include consideration of the furtherance of social, political or ideological interests.”

In the motions Monday, lawyers for the state officials raised a series of issues, including contending that the plaintiffs did not have legal standing to pursue the case and that the law does not violate speech rights.

For example, lawyers for DeSantis wrote that the law “does not proscribe any speech.”

“It requires the (Gainesville Regional Utilities) Authority to consider ‘pecuniary factors and utility industry best practices standards’ when making policy and operational decisions, and prohibits consideration of ‘social, political, or ideological interests,’” the DeSantis motion said. “But that language plainly does not prohibit citizens from discussing or advocating for those issues before the authority. Further, GRU (Gainesville Residents United) members face no threat of prosecution because the act is not a criminal statute and has no penalties.”

But in the lawsuit, attorneys for the plaintiffs contended that members of the public in the past have petitioned the city commission on issues such as “rates and services for low income people and social issues such as environmental safety, racial fairness in infrastructure and living wages for GRU (Gainesville Regional Utilities) employees.”

“The special (new) law eliminates plaintiffs’ and others’ rights to petition the board for redress of grievances pertaining to social, political, environmental, and ideological issues that are inherent in the operation of a utility system,” the lawsuit said. “Even if the authority allowed plaintiffs or others to address them with respect to ‘social, political or ideological interests,’ the authority is legally prohibited from taking any action in response.”

The law emerged this spring after Republican lawmakers repeatedly questioned transfers of money from municipal utilities to bolster city budgets, in part because many utility customers live outside the boundaries of the cities.

The House considered a bill that would have applied to municipal utilities throughout the state, but lawmakers ultimately passed the narrower measure focused on Gainesville. Rep. Chuck Clemons, a Newberry Republican who played a key role in the debate, is House speaker pro tempore, making him a top lieutenant of Speaker Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast.

The case has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Allen Winsor.

The city of Gainesville also has filed a lawsuit in Leon County circuit court challenging the new law. That case alleges violations of the Florida Constitution.

The News Service of Florida is a wire service to which WUFT News subscribes.