Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has appointed the first of five new board members to oversee the troubled Gainesville Regional Utilities being taken over by the state. DeSantis installed three Republicans in a part of Florida that has been one of the rare remaining political strongholds for Democrats.
The three new board members for the Gainesville Regional Utilities Authority are:
- James Coats IV, 50, of Gainesville, chief executive at Gainesville-based Phalanx Defense Systems, which sells body armor, holsters and other weapon-related items.
- Robert Karow, 78, of Gainesville, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel.
- Christopher Eric Lawson, 56, of Gainesville, the chief executive of HCA North Florida Regional Hospital.
A new Florida law that took effect in July transferred jurisdiction of the Gainesville utility from the city to the state.
The appointments provided the Republican governor with opportunities to appoint members of his own party in important positions in Alachua County, which includes Gainesville and the University of Florida.
DeSantis previously appointed a Republican school board member who lost her re-election bid, and recently appointed a new Republican sheriff who had worked in the office of his attorney general, Ashley Moody. The incumbent sheriff resigned.
Alachua County was one of only five counties that DeSantis lost in the 2022 gubernatorial re-election. Democrat Charlie Crist won in Alachua County with 57% of the vote, although the governor’s performance last year was slightly better than in 2018, when he won only 36% of votes. The only other counties – among 67 – in Florida that remained blue for Democrats were Broward, Gadsden, Leon and Orange. DeSantis won re-election last year by the largest margin in 40 years.
The new law requires the utility’s board members must be registered voters inside the city limits, except at least one of the appointees must live in unincorporated parts of Alachua County or in another city in the county. None of the three appointed by DeSantis are registered voters within Gainesville’s city limits.
The law also requires board members live within the utility’s area of service and be customers of the utility while they are board members. The utility confirmed Wednesday that all three appointees were its residential customers.
In a statement, the utility said it was “prepared and looking forward to working with authority members on the best approach to achieving GRU’s mission and addressing the unique challenges GRU and other utilities around the country face.”
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