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New lawsuit seeks to block DeSantis’ appointments to control city’s utility

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)

Members of Gainesville Resident United Inc. filed a lawsuit Monday against Gov. Ron DeSantis for his appointees to the Gainesville Regional Utilities Authority board.

On Monday, Gainesville Resident United, Inc. board members Robert “Hutch” Hutchinson and Jeffery Shapiro filed a petition for writ of quo warrant in the circuit court of Leon County against DeSantis for allegedly not following the correct appointment process for the new members of the Gainesville Regional Utilities Authority board. 

In July, a new Florida law took effect  transferring jurisdiction of the Gainesville utility from the city to the state. Four lawsuits at the state and federal levels have been filed to fight against the state’s control of Gainesville Regional Utilities. 

On Friday, Leon County Judge Angela Dempsey threw out a lawsuit filed by the city of Gainesville, because of technicalities, and sided with the state to uphold legislation that removes the city’s sole control of Gainesville Regional Utilities.

Dempsey ruled the lawsuit improperly named Attorney General Ashely Moody, DeSantis and Secretary of State Cord Byrd as defendants.

On Sept. 26, DeSantis announced three of the five new members to take charge of the board Sunday, with the last two to be announced later in the year.

The first three Republican appointees 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.

The law requires the utility’s board members to 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 states that the governor must issue a public notice soliciting citizen nominations for the board 120 days after the law’s effective date. Then, the nomination solicitation period must remain open for at least 30 days after the date of the public notice.

Hutchinson said DeSantis can't legally appoint anyone to the board until 30 days after his office publishes a public notice for applications to the board, which he claims never happened. 

The lawsuit said the only official attempt at notifying the public was through an email sent through Rep. Chuck Clemons' office in June to a short list of possible applicants, which doesn't satisfy the legal requirement. 

Hutchinson said their lawsuit is about asking the governor how he can ignore the requirement for public notice and how he can appoint three people outside of Gainesville, if the law states these requirements.  

“Today’s lawsuit is all about the fact that the legislature passed that only one member can be a non-resident ,and the governor has already appointed three [non-residents],” Hutchinson said.

The law states that all members of the Authority board must be a qualified elector of Gainesville, except that a minimum of one member must be from outside of Gainesville. 

Gary Edinger, one of three attorneys representing the petitioners, said “it is completely straightforward that four out of five have to be electors – residents – of Gainesville.” 


This is a breaking news story. Check back for further developments. Contact WUFT News by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org

Claire is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.