Gainesville votes on ballot initiative despite concerns by GRU attorney

Gainesville City Attorney Daniel Nee speaks at the city's May 7 workshop.
Gainesville City Attorney Daniel Nee speaks at the city's May 7 workshop.
Photo by Seth Johnson

The Gainesville City Commission voted Thursday to approve the first reading of an ordinance that directs the city clerk to place a referendum on November’s ballot concerning management of Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU).  

The ordinance passed unanimously, and a final vote is scheduled for May 23. If that vote passes, the ordinance will go to the ballot and ask city voters whether they want to eliminate Section 7 from the city charter.  

However, the GRU Authority’s attorney disagrees with City Attorney Dan Nee’s interpretation of state law and says the City Commission is prevented from changing Section 7. 

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Section 7 was added to Gainesville’s charter in 2023 by House Bill 1645, approved by the Legislature and the governor. The section takes management control of GRU away from the City Commission and gives it to a newly created five-member Authority.  

That authority has run GRU since October 2023. Just hours after the City Commission approved the ordinance, Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed a brand-new authority. The appointments came after a lawsuit forced the resignations of the previous authority members and the reopening of the positions. 

The Gainesville City Commission has opposed the creation of the GRU Authority since state Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-Newberry, first proposed it. Following the end of the last legislative session, community organizations and city commissioners supported creating a ballot referendum to put the management question in the hands of voters.  

Both Clemons and state Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville, have reached their term limits in Tallahassee. Gainesville Commissioner Casey Willits said hopefully that means no one else will force another change on the city.  

“I do know that in a future session, it will not be Chuck Clemons and Keith Perry that you can go to and try to jam a law into Gainesville’s charter,” Willits said. “You’ll have to find someone else. Hopefully, not as many people will be willing to do that for you.” 

Mayor Harvey Ward said the lawmakers could have added an explicit statement within Section 7 that prohibits amendments from the city commission or ballot referendums.  

“I have to assume they made a conscious decision not to do that, thereby offering the citizens of Gainesville the opportunity, as it has always been,” Ward said. 

But Scott Walker, attorney for the GRU Authority, spoke at Thursday’s meeting to say that Section 7 does prevent the City Commission from intervening—just more subtly.  

Walker and colleague Kiersten Ballou point to two parts of Section 7. One line reads that if any city charter provision, ordinance or resolution is in conflict with Section 7, Section 7 will govern. 

Another part of Section 7 says, “The authority shall operate as a unit of city government and, except as otherwise provided in this article, shall be free from direction and control of the Gainesville City Commission.” 

Walker and Ballou said that the ordinance proposed by the city, to let voters decide whether to eliminate Section 7, is prohibited because it means the authority isn’t free from direction and control of the city commission.  

“You’re passing an ordinance now that is contra to the spirit, intent and plain reading of the language which. . .says you will not pass any ordinance that contravenes this special act of the Legislature,” Walker said.  

Ward responded and said the City Commission isn’t directing the GRU Authority, only the city clerk to place the referendum on the ballot.  

Nee said at the start of the meeting that HB 1645 is a special act of the Legislature that amends the city charter—another special act of the Legislature. He said the creation of Section 7 never changed the part of the charter that allows for charter amendments through ballot referendums, mirroring state law on the issue. 

Nee added that the city charter has been amended many times in the past. He said the voters would do the amending through the ballot, not the City Commission.  

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Can ALL GRU customers vote on this ? Or just the sheeples that are responsible for the downfall of GRU financials?


Juan – the City of Gainesville owns the GRU. Now I’m all for the GRU cutting power off to anyone that doesn’t live inside the city limits. Wouldn’t hurt my feelings at all. Then you could pay whatever utility you want to run lines to your house. Or you could move to Gainesville. Taking control of GRU is theft, pure and simple.