Two board members of Gainesville Residents United Inc. filed a lawsuit against Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday, seeking to nullify the governor’s three appointments to the Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) Authority Board.
DeSantis appointed three members for the five-person authority board on Sept. 26. Days later, Robert Hutchinson and Jeffrey Shapiro filed suit for alleged violations of appointment processes set forth in House Bill 1645, which DeSantis signed into law in June to create the authority.
In early July, the newly-formed Gainesville Residents United Inc. non-profit sued DeSantis, Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, Secretary of State Cord Byrd and, nominally, the City of Gainesville. The July suit claimed the special law removing control of GRU from the city is unconstitutional. According to a press release, that litigation is in early procedural stages, and its calendar should be set by a judge in the upcoming weeks.
The city of Gainesville also sued DeSantis, Moody and Byrd, along with the state of Florida, but a Leon County judge dismissed that case on Friday.
The new suit is a “Petition for Writ of Quo Warranto,” asking the Second Judicial Circuit Court of Florida what authority allows DeSantis to appoint members of the authority the way he has. The petition includes two counts: one taking issue with a lack of public notice, and one regarding the appointees’ residency.
The first count alleges that though the law requires 30 days’ public notice to solicit applications, there was no such notice. Hutchinson, who is president of Gainesville Residents United, which is funding the lawsuit, said the nonprofit had requested a copy of the public notice from the governor’s office a month ago. He said the office said there was no such notice.
A press release from the Gainesville Residents United points to section 7.05 of HB 1645 reads, “The Governor shall issue a public notice soliciting citizen nominations for Authority members within days after the effective date of this article. The nomination solicitation period shall remain open for at least 30 days after the date of the public notice.”
The second count alleges that none of the three appointments DeSantis made last week—James Coats IV, Robert Karow and Eric Lawson—live within Gainesville city limits and that the law permits only one appointee who lives outside the municipal boundary.
The group cites section 7.04 of the law, which states that each appointee must “be a qualified elector of the City, except that a minimum of one member must be a resident of the unincorporated area of the county or a municipality in the county other than the City of Gainesville…. The composition of the Authority shall be adjusted upon expiration of any member’s term, or upon any Authority vacancy, to reflect the ratio of total electric meters serving GRU electric customers outside the City’s jurisdictional boundaries to total electric meters serving all GRU electric customers.”
The statute goes on to describe that if GRU’s ratio of electric meters serving customers outside the city to total electric meters serving all electric customers reaches 40%, the governor must appoint a second board member from outside the city boundaries.
The authority’s first meeting and swearing in is scheduled for 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Gainesville City Hall. Hutchinson said if the current three appointees proceed with their swearing in, they do so illegally because their residence makes two of them unqualified for the positions.
“Literally the very first act that this board can make, if those non-residents swear an oath that they basically are residents, is a lie,” Hutchinson said in a phone interview. “What’s frustrating about this is, our legislative delegation wrote the law, the governor signed the law not even that long ago, and already they’re not following it.”
Supporters of the new authority argue the governor can appoint anyone to a vacant slot at the beginning of the board, and that only replacement appointments must reflect the ratio of GRU customers in and out of the city.
Hutchinson, meanwhile, argues the law’s intent is for only one slot to be filled by someone outside city limits. He wants the court to nullify the appointments and declare the three appointees powerless to act.
State Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-Newberry, who sponsored HB 1645, dismissed the latest suit as a desperate attempt to stop the inevitable.
“Another Hail Mary attempt to stop or slow good governance at GRU,” Clemons said in a text message Monday night. “If you are a GRU customer and you have been praying for relief, trust me, it’s coming!”