Opponents sound off on GRU bill at city meeting 

Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut, right, speaks at a special meeting with Commissioner Bryan Eastman, left.
Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut, right, speaks at a special meeting with Commissioner Bryan Eastman, left.
Photo by Seth Johnson

The city of Gainesville and its Utility Advisory Board organized a special meeting at 6 p.m. Friday to discuss the local utility authority bill, and adjectives flew from opponents of the bill, from authoritarian and power grab to disrespectful and sloppy. 

Mayor Harvey Ward and Gainesville Commissioner Cynthia Chestnut urged community members to contact their state representatives to oppose the bill and then to spread the word to other cities with municipal utilities.  

“When you leave here tonight and tomorrow, I want you to write the governor to veto this bill—start it now,” Chestnut said. “But let’s not stop with Gainesville because there’s 37 other utilities in the state of Florida that are owned by the public.” 

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Photo by Seth Johnson Mayor Harvey Ward, center, called the bill ‘sloppy’ at Friday’s meeting with state Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson, left, and Utility Advisory Board Chair Barry Jacobson, right.

Introduced by state Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-Newberry, the bill authorizes the governor to appoint a five-member independent authority to manage Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) instead of the City Commission.  

The bill received support from the Alachua County delegation in a 4-1 vote along party lines. Gainesville Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson, the delegation’s lone Democrat, dissented and submitted two amendments for consideration at the House State Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

The first amendment allowed GRU customers to elect the independent board instead of the governor, and the second limited the independent board’s authority if appointed, placing limits on eminent domain and selling services. 

The committee voted down both amendments and passed the bill as Clemons had written. The bill now moves forward to the House floor. 

On Friday, Hinson said the bill will pass through the Legislature, leaving a veto by Gov. Ron DeSantis as the last chance to defeat the bill. She said that leaves only legal options for Gainesville to consider.  

“When it hits the floor, they’re going to vote lock and step together,” Hinson said.  

Hinson recommended the city create a strategy to combat the bill and keep it secret. 

Ward said the city scheduled Friday’s meeting in order to accommodate the legislators, but only Hinson showed. 

Gainesville’s Utility Advisory Board (UAB) directed Chair Barry Jacobson to write to state legislators about the board’s questions about the bill.  

The April 5 letter lists the questions and advises the legislators to direct the potential authority on its goals for GRU and how to balance them. Jacobson gives some potential goals: minimize rates, pay down debt, reduce or eliminate the transfer and maintain the current quality of service.  

Photo by Seth Johnson State Rep. Yvonne Hayes Hinson said Gainesville needs a plan to go on the offensive against the Tallahassee bill.

Jacobson said the letter is neither for or against the bill. Instead, he wants to ensure a smooth transition regardless of the Legislature’s choice. During the meeting, Jacobson said the unintended consequences could be scary for the city.  

Ward said he isn’t sure how the transition will work and hasn’t gotten answers on the issue. In March, he said the city may need to go to the courts to figure out how independent authority and the city commission would work together.  

“I would urge you again to focus on the reality that this [bill] is a mess, and chaos should frighten you,” Ward said. “You need the light to come on when you walk in the room and flip the switch.” 

And if services fail, Ward said you need the authority to fire the managers like citizens can by voting on the City Commission.  

Meanwhile, Clemons said in an interview that the process will run the same but with GRU in its own silo. 

“I think it’s going to flow smoothly and basically effortlessly,” Clemons said.  

He said the bill aims to resolve the conflict of interest within the City Commission of supporting city services or supporting GRU, which has $1.69 billion in debt and an 80% debt ratio. He said the bill will also provide representation to the 30-40% of GRU customers who live outside city limits.  

Clemons also said the independent authority would have the same ability to raise rates and govern GRU as the current City Commission. The authority would also be limited in selling GRU, just like the City Commission, requiring a referendum of the voters.  

Public commenters overwhelmingly spoke against the bill, with only two in support. Many represented local organizations and also drove to Tallahassee to advocate at the Alachua County delegation meeting.  

Past coverage 

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Angela Casteel

Just to be clear, there is in the bill a date for the city and board to meet to take care of business pertaining to the transition. For Harvey ward to say he isn’t sure how it will work just proves he either chooses not to read the entire bill, or wants to play ignorant…

Jeff Gehmann

He doesn’t have to play ignorant, he is IG yon how to effectively run a large utility, most people are. Why on earth being elected as a small city commissioner with zero experience required would instantly make you knowledgeable enough to run a utility is as ignorant as it gets. These know it alls actually know very little of what one needs to know. An appointed board of experts would be 10,000 times better!


First of all, …”IG yon,” ??? Secondly, “An appointed board of experts” seems a HUGE unknown, and thoroughly political in nature. Appointed by who… and “expert” according to who?? I, for one, become very concerned when important issues are delegated to alledged “experts,” not to mention the fact that politics are involved.

Jeff Gehmann

It’s not hard to have prerequisites and standards for board appointments for experienced industry professionals. Important issues are better dealt with by ones that know something about it and have experience. Duh…Not folks like previous inexperienced commissioners like Hayes-Santo and D. Arreola that both never had a professional job in their life! King Poe’s experience was limited to teaching high schoolers history in dual enrollment. Claimed he was an “economics professor” from the dais but had no such related degree. Maybe that’s why they asked him to resign. Great experience for running a regional utility! Those are only 3 examples of unqualified commissioners who ran up over $1 billion in debt and would still keep doing it if it wasn’t for Representative Clemons and Senator Perry!


It’s not like this issue just came upTallahassee let Gainesville appoint a Utlitity Board and they failed. They had their chance and now the state will put a board together.

Tom Livoti

We have seen how poorly the city has run the utility. The biomass debacle is one of the many bad decisions the city has made. They have used it as a cash cow to supplement the cities poorly run budget. See our roads.

Jeff Gehmann

Exactly! They overspend the city funds then grab GRU funds for even more waste. We are paying their waste from both ends! Pass this bill!!!


One can’t help but infer from your statements / position that you seem to view this issue in a simple black or white framework. While the Gainesville City Commission truly screwed up our budget, largely in part to their handling of the Biomass Plant purchase; to simply believe that handing over management to a Republican led state group would solve the problem is just false logic – out of the frying pan and into the fire…


Funny! Blaming the bio mass for all the debt. What about excess city spending, like foreign trips, lunch brought in for staff, and much more! Since when part-time help get lunch brought for them every day. Let face it they are spending our money on their own plans; not ours needs as a city.

Richard Parker

Turning over GRU to a Republican led state government is Turning an already tough situation into a hornet’s nest. I lived in Gainesville over 40 years not only is gas higher there than any other county around, utilities are higher there. I cannot offer solutions but I know that letting the state meddle in the situation is not a solution. The taxpayers will pay more & the utility rates will continue to rise. As I previously said I do not have the answers I am not an expert I’m not looking to start a fight I am expressing my opinion. It is somewhat informed perhaps not as informed as some others but it is informed.


I don’t think that anyone is ready for the implications of this bill on the operations of GRU and the impact on the City

Angela Casteel

They had nearly 20 years to get things right. This is their own making by ignoring warnings or what would happen. Eastman continues to say Skop voted for it, but the ultimate truth is the only real thing the fpsc could say was that if they feel that the good out weighs the warnings then they are okay with it. Just like I believe it was crystal river but ultimately the decision crystal river made was to not move forward. The city of Gainesville chose not to listen to the warnings and move forward. So this is by their own hand! 1.7 billion is hard to fix when they keep taking more than the utility makes. Saying the numbers were pulled from thin air is a blatant lie!


I am not advocating for the status quo. I just don’t think that people understand that this effectively creates a stand-alone governmental agency with its own employees. It is not just a matter of governance. This is basically a full separation of people and assets. I am less than satisfied that the issue of debt is dealt with in a straightforward way.


Just like the Gainesville Airport. Plus the City will still own the assets.


It’s funny to see them all scrambling to prevent a take over by Tallahassee. They’re all so terrified the rampant corruption that takes place at GRU will be uncovered, and they’ll be charged. Hilarious that they used words like “totalitarian” in objection to the bill. They’ve been running GRU like a state sponsored fascist agency for the past few decades. Crushing the community by constantly raising rates, making shady decisions, capitalizing on hurricanes to make more money. They’ve done everything in their power to keep the poor-poor, prevent their from being a decent middle class, and line their own pockets. All while putting the company in debt. It’s crazy


Taking away the rights – and responsibilities – of Gainesville voters to choose the leadership of the utility they own by a hostile force that could never get elected in the city is the fascism here. Cheering on big government and ultimate statist control is not “conservative” and is anti-democratic.


Wake up it’s all about the Democrats afraid of losing control and being found out; that they been cheating and controlling citizens for their own personal gain!


Captain Harvey “Chaos” Ward and fellow Commissioners don’t have to pretend they are clueless and ignorant, that’s just how the roll. And Oh Yes New Governance will bring accountability to Gainesville. Hopefully the GRU County Customers will get a big discount and the GRU City Supporters can pay a higher rate sine they voted for it the last 2 decades. Maybe GRU County Customers can get their electric from Clay Co Op. Just think what the Schools could save???
Gainesville gets to reap what they have sown.


Don’t be so quick to blame the captive citizen customers of GRU, what you apparently call, “he GRU City Supporters” for the debacle Gainesville is now facing. While I tend to agree that long-time local politician, “Captain Harvey “Chaos” Ward,” along with other commissioners, is deceiving his constituents, your so-called “New Governance” is far, far from being any guarantee of accountability OR lower rates.
Many local citizens have opposed, or tried to oppose the local Democratic machine that has for years and years controlled the city commission. Between a mere three minutes to speak, and the all-to-typical action of listening then ignoring citizen’s voices, blaming the citizens of Gainesville is simply aiming at the wrong target. Perhaps you would care to be more specific regarding who are the “GRU City Supporters” you refer to…


That is very simple. This Bully City Commission Regime has been enabled by the City Voters ,beginning with Hanrahan, Monteocha Craig, Liddle Tommy Hawkins, Hinson Rauls , to name a few. They ran GRU on political agendas the last 2 decades right out of the Democratic Playbook. City Voters are just as responsible. The captive County GRU customers had no voice or vote. They have just been bent over by Gainesville with ridiculous rates and decisions, paying a surcharge all along. There is not any rational reasoning turning a Golden Goose into a bankrupt entity that needs to be saved and salvaged by someone much more qualified .Just look at the SOS Solar Ripoff Agreement they are trying to Ramm through, that will not go over well with the New Authority. Another ignorant reckless contract , justified by outright lies.


Although your right in one way; but the citizens of Gainesville has suffered too. So that’s not fair. What would be fair is to replace all of them. Put the person that actually won Mayorship in office.

Richard Parker

Who did actually win the mayor ship?


Only the state can address this and other inflationary issues created by gov’t and greedy municipal utilities.

Gabriel Hillel aka Gabe Kaimowitz

Once again, the City is blowing in the wind. The problem starts with the structure of GRU, that is, with about a third or more of it customers being outside of the City. The 2018 lawsuit brought only by former Democratic City Commissioners was a sham. The fact that there is a long-time employee, an unimaginative Tony Cunningham, as director doesn’t help, as is evident from the fact that he has nothing quotable to say. Certainly, this newspaper should be seeking input from former GRU Director Ed Bielarski. Ed is the most knowledgeable source. Further, no one seems to suggest to rational people why the external board is such a bad idea. But what makes this ongoing discussion so pathetic is that no one in the City seems to understand the relationship between a municipality and the state. Unlike the 67 counties, a city can be dissolved at any time, and some have been, although admittedly all were far les populace than Gainesville. Perhaps as significantly the Democrats invented a “partnership” under Mayor Lauren Poe. Certainly, if it truly exists, the City should be calling on and getting support from UF, UF Health, the Alachua County Commission, the Alachua County School Board, Santa Fe Community College and the Chamber of Commerce. Fortunately, all of this will come to a head before the end of this legislative session, when the State’s Republican juggernaut seem almost certainly to enact some legislation to change the direction of GRU forever. Despite being a lifelong Democrat, I at least would like to see what this experiment in governance will do, to lower our utility bills, if anything.

Edward Bielarski

I am here for anyone to contact.


Gainesville’s local Democratic political machine, in the form of our City Commission, has screwed the local captive citizen customers royally for many, many years, decades even. Years of repeated mismanagement, consistent failure to listen to their constituent’s critiques and complaints… And most especially the Biomass purchase in which then Mayor Lauren Poe, Commissioners; Harvey Budd, Helen Warren, Charles Gosten, David Arreola, Adrian Hayes-Santos, and guess who, Harvey Ward, made the decision to pay an exorbitant quarter of a million dollar profit margin to a consortium including US private investment firm Starwood Energy Group Global LLC for the Biomass Plant that cost 500 million to build. Where has that and subsequent behavior gotten the citizens today? GRU, now has $1.69 billion in debt and an 80% debt ratio!

And what does, to quote Juan in the comments, “Captain Harvey “Chaos” Ward” have to say? GRU customers “need to be able to come and talk to local representatives” when they have a problem with GRU operations. However, those “representatives” have long demonstrated the cliche that talk is cheap by, for all practical purposes, ignoring the complaints of their captive citizen customers.
Did a majority of the captive citizen customers vote to support taking on the massive debt incurred when the biomass plant was purchased at an astoundingly high price?!

Unfortunately, Gainesville citizens would likely be foolish to think supporting a Republican led takeover of GRU management is going to improve our circumstances anytime soon.

Personally, I’m angry and conflicted about this current fiasco, courtesy of the local Democratic party, “Captain Harvey “Chaos” Ward” and the City Commission, current and past. About the only positive action(s) I can come up with at the moment is, start looking at wind and solar generated energy, for those lucky few who can (some wind turbines are surprisingly affordable, relatively…); VOTE the turkeys out at the earliest opportunity, and, if you can afford the time, go to the city commission meetings, sign up for your three minutes, and make those %$#@$% listen. They won’t HEAR you, most of us know that; but you will feel a certain amount of emotional satisfaction for having done so…

Edward Bielarski

And most especially, the Biomass Buyout saved the city $1 billion in obligations that could not be broken. Three sets of attorneys confirmed the over $2 billion of PPA obligations were not to be abrogated. The buyout had nothing to do with the value of the plant – it had everything to do with the value of the debt. If you owed $50,000 in credit card debt for which you only had $10,000 of assets to show for it, would you settle for cleaning up the debt for $25,000? Of course you would. the assets were irrelevant. However, the Biomass ‘plant, once in our control was able to operate more efficiently. It was a win win.