The Gainesville City Commission fired Ed Bielarski, general manager of Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU), at its General Policy Committee on Thursday in an unplanned motion by Commissioner Harvey Ward.
In a 4-2 vote, with Commissioners Desmon Duncan-Walker and David Arreola in dissent, the commission immediately terminated Bielarski and selected Anthony Cunningham, GRU’s officer over water and wastewater, to take over the role as interim general manager after negotiations.
At the beginning of the meeting, Ward asked that commissioner comment to be moved to the front of the meeting.
He proposed a motion to fire Bielarski because of three project failures, a lack of followup reporting accountability process and future opportunities before the commission.
Commissioner Reina Saco seconded the motion.
Ward said he had no doubts on Bielarski’s character, passion, intelligence or work ethic, and he credited Bielarski with saving the city $900 million in 2017 on the Deerhaven Renewable Energy Center.
But GRU has had three large project failures since then, and Ward said the city needs more successes in order to meet its renewable energy goals by 2045.
The projects Ward referred to were the partnership with Florida Power and Light Company in 2019, the planned 50-megawatt solar farm in Archer and the recent UF gas plant proposal in which GRU ranked last.
“It is completely acceptable to swing big, and I encourage it,” Ward said. “But if we swing and miss, we cannot pretend we were never up to bat and quietly move on to the next game.”
Ward said GRU had lacked transparency with the community on these projects and follow up to the commission.
“In each of these I had hoped we would achieve closure and a full and timely report would be made to the commission so that we could in turn report to the people of our city. In none of the three cases did that turn out to be the case,” Ward said.
He added that the Florida Auditor General had told the Gainesville commission that it needed to maintain better management oversight. New management on the general government side will, Ward said, allow more integration between the general government and GRU, creating a one city approach.
Duncan-Walker said she thought a regular meeting would be the proper venue for the conversation and questioned whether the commission could take such action at a general policy committee.
Interim City Attorney Daniel Nee said the commission could take the step according to the city rules.
“It is a meeting of the body and as such the body can act in that capacity,” Nee said, outlining the three actions the commission could not take.
Duncan-Walker asked that the issue be moved to the regular commission meeting, but Ward declined to reschedule.
He said the public knew about the meeting and that all GRU employees received an email Thursday morning that the topic would be brought up.
“I hear you, I absolutely do,” Ward said. “But there’s been a lot of chatter. This is not new or different.”
Duncan-Walker added that Bielarski had met the commission’s goals set in September when the commission last discussed Bielarski’s termination. Duncan-Walker said he had emailed the commission to clearly establish the goals and then how they had been met.
“I get really concerned when we as a body give direction to our staff, and they meet the benchmarks, and then we turn around and we say ‘Well, that’s not good enough’,” Duncan-Walker said.
Arreola also said he would not support the motion and highlighted that Cynthia Chestnut, who will join the commission in February after winning a special election on Tuesday, wouldn’t be able to vote on the issue.
Mayor Lauren Poe said Bielarski was the right person for Gainesville when he started but that he is now not the right person, questioning his management style and ability to work collaboratively with the commission and other charter officers.
“I think that [Bielarski] will be a great fit and great hire at any number of utilities around this country,” Poe said. “I will give him an excellent recommendation. I just don’t feel, and haven’t for some time, that he is the right fit for Gainesville right now and as we move forward.”
Poe added that he wished the commission had fired Bielarski in September instead of waiting so the process of moving forward would be underway.
Commissioner-elect Chestnut also spoke during public comment. She said the commission should move the meeting to a regular meeting to allow public input.
“If you’re going to fire someone, face the people,” Chestnut said.
She called the UF gas plant a “very impossible task” to begin with given GRU’s debt rating and said the sudden nature of the motion excluded the public.
“Today, to spring this on us, I think is unfortunate and is not fair to the citizens,” Chestnut said. “It’s not fair to the employees.”
In September, GRU employees came out in mass support of Bielarski, but given the short notice and working hours, Chestnut said they won’t have a chance to speak.
Lastly, Chestnut worried what kind of employees the city will attract with the recent turmoil.
“Gainesville’s name is just being dragged through the mud,” Chestnut said. “We are becoming known as the city that is an interim. We are an interim city because all we have is interim employees.”
Bielarski spoke before the vote and said he has left the utility better off than when he arrived. He provided slight counterpoints on two of the projects Ward mentioned but said he didn’t want to dive into details.
He did warn the commission of how its steps affect employees.
“I will tell you that the actions you’re taking are scaring the living boots off employees,” Bielarski said.
He added that the general government side and GRU have hundreds of touchpoints and work in close relation. A relationship that he said has been growing.
“Today was supposed to be a day for general policy when we were going to demonstrate how the city has come together between the new city manager and myself,” Bielarski said.
The commission then voted to terminate with Ward clarifying that they would terminate not for cause.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated.