GRU Authority fires Cunningham, installs Bielarski

Board member Craig Carter, right, speaks at Wednesday's Gainesville Regional Utilities Authority meeting with Chair Ed Bielarski, left.
Ed Bielarski will resume leadership of GRU just over two years after the Gainesville City Commission fired him.
Photo by Seth Johnson

The Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) Authority voted 4-1 to fire General Manager Tony Cunningham at Wednesday’s regular meeting, just 48 hours after voting to keep Cunningham on Monday. 

The motion was made by Board Member Craig Carter at the start of the meeting, and Board Member Eric Lawson was the only dissenting vote. 

Carter then proposed a follow-up motion asking Chair Ed Bielarski to resign and assume the position of interim general manager. Bielarski recused himself from the vote, which passed 4-0. 

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Bielarski will now step into the role of general manager just over two years after the Gainesville City Commission fired him in January 2022. Another vote authorized Lawson to replace Bielarski as chair of the GRU Authority. 

The transition periods overlapped as Cunningham, who has worked at GRU for 22 years, then presided over the rest of the meeting despite the vote to fire him. Bielarski still has to send his resignation and then negotiate Cunningham leaving the utility.  

GRU General Manager Tony Cunningham
Courtesy of city of Gainesville Tony Cunningham

Board members added that, if Bielarski and Cunningham reached an agreement, Cunningham could stay with GRU in another role.  

“Thanks for giving me that opportunity to share and to serve, and to be honest, I’m not sure if I’m supposed to come to work tomorrow or not,” Cunningham said after giving closing remarks for the meeting and his time at GRU. 

Bielarski replied that they’d talk on Thursday.  

Carter said he sought advice from pastors leading up to the meeting and told Cunningham about his plans earlier in the day. Carter said he filed the motion for Cunningham’s benefit, saying he shouldn’t have to continually question how long he’d have the position. 

Carter added that he also called the governor’s office to apologize for his heated comments at Monday’s meeting. 

Moving forward, the GRU Authority will only have four members, opening the possibility of deadlock votes like the previous board experienced. However, members noted that Gov. Ron DeSantis could appoint a new board member since he has a recent list of applications from April. 

Monday’s meeting proved contentious, especially between Carter and Bielarski and between Bielarski and GRU leadership. 

During the back and forth, Bielarski said conversation was over and that he would entertain a motion to fire Cunningham.  

Vice Chair David Haslam made the motion, but none of the board members seconded it. Bielarski, serving as chair, handed the gavel to Haslam, seconded the motion and then took the gavel back to continue as chair.  

The vote failed 2-3, with only Haslam and Bielarski in support.  

On Wednesday, the GRU Authority didn’t need such work-around measures to present and pass the motion.  

Board member Robert Skinner speaks at Wednesday's meeting.
Photo by Seth Johnson Board member Robert Skinner speaks at Wednesday’s meeting.

However, Haslam said that he had called Cunningham earlier on Wednesday to offer his full support since the Monday motion had failed. Haslam said he had planned to give his public support to Cunningham at the meeting before Carter presented the motion to fire.  

“I feel there is a divide coming in this utility; I feel we need to move forward,” Carter said.  

Carter said he would have preferred to conduct a search for a new general manager, which Cunningham could have participated in. But with the instability of GRU and continued political maneuverings, Carter said the recruitment firms he spoke with don’t believe the utility would get quality candidates.  

Carter said GRU needs an interim to push through the next year or more before conducting a search for a permanent general manager.  

On Monday, Carter questioned the independence of the GRU Authority, asking fellow members if the plan was simply to fulfill Tallahassee’s wishes.  

In May, State Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-Newberry, called on the new board to “make the hard decisions that will save our utility.” He included three actions: bring in a new general manager, not negotiate with the city, and focus decisions on helping GRU ratepayers. 

During Cunningham’s farewell at the end of the meeting, he and Carter both teared up with emotion.  

“You started crying first, so that was a little rough,” Cunningham said.  

Cunningham asked the GRU Authority to provide stability for the utility, calling it essential for employee retention. He also reminded the board that the utility’s work is not about any individual, nor is any budget the creation of a single person. 

He said utility workers often lack praise and recognition from the community. Cunningham said many times that praise comes from fellow employees in the middle of all the noise surrounding the utility.    

He said he had a strong opinion that locally owned and operated utilities are the best way to serve the community.  

“I think the reason is because you’re serving your family, you’re serving the hospital that your kids were born in, you’re serving friends,” Cunningham said. 

The next GRU Authority meeting is scheduled for June 26. 

Editor’s note: This is a developing story and will be updated.

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The Losers Are Going to Win

Yuk! Yuk! Yuk!
This is no surprise! All members, minus Mr. Haslem, are GNV CC tools! Great Governor DeSantis; fire your advisors and focus on Alachua County and Gainesville!

Jack

Sheesh.
Just let Clay Electric subsume GRU and give us all some much needed relief.
GRU employees would likely be better off as well.
Clay would need to get a handle on the non-electric utilities, but I’m betting they’re up for it.
Can’t be worse than the mess we’re in now.

Juan

Why would a more than solvent , smart Utility want GRU and the Gainesville Woke Voters? No one wants what the Gainesville City Commissioners have destroyed.

Jazzman

I’ve had service from both Clay and GRU and GRU is superior – fewer outages and quicker responses when out.

Bill Whitten

Carter’s question about who the Authority serves is fundamental. That he felt the need to call the governor and apologize for asking that pretty much gives you the answer. Until the law changes, the governor has sole control over who sits on that board. As customers, we have ZERO voice in any of this.

Juan

Your Voice Destroyed the GRU Cash Cow. Now where’s that 68 million you took from GRU?

Elaine

Just another dictator DeSantis move to take all local control away from the people and consolidate it in Tallahassee. Wake up folks

Kris Pagenkopf

Maybe Mack Sennett could produce short features based on this group….

The Buzz

This has been nothing but a cluster# since Clemons, and DeSantis have gotten involved with GRU, and it was bad enough previously.

Does anyone see any daylight at the end of this tunnel?

And, tears?
Please.

Ian Cox

The utility is catching the blame for City Government failure.
The city took every dime the utility made and borrowed more to cover endless programs and projects. They failed to be fiscally responsible while the utility was left broke and unable to upgrade even maintain current equipment. This board was meant to be an advocate for the utility and help keep the city at bay….. But it seems the opposite will occur. The utility will fall to pieces as the city continues to spend.

Jamed

The fost accurate statement here. The city operates like a five year old set loose in a candy store. DeSantis is the only thing between return to city delusional management and progress.

Robert Teller

What a cluster f**k, in the model of the current governor!

Juan

Wow, SOS . Gainesville Voters destroyed GRU and Created the monster. Now step aside, pay your massive , well deserved tax increases and let the Governor try to save GRU. You have proven inept and dishonesty can ruin and Golden Goose.

Thomas

“Bielarski still has to send his resignation and then negotiate Cunningham leaving the utility”. I think that should read “Bielarski still has to send his resignation and Eric Lawson has to negotiate Cunningham leaving the utility”.

West of I75

When you are $1.6 B in debt leadership (no superman is coming) is not going to pull a rabbit out of the hat so Clemmons and others need to stop kidding themselves. Ed has some out-there ideas(some good but some crazy) and unlike Tony, he is not a day-to-day manager who runs a steady ship so hold on to your hats. There are lots of good folks at GRU that will fill in the holes that type of leadership supplies but.

Jan sugalski

You can’t make this stuff up. Don’t worry, they have Lawson on the board who did a great job at North Florida Regional. Not.