On Friday, Mayor Harvey Ward will complete his 100th day in office alongside new commissioners Ed Book, Bryan Eastman and Casey Willits, and the Gainesville City Commission has tackled priority items in its initial stretch.
“This group of commissioners is doing good work and bringing good ideas to the table and learning
how to work together as a commission under some very difficult circumstances,” Ward said.
The new commission, which Ward called one of the least experienced in terms of time served on a dais but one of the most diverse, immediately took action on weighty items. Hours after swearing into office, the commission voted 4-3 to repeal the previous commission’s trio of ordinances that eliminated single-family zoning.
The commission also decided to begin a search process for permanent charter officers, but two weeks later, the commission reversed course, making five interim officers permanent. Ward applauded the action at the time, and on Friday, he said that action has added stability as the city faces unanticipated items.
“We're real lucky that we were able to get that done before all this stuff came raining down on us from the Legislature,” Ward said. “I’m real proud of this team.”
In February and March, a Florida Legislature bill and demands from the Joint Legislative Audit Committee have colored how the commission moves forward this year and could impact city structure moving forward.
The audit committee came first, focusing on 18 findings from an audit released at the start of 2022. The committee called Ward and city staff to Tallahassee and targeted Gainesville Regional Utilities’ (GRU) level of debt.
That meeting sparked action by the Gainesville commission along with a Tallahassee bill, sponsored by four of Alachua County’s five legislators. Rep. Chuck Clemons, R-District 21, filed the bill on Monday. The bill would take control of GRU away from the city commission and give it to an independent board elected by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
On Friday, before Clemons filed the bill, Ward said he doesn’t think the city will end at that point. The city commission has rallied resources to push against the bill.
Regardless, he said giving the permanent title also handed more weight to the city attorney and general manager to advocate and coordinate with Florida legislators. He said the staff up in the city’s financial department has also placed Gainesville in a more stable position than a year ago.
“By the time we're done with this year, these folks [the new commissioners] will have a whole lot more experience than their time and service would indicate,” Ward said.
While a dominating headline, Ward said other projects continue forward in Gainesville. Some days, he said the removal of a tree in downtown Gainesville garners more of his attention than Tallahassee.
Ward listed 15 priorities for the first 100 days and noted the projects wouldn’t finish until later. On Friday, he said the city has made good progress on many.
Within those 15 priorities, Ward listed a carry-over from the previous commission: reducing pedestrian and cyclist deaths to zero by 2026. The topic became an immediate concern after three deaths in January. The deaths prompted a joint resolution with the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners on Feb. 2 that declared a “traffic violence crisis.”
Ward said at the meeting that both governments must depend on the state for engineering changes along major corridors like University Avenue, 13th Street and 34th Street, but he said the two commissions can increase the education and enforcement components.
The commissions directed staff to coordinate with other stakeholders to craft an education campaign as engineering studies continue.
Action has even started on the engineering portion. Ward pointed to the Florida Department of Transportation installing a new traffic signal near UF along with pedestrian crosswalks by Fred Cone Park and GRACE Marketplace.
Several policy goals included renovating or imaging future uses for current city property—Boulware Springs, MLK Jr. Multipurpose Center/ Citizens Field complex, the Power District and Depot South.
Ward said those projects, along with others on his list, can continue despite pressure from Tallahassee and the city tightening its budget.
“I have tried over the years to, if I'm working on something that needs funding, make sure that it's an identified funding source that isn't the general fund,” Ward said.
The city expects a third-party analysis of the Citizens Field complex to return in the coming months. Ward said if it moves forward, that project would use a combination of Community Reinvestment Area funds, Wild Spaces Public Places (WSPP) funds and grants.
City staff conducted a community event for renovating Boulware Springs at the end of January, and the commission has already set aside $2 million for the project from WSPP.
On the Depot South property, the city commission voted 4-3 to continue exploring an unsolicited proposal that would redevelop the site just below Depot Park. If approved, the land would return to the tax roll and bring in profit.
UF’s Eastside Urgent Care Clinic will break ground on construction in May along with the city’s new bus terminal on the site. Ward said initial conversations have also started to draw a financial institution east of Waldo Road.
Gainesville commissioners have also voted in support of a 74.9-megawatt solar array to provide renewable energy to the city. The project has been in the works for several years and fits into Ward's priority of increasing solar energy—along with the city's net zero by 2045 goal.
“Our leadership team, not only the charters but our senior management underneath, is really doing tremendous work under adverse conditions,” Ward said.
He said the city will be stronger when JLAC officials revisit in the summer and fall, and Ward added: “It’s also a much harder job than I expected.”