GRU chief selection draws critics

Published: Wednesday, January 17, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 16, 2007 at 11:46 p.m.

A pool of three finalists applying to be Gainesville Regional Utilities' next general manager has worried some who have been critical of the municipal utility's commitment to energy efficiency and conservation measures.

The three applicants are slated to arrive to begin two days of public and private interviews with Gainesville city commissioners on Friday, and a vote for the next general manager may come as early as this weekend.

But with commissioners selecting from what some called a small list of finalists, those worried about global warming fear the utility might not get the leadership they say is necessary to meet the challenges of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

"Only a handful of municipal utilities are doing it right," said Dian Deevy, who has long been critical of GRU's energy policies. "We want someone who will give us a jump-start to move us five or 10 years ahead."

The pool of candidates had some members of the Gainesville Energy Advisory Committee criticizing the process at a meeting Tuesday night. The committee, responsible for advising the City Commission on power issues, voted to ask commissioners to restart the process if they were not convinced they had found the right person for the job.

Concerns from the committee ranged from critiques of the "mediocre" candidates to fears that the position had not been properly advertised.

"This is not anything like what people were expecting we would be looking at for the regional utilities manager," committee Chairman Rob Brinkman said this weekend. "At the risk of bringing out an old, tired line, Gainesville deserves better."

The GRU general manager, the municipal utility's highest position, has been described by some as the most powerful nonelected official in city government. The office — which reports directly to the City Commission and is on par with the city manager in authority — is responsible for issuing recommendations on utility rates, financial strategies and technical issues to elected officials.

Many consider this particularly important since the city is in the midst of discussions about its future energy needs and is working out whether those needs can be met through conservation and renewable energy or if they will require the use of fossil fuels to keep rates affordable.

Officials with Mycoff and Associates, the Colorado-based firm the commission hired in July to find a new general manager, narrowed the list to three finalists:

· Sanford Novick, general manager and chief executive officer for Lansing Board of Water and Light, has been involved with energy conservation and resource planning efforts for that utility.

· Andy Ramirez, now El Paso Electric Company's vice president of power generation, has experience with conservation efforts and has served as an executive in power production for Austin Energy, considered to be a model utility by some commissioners.

· David Richardson, GRU's assistant general manager for water and wastewater systems, has worked for the utility for 20 years.

Two other finalists have dropped out in the past month, and a list of four second-tier candidates supplied to commissioners includes one current and one former GRU employee.

The candidates are vying for the position left vacant by former General Manager Mike Kurtz last spring, who resigned under fire from commissioners who opposed his plans for a new coal-fired power plant.

Gainesville Mayor Pegeen Hanrahan said last week the general manager search was no different than other searches for high-ranking city officials she'd been involved in. She said the pool of applicants was strong and advised critics to wait and see the candidates before judging them, though she expressed concern when one candidate dropped out last week.

City Commissioner Jack Donovan has asked commissioners to consider scrapping the process and starting a new search based on the high salaries sought by some applicants. The two out-of-town finalists are each asking for salaries that could extend to $250,000 or higher for the position, and e-mails from Mycoff officials stated that promising candidates had dropped out when learning the prospective salary might be less than that.

"We've ended up with two very expensive candidates and if we end up deciding they're not affordable we'll be left with one candidate," Donovan said. "If there's anything I've advocated here on the commission it's that when it comes to making decisions we ought to have choices to chose from."

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