City Commission approves biomass settlement
Published: Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 10:43 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 20, 2012 at 10:43 p.m.
A lengthy meeting dedicated to the issue of the biomass contract looms for the City Commission in early January 2013.
Thursday evening, commissioners voted 4-3 to accept a settlement agreement ending the lawsuit that the anti-biomass group Gainesville Citizens CARE filed over the 30-year contract to purchase power from the plant.
As part of the settlement, the City Commission will hold a televised workshop dedicated to the issue of the biomass contract and plant, allowing Gainesville Citizens CARE a minimum of four hours to make a presentation.
Commissioners scheduled the meeting for 4 p.m. Jan. 9.
The lawsuit alleged that contract talks on the biomass plant violated the Sunshine Law and that the contract should therefore be declared null and void.
The crux of the allegation was that the Gainesville Regional Utilities staff team which GRU General Manager Bob Hunzinger assembled to negotiate the proposed terms of the contract served as an advisory board and its meetings should therefore have been noticed and open to the public.
The City Commission approved the contract in May 2009. But some terms, including the cost to purchase power, remained redacted until 2011, when the Gainesville Renewable Energy Center, the company behind the biomass plant, settled a prior lawsuit challenging the plant's permits.
Like that settlement, the portion of Gainesville Citizens CARE's settlement agreement with GREC, including any financial compensation, is confidential.
While voting to approve the settlement, Commissioner Thomas Hawkins argued that was a double standard. He said the lawsuit, on its surface, fights for transparency in government, but "obviously that's not what it's about," if the settlement terms with GREC are secret.
Marcy LaHart, the attorney representing Gainesville Citizens CARE, said GREC requested the confidentiality.
"Let me make it 100 percent clear that there is nothing confidential at the behest of my clients," LaHart said.
David Dee, the attorney representing GREC, said one requirement of the settlement is a donation from GREC to a civic organization that Gainesville Citizens CARE selects.
Hawkins, Todd Chase, Lauren Poe and Randy Wells voted to accept the settlement, while Mayor Craig Lowe, Susan Bottcher and Yvonne Hinson-Rawls opposed it.
The settlement notes that the city continues to dispute the allegations and admits no wrongdoing.
Hawkins and Poe both said they felt there was no Sunshine Law violation, but they accepted the settlement to avoid the uncertainty of a court case and to no longer have litigation hanging out there.
Poe said he did not feel the meeting required in the settlement was "appropriate" or did anything to address the allegations in the suit. But it was time to "move on with our lives," he said.
Lowe, who blasted the settlement in an email Wednesday that described the upcoming meeting as a "circus," said there was no guarantee more biomass opponents would not come forward with another suit. Hinson-Rawls said the "more we roll over like a dog" by settling, the more it will encourage more lawsuits.
Bottcher said the biomass issue had been vetted publicly for years. She pointed to more than three dozen meetings over the years and specifically noted the Regional Utilities Committee meeting of October 2011 to update projected rate impacts and a lengthy County Commission meeting this fall.
LaHart then countered that there had been no public meetings dedicated to addressing the issue that her clients were focused on -- the "drastic" changes between the initial proposal that commissioners accepted in 2008 and the contract that received final approval in 2009.
On behalf of GREC, Dee pushed for the settlement. He said it would allow a public forum to fully air questions and concerns over the contract, with a GREC representative on hand to answer questions. It would also avoid the uncertainty of litigation, keep staff from being tied up in a court case on taxpayer time and cut down on legal expenses.
He estimated GREC would have paid $80,000 to $100,000 if the case went through trial and appeal.
Through October, the city had paid the Jacksonville law firm of Akerman Senterfitt approximately $36,300 for legal representation on the case, according to records from the City Attorney's Office.
The city had sought reimbursement for legal fees if it prevailed at trial.