Biomass, civility dominate discussion at Caucus forum

Debate was hosted by the Alachua County Democratic Black Caucus

Published: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 at 2:38 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 19, 2014 at 2:38 p.m.

The biomass contract, associated high electric rates and civility at Gainesville City Commission meetings dominated the questions and discussion at the Alachua County Democratic Black Caucus debate for commission candidates Monday night.

In the District 2 race, candidate Cheri Brodeur, a University of Florida faculty member, said that the City Commission office in 2009 overreached in approving a 30-year contract to purchase biomass. Brodeur said she believed the world and the energy market were too complex to project that far.

"You can't do things 10 years, 30 years like the biomass," she said. "I'm going to be long dead before that thing is finished."

Looking ahead, she said she would support an appointed board with utility expertise to govern Gainesville Regional Utilities. One caveat, she said, is that the governor's office should not have the authority to appoint members to oversee the local utility.

Incumbent Todd Chase said the city now sits with electric capacity well in excess of its needs and, in the case of biomass, cannot sell the power to another utility as it assumed when approving the contract. He said he felt the situation now has some "cheering against the natural gas revolution" in order to make biomass energy more competitive financially.

Chase said the work of bringing down rates would be difficult and complicated. He spoke of the need to stop putting upward pressure on rates and said the commission did take a step toward that by suspending the solar feed-in tariff program this year.

In response to an audience question from resident Elizabeth Washington, the two District 3 candidates and four at-large candidates each said the city had made missteps with the biomass contract.

District 3 incumbent Susan Bottcher said there were contract terms not in the best interest of the city. Still, Bottcher said the negotiations on the contract in 2008 and 2009 came when natural gas prices were at "an all-time high."

At-large candidate Annie Orlando, owner of Atlas Screen Printing, took issue with that, saying prices were on the decline by the time the contract was signed. A U.S. Energy Information Administration report showed natural gas prices spiked during 2008 and then began to decline into 2009.

District 3 candidate Craig Carter, the owner of a mobility company for the disabled, pressed Bottcher on what she had done to address issues with the contract since she came into office three years ago. The city, he said, did not need the biomass plant but "desired it" to make a name for itself in the area of renewable energy. Now electric customers are facing the consequences in the form of rate increases, he said.

In response to Carter's question, Bottcher said it is easy to argue the city should get out of the contract, but not simple to do it or renegotiate.

At-large candidate Helen Warren, an area Realtor, said there were issues with the costs the contract carries for the city and its customers but she felt the focus should be on addressing the future instead of "looking to find someone to blame."

At-large candidate Mark Venzke said he felt too much went on behind closed doors when it came to both the negotiations on the original contract and a change former GRU General Manager Bob Hunzinger approved in 2011 adding to the costs for GRU and its customers. Venzke said he supported moving GRU governance to an appointed board with utility expertise.

On the tone of discussion at City Commission meetings, at-large candidate Barbara Ruth said she feels commissioners are not the source of ill will.

"The acrimony that I speak of often comes from the audience at meetings," Ruth said.

Carter, Orlando and Venzke said they felt commissioners turned a deaf ear to members of the public who consistently brought concerns over issues such as biomass before them.

Orlando said she believed election to office had brought out "arrogance" in some commissioners over the past several years.

Bottcher said "civility is definitely a two-way street" and lengthy periods of general public comment have kept the commission from completing an agenda's business on some evenings.

Moderator Charles Goston mixed criticism of the commission majority, who are members of the county's Democratic Party, and their political supporters with his questions. At one point, he spoke of the "20 percent of the population who really control politics in Gainesville" and "will ostracize" any candidates who do not conform to the commission policies.

District 2 candidate Sheryl Eddie and at-large candidate Donald Shepherd did not attend the debate.

Christopher Curry is a Gainesville Sun staff writer.

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