Commission has initial vote on a new style GRU board
Published: Friday, March 21, 2014 at 4:16 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 21, 2014 at 4:16 p.m.
With state Rep. Keith Perry’s bill on Gainesville Regional Utilities governance hanging out there in Tallahassee, the City Commission has floated its first version of a new GRU board.
Late Thursday night, commissioners voted unanimously to move ahead with a proposal that they said would serve as a “framework” or “outline” for a utility board when talks continue at an April 1 workshop.
Proffered by Commissioner Lauren Poe, the proposal that advanced calls for a nine-member board, made up of five city commissioners and four members who the City Commission would appoint.
While called a governing board, this board would, under the current proposal, have no decision-making authority over setting rates, issuing bonds and borrowing, the amount of the general fund transfer, utility surcharges on customers in the unincorporated county or any change in ownership. Those powers would remain with the City Commission.
“Those are critical components of the oversight of the utility, and I firmly believe that the utility, as an asset of the city of Gainesville, needs to have those things under the control of the officials who are the duly elected representatives of the city of Gainesville,” Poe said in an interview Friday.
He said he also was pursuing changes the commission could enact via ordinance instead of changing the city charter, a process that would require a six-sevenths vote of the commission and then approval in a voter referendum.
At Thursday’s meeting, Commissioner Todd Chase questioned what substantial authority this board would actually have.
“What does this board do?” he asked. “Do they pass utility easements for construction projects?”
In the end, Chase voted with the rest of the commission after commissioners said Thursday’s action did not preclude looking at other options at upcoming meetings.
He said he supported consideration of a change in governance but opposed Poe’s proposal because it included a board composed entirely of city commissioners and members appointed by the City Commission, with no involvement of the County Commission.
Chase also objected to the fact that, under the current proposal, no members would need prior utility experience.
In response to the criticism and questions, Poe said his proposal was “a starting point, a framework.”
The commission is mulling a change in governance after Perry, Gainesville’s Republican state representative, filed a bill that would require a proxy vote of all account holders on moving the utility out from under the authority of the City Commission to a new, appointed utility board. That bill has been assigned to multiple committees but has not yet been heard.
Perry has said he’s mulling the bill after constituent complaints over high electric rates and the fact that about 30 percent of GRU customers are outside the city limits and cannot vote for city commissioners.
The Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce also has pressed for a change in governance, citing high electric rates as a potential impediment to economic development.
Perry’s bill has been a point of contention over both the process of the proxy vote and the fact that the governor would appoint three members of the local utility board.
By giving one vote for each account, the process would allow some businesses to have hundreds of votes — or more than 3,100 in the case of Paradigm Properties Inc., the company of student apartment developer Nathan Collier. On the other hand, registered city voters who do not have their household utility accounts in their names would not have any vote.
In an interview Friday, Perry said he still is working to get the bill heard in committee and has not heard definite word yet on when or if that might happen.
In committee, Perry said he plans to amend the bill to model the governing board the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce put forth in its recommendation. That would mean the governor no longer appoints any members.
The Chamber proposal recommended a nine-member board, with the Gainesville mayor and another commissioner serving. A GRU executive, a member of the Gainesville Energy Advisory Committee, a representative from an area business and a utility expert would round out the city’s appointees.
Three county members in the Chamber’s recommendation would include a county commissioner, a business representative and a utility expert.
Under the proposal that Poe put forth, the mayor, the commissioner serving as mayor pro-tempore, the two at-large city commissioners and the single-member district commissioner in office the longest would be on the utility board. The City Commission would appoint three GRU customers who live in the unincorporated county and a GRU customer who lives anywhere in the utility’s service area.
On Thursday night, Kamal Latham, the Chamber’s vice president of public policy, said the business organization felt Poe’s proposal was a good first step. But Latham said the Chamber feels an “effective board should have full authority over utility affairs and financial affairs” except for the power to sell the utility.
Resident Mark Venzke, a three-time candidate for city office, said he felt the proposal was “very much keeping control of utility under the City Commission and not sharing the power.”
Chase questioned if the commission was pushing ahead with something just to get Perry to back off in Tallahassee. He said the city’s lobbyist had instructed him to take that course of action. But Chase said he did not think the bill would pass this session and believed the proxy vote process made “zero sense” and might not pass legal muster.
On the other hand, Poe and Commissioner Susan Bottcher said the commission should feel pressure to act to stop the bill in Tallahassee. Bottcher said she is “not willing to call the legislators’ bluff” and that Tallahassee had a track record of passing “real bad legislation.” She specifically pointed to the “stand your ground” law and the law requiring an ultrasound before a woman can have an abortion.
Discussion of GRU issues dominated much of Thursday evening. During public comment, the Alachua County Branch NAACP and the Action Network, a nonprofit organization of several local religious congregations, submitted a joint petition to “demand” lower electric rates.
Esther Wallace, with the Action Network, said rate increases associated with the biomass plant had made electric bills burdensome for the poor and working class.