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Leon County Judge Angela Dempsey on Friday sided with the state and upheld legislation that removes the city’s sole control of Gainesville Regional Utilities.
The judge’s ruling appeared to be made largely on technicalities. She ruled the lawsuit improperly named Attorney General Ashely Moody, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Secretary of State Cord Byrd as defendants.
The ruling clears the way for a board appointed last week by DeSantis to manage the utility. The judge ruled against the city’s objections to a law signed by DeSantis in June that mandated the new management structure.
On Tuesday, DeSantis revealed three of the five new members to take seats, with the last two to be announced later in the year. The newly appointed GRU Authority members took charge of the utility’s operations on Oct. 1.
The first three Republican appointees are:
- James Coats IV, 50, of Gainesville, chief executive of Phalanx Defense Systems, which sells body armor holsters and other weapons.
- Robert Karow, 78, of Gainesville, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel.
- Christopher Eric Lawson, 56, of Gainesville, the chief executive of HCA North Florida Regional Hospital.
The new GRU Authority is already issuing bonds and setting rates for more than 93,000 GRU consumers.
The legislation approved by the 2023 legislature was sponsored by Florida Sen. Keith Perry and Florida Rep. Chuck Clemons.
They created the legislation, asserting that Gainesville was mismanaging the utility and had buried it in debt.
GRU currently has a debt of about $1.7 billion. In 2022, the city had the highest residential electricity rates in the state. During the city’s last week of ownership, it raised them another 3%.
Clemons said the Gainesville City Commission used GRU to provide benefits to the city’s programs and avoid city debt while sacrificing the quality of the utility.
Leatrice Bell, 65, a GRU customer, said she felt as if she was being robbed as a taxpayer while the utility was controlled by the city. But she said she was not too excited about the board being appointed and wished it was more democratic.
“If they’re not using the money right, guess what happens, the rate increases,” Bell said. “They’re misusing the money and if the state does the same thing, it’s a hard thing to fix. Every year the rate goes up, up, up and it shouldn’t be if it ain’t used right.”
Bell said the new board should have been elected, objecting to the state taking control.
“I think we can run our own power source instead of the state coming in and telling us what to do,” she said.
Hannah Roland, 21, is a homeowner in Gainesville, originally from Newberry. When she learned of the lawsuit made against the state, and how the judge sided, she said that she felt happy about the news.
“I am really excited that someone is looking out for us,” Roland said. “I don’t think GRU was necessarily bad under the city’s rule, but it wasn’t amazing either.”
Newberry Mayor Jordan Marlowe, speaking before Friday’s decision, said the decision denies Gainesville its rightful ownership.
“If the city of Gainesville wants to run their thing, it is no one’s right to deprive them of that,” Marlowe said.