Gainesville loses power struggle with governor over utility control

by | Oct 2, 2023

  • A Leon County judge ruled in favor of Florida state officials in Gainesville’s lawsuit over the transfer of utility control from the city to a governor-appointed board.
  • The city’s claims were dismissed with the judge citing the lack of standing to sue top state officials.
  • The judge said the city’s concerns should be directed to the governor-appointed board, not the court.
  • The case dealt in part with questions over taxation without representation, as Gainesville utility revenue was used for city projects even though rural customers paid into the utility but didn’t have a vote on city matters.

In a case that ignited debates about taxation without representation, a Leon County circuit judge ruled in favor of Florida state officials, effectively dismissing the city of Gainesville’s lawsuit against a new state law. The law transfers control of Gainesville Regional Utilities from the city to a governor-appointed board, a move aimed at addressing concerns that the city was using utility revenue generated partly from rural areas to fund city-only projects. Those rural customers have no voting power in city elections, raising questions about fair representation.

Judge Angela Dempsey issued a 29-page decision, siding with Governor Ron DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody, and Secretary of State Cord Byrd. She stated that the city did not have the standing to sue the state’s top officials. The ruling could be a pivotal moment in the ongoing tension between state and local powers over utility management and local home rule.

Before the enactment of the new state law, Gainesville Regional Utilities was governed by the city commission and offered various services like electricity, natural gas, telecommunications, water, and sewerage. However, the newly formed Gainesville Regional Utilities Authority will now oversee these services, with its board members selected by the governor.

The lawsuit had been initiated by the city, claiming that the new law could unconstitutionally interfere with existing bonds and contracts. Despite these concerns, Dempsey’s ruling dismissed the claims. She noted that the responsibility for implementing the new law falls not on the governor or the attorney general but on the newly established utility authority.

The legislative change, which was more narrowly focused on Gainesville after initial discussions of a broader application, came after repeated queries from Republican lawmakers. They questioned the ethics of the city using utility revenues to supplement city budgets, particularly when a significant portion of the utility’s customer base resides outside city limits and can’t vote on city matters.

The outcome of this case could have implications not only for the governance of utilities in Gainesville but may also set a precedent affecting municipal utility services and citizens’ rights across the state.


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