Judge weighs the legality of a Florida law that overhauls Gainesville’s public utility

Gainesville, Florida. By Sean Pavone via iStock for WMNF News.

A Leon County circuit judge heard arguments Friday in a challenge by the city of Gainesville to a new state law overhauling control of the Gainesville municipal utility.

Judge Angela Dempsey held a hearing on competing motions by the city and the state for summary judgment in the case filed in July.

The law, approved this spring by the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis, created the Gainesville Regional Utilities Authority to direct the utility system, known as Gainesville Regional Utilities.

In the past, the city commission has governed the utility, which provides electric, natural gas, telecommunications, water and sewer services.

DeSantis will appoint the board of the new authority, which, under the law, would operate as a “unit of city government.”

The lawsuit, which names as defendants DeSantis, Attorney General Ashley Moody and Secretary of State Cord Byrd, raises a series of issues, including alleging that the law unconstitutionally violates terms of already-issued bonds and contracts.

But the state’s attorneys countered with arguments that included saying DeSantis, Moody and Byrd are not proper defendants.

“There just doesn’t seem to be a justiciable controversy against anyone,” Ashley Davis, an attorney for Byrd, said during Friday’s hearing.

Dempsey did not issue a ruling.

At one point, she asked Cindy Laquidara, an attorney for the city, whether lawmakers could have created the utility authority in a different way, such as making it separate from the city.

“There are paths for them to follow,” Laquidara said. “But not this one.”

The overhaul emerged this spring after Republican lawmakers repeatedly questioned transfers of money from municipal utilities to bolster city budgets.

Those questions stemmed, at least in part, from many utility customers living outside the boundaries of the cities.

The House considered a bill that would have applied to municipal utilities throughout the state, but lawmakers ultimately passed the narrower measure focused on Gainesville.

©2023 The News Service of Florida

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