New Utility Board Consists of Former GRU General Manager, Former Board Members, and Terminated City Spokesperson

New Utility Board Consists of Former GRU General Manager, Former Board Members, and Terminated City Spokesperson
From Left to Right. General Manager Tony Cunningham, Member Robert "Chip" Skinner, Chair Ed Bielarski, Member Craig Carter, Member Eric Lawson, Vice Chair David Haslam, legal counsel Kiersten Ballou

Editors Notes | The General Funds Transfer’s (GFT) terminology was changed last year to the Government Services Contribution (GSC). The terms are generally used synonymously at GRU Authority meetings and refer to the same transfer. The transfer has been referred to as the GFT in this article for simplicity.

Last Thursday, the new iteration of the Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) Authority board met for the first time.

The members include former GRU general manager Ed Bielarski, former chair of the previous iteration of the GRU Authority Craig Carter, former member of the previous iteration of the GRU Authority Eric Lawson, Campus Scooters owner David Haslam, and former Gainesville city spokesperson Robert "Chip" Skinner, who was forced to resign after printing pornography from a work computer.

An investigation by the Gainesville Sun found that Skinner was forced to resign as the Gainesville city spokesperson in 2019 after printing a document from a work computer which contained a website used for finding swingers for sex meet-ups. The Sun additionally reported that an employee citation shows that Skinner was disciplined in 2016 when working for Gainesville’s Regional Transit System (RTS) for making racially charged comments about a Cuban co-worker. Skinner told the Sun it was “locker room talk” and that the illicit reason for his forced resignation as a city spokesperson wouldn't come into play because he’s “fiscally conservative.” 

All of the members swore they were qualified to hold office, that they would uphold the constitution of the U.S. and Florida, and that they would faithfully perform the duties of GRU Authority members. 

Following the oath, Bielarski and Haslam were unanimously agreed to be the respective chair and vice chair of the board. 

After being selected as chair, Bielarski made a motion to add chair comments to the agenda, which would give him time to make comments at the start of every meeting. The motion was passed unanimously.

Bielarski was previously fired as the GRU general manager (GM) in the summer of 2022. His firing was in-part due to GRU failing to make a finalist list being made by the University of Florida to decide which utility would develop a plant to supply the college with power. Bielarski said he purposely pulled back on the deal because the rates weren’t locked in and he feared a permanent increase. After being fired, he ran and lost to Mayor Harvey Ward in the previous mayoral election.

During chair comments, Bielarski gave a presentation titled “How the City Lost Control.” 

During the presentation, Bielarski acknowledged GRU’s 30-year $2.4 billion biomass plant contract in 2009, which has cost the utility $76 million a year and contributed to GRU’s $1.7 billion in debt. He said that when he was hired as GRU’s GM in 2015, one of his goals was to “get out of the biomass contract.” 

Screenshot from Bielarski's presentation

Bielarski made it clear that he is in opposition to the general funds transfer (GFT). His presentation states, “The GFT can no longer sweep necessary resources from the utility."

Screenshot from Bielarski's presentation

The GFT’s proposed elimination has been criticized at previous GRU board meetings by several public commenters due to the budget cuts it would implore for many city-based services such as police, fire and public transportation. Some public commenters said it wouldn’t decrease Gainesville ratepayer’s overall costs due to possible subsidies that may be put in place by the City of Gainesville in response if the GFT were to be eliminated.

During public comment, GRU customer Debbie Martinez said the board is sitting because of the 2009 biomass plant contract and the actions of previous and current Gainesville city commissioners. “GRU customers tried to reason with the city commissioners for over 15 years to no avail. We tried everything; we had no choice but to go to Tallahassee for help. After 2019, when Lauren Poe was elected mayor, the city commission went on a 5+ year hiring and spending spree on the backs of GRU customers…. The current city commission majority has failed to make any significant cuts to their massive staff, lavish salaries, and bloated budgets…. You will probably hear citizens tell you that all municipal utilities in Florida have GFTs in their city. What they do not say is that no other city in Florida has abused that privilege like the Gainesville City Commission.”

Gainesville resident Kali Blount agreed with Martinez’s sentiments but raised questions about the authority's commitment to citizens before jokingly calling out Governor Ron DeSantis’ appointments. “I have to have some doubts about management into the future by a body that is even less accountable to the citizens. Can you voluntarily show responsiveness to the citizens that the elected people snubbed? [That] sounds like a noble calling. I hope you guys are noble. I will also salute the governor's success in reaching to an infinite pool of upper- to middle-class conservative white males to staff this [board] a second time.” 

Gainesville resident Ernesto Martinez summarized a memo to the board from Chuck Clemons, the Florida House representative who brought forward House Bill 1645, which established the GRU Authority. “This new board has three projects: Number one is to bring in a new qualifying general manager. Number two: do not negotiate with the city. Number three is to focus your decisions on helping GRU ratepayers.” 

After hearing a presentation on ethics, Member Skinner made a motion that would require any meeting between GRU Authority members and city officials to be public. Carter and Bielarski said they respected the idea but did not voice support for the motion. It did not receive a second. 


Skinner's motion

Following member comments, the meeting was adjourned.


Clip from member comments

The GRU Authority will meet again this afternoon at the GRU headquarters building (301 SE 4th Ave) at 5:30 pm.



Jack Walden

Jack Walden

Jack Walden is the creator of Gnvinfo and a 2nd year journalism major at Santa Fe College. From general information, to exposing falsehoods and corruption, Jack seeks to deliver the truth.
Gainesville, FL