The Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce is taking the lead in telling businesses’ stories to local government.
While many city and county commissioners welcome the input, some commissioners take issue with some of the activity.
The two sides of reaction were evident at the Aug.13 Gainesville City Commission meeting at which commissioners responded to questions from the chamber’s Energy Study Group.
In a relatively cordial meeting, the six city commissioners and Mayor Ed Braddy expounded on representative democracy and explained why they believe the city of Gainesville needs to continue to rely heavily on revenue from GRU to fund city services.
However, at least one commissioner, Thomas Hawkins, questioned the chamber’s involvement on the issue. Hawkins grilled Kamal Latham, the chamber’s vice president for public policy, about why the study group was engaged in what he called “secrecy.”
“I think that’s a poor way to develop policy,” Hawkins said.
“Both public and private dialogue can yield insight leading to effective public policy recommendations on energy,” said Chamber President and CEO Tim Giuliani in an interview with Business in the Heart of Florida. “The chamber held a public meeting and participated in a city commission workshop and a county commission special meeting on energy in addition to holding private deliberations,” added Giuliani.
The chamber will be very specific when it issues its energy report, providing considerable back-up material, Giuliani said, but careful deliberation on issues that impact business must be developed in an environment that is deliberative, inclusive and authentic.
Hawkins disagreed, saying he sees the Energy Study Group as having an agenda, which includes replacing the city commission with an appointed “authority” to govern GRU—one that would include appointees from outside the city limits.
“Suggesting that the commission no longer control an asset that the people of Gainesville own is a dire threat,” Hawkins said.
Through the study group process, chamber officials have emphasized that the group has no preconceived conclusions. They have pointed to the credibility of chairman, David Flagg, a former mayor and member of the state legislature, and vice chairman, David Denslow, a retired University of Florida economist.
Hawkins said the Energy Study Group’s public forum, held at Springhill Missionary Baptist Church, smacked of a political rally, with speakers calling for electing pro-business candidates.
This approach leads him to believe the city should discontinue its chamber membership, Hawkins said.
Giuliani welcomed Hawkins’ participation in the public forum and noted that a range of ideas on how to rethink the future of the utility came forward during the event.
“The Chamber sought – and received – insight on where we are and where we should be in terms of utility costs, utility governance and the utility’s general fund transfer to the city as a result of the open public meeting,” said Giuliani.
“Energy is an issue that affects everyone, from the homeowner to the shop owner,” Giuliani said. “Clearly, the issue of energy in Gainesville and Alachua County is something our members have told us they care about.”
Giuliani said the chamber plans to issue a thorough energy report, just as it did when it presented an in-depth report on Alachua County’s transportation needs in December.
The chamber released the transportation report because it realized the community has significant transportation needs, Giuliani said. “We want to promote a collaborative approach to transportation, and we even agreed to consider advocating a one-cent tax to fund it, something that most chambers don’t do,” Giuliani said.
The chamber’s increased role in public policy issues is important, Giuliani said. “The elected officials want to help the community and give people more opportunities,” he said.
“We’re promoting collaboration and helping to tell the business community’s perspective. You can’t have a healthy community if the business sector is struggling to remain competitive.”