(The Center Square) — The Joint Legislative Auditing Committee met this week to follow up on an operational audit conducted by the Florida Auditor General to investigate potential sunshine law violations by the city of Gainesville.
The primary concern for the committee at a previous meeting held in Feb. 2023 was the debt the city has accrued, $1.7 billion, related to the Gainesville Regional Utilities.
Committee members were also concerned about certain transfers from the city’s utilities to the city’s general fund.
After Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law House Bill 1645 in June, the utility’s five-member board is now appointed by the governor and while the law says it operates a unit of city government, it also says the authority “is free from direction and control of the Gainesville City Commission.”
Committee Chair Rep. Mike Caruso, R-Boca Raton, stated that the transfers appeared to be based on the needs and wants of the city commission.
Derek Noonan, the Audit Manager of Local Government Reviews and Special Audits for the Florida Auditor General’s office, presented a follow-up report to the audit released in Jan. 2022.
Issues with the city’s debt weren’t the only problems found by auditors.
Noonan stated that the auditor general’s office had recommended more oversight and transparency for the city’s relationships with nonprofit organizations, namely Reichert House Youth Academy for at-risk youth.
The auditor general had found that the city did not effectively oversee or control the youth academy program operations, and Noonan stated the auditor general’s review of a previous youth academy audit showed some payments made to the nonprofit from the city weren’t obvious in why they had been made.
According to Committee Vice Chair Jason Pizzo, D-Hollywood, the nonprofit spends approximately $20,000 per client per year, over twice the amount spent per student in the public school system.
Noonan pointed out that instead of adding more oversight and transparency, the city severed ties with the organization and is no longer involved in its operations or funding. This also raised concerns for committee members.
Gainesville Mayor Harvey Ward stated that the city has done everything to reduce debt, including letting go of over 100 staff members, while several other officials had taken pay cuts.
Regarding the youth academy and lack of transparency, Ward noted that the payments were “between nonprofits that had been supportive of Reichert House but not payments to the City… We cannot compel nonprofits to give money to each other, or receive funds, to produce records that simply don’t exist,” Ward said.
Rep. Peggy Gossett-Seidman, R-Highland Beach, stated that she believes there have been violations of the Sunshine Law and filed a motion for the auditor general to conduct another analysis. The motion was adopted 6-4.