Gainesville talks 'divesting' away from fossil fuels, banks


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“We have a lot of work and a long way to go on this, but I do think it’s a path worth going down,” Mayor Lauren Poe said.

More than 20 local activists showed up to City Hall Thursday to ask commissioners to move away from fossil fuels and stop doing business with banks that invest in pipelines.

The group, Divest Gainesville, is a community group dedicated to raising public awareness for climate change issues and wants the city of Gainesville to be more aware of who it does business with, according to its website.

Group leaders previously emailed city officials a number of requests. Among the requests were: ending a contract for banking services through Suntrust; to no longer use Bank of America for city-issued credit cards; and to pass both a “socially responsible” investment and purchasing ordinance.

City commissioners largely supported the movement, including Mayor Lauren Poe, though they said the details on how to “divest” were still unclear and likely years away from occuring. Commissioner Charles Goston was absent from the discussion.

“We have a lot of work and a long way to go on this, but I do think it’s a path worth going down,” Poe said.

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The main concern for commissioners, however, was the some $350 million the city has wrapped up in pension benefits for its employees. City Attorney Nicolle Shalley told commissioners, acting as the general policy committee, that it was their legal responsibility to put those pensions first when making such decisions.

Poe said he felt the commission could be socially responsible, while still protecting employee pensions, but said that the information-gathering process would take at least a year at minimum. He said the pensions would come as a top priority and would not support “divesting” if it had a negative impact on those benefits.

City Manager Anthony Lyons told the commission it would first need to define what being socially responsible means for staff to conduct proper research and noted difficulties that would likely pop up along the way.

Most national and regional banks provided funds for the 1,100-mile Dakota Access/Bakken pipeline, the 515-mile Sabal Trail Transmission pipeline, which runs from Alabama through Central Florida, or some other pipeline in the country. The city's utility, Gainesville Regional Utilities, also uses coal and natural gas for some of its plants. GRU is currently exploring other alternatives for energy, such as solar power and using yard debris to fuel its biomass plant.

Divest Gainesville also requested the city not do business with private prisons, even though it currently doesn’t.

City officials said it would be difficult to find a suitable alternative bank that could provide the level of service the city requires and that there are a scarcity of alternates that could supply employee credit cards.

Commissioner Harvey Ward said, although difficult, the task isn’t impossible.

“This is the beginning to a long process...” he said. “I believe that there’s a path that gets us out of harmful investments, that might be profitable, but also are demonstrably harmful.”