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A representative of NextEra/Gulf Power has asked the Monticello-Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce to set up meetings between a company spokesperson and citizens interested in learning more about the high-voltage transmission line.
Meanwhile, the attorney hired by the Jefferson County Commission to negotiate on its behalf with NextEra reports that he continues his efforts at negotiations, all the while that he and a group of other attorneys are exploring the possibility of filing a suit against the energy company in federal court.
Chamber Executive Director Katrina Richardson reported last week that Matt Mohler, of frontline strategies with Gulf Power (a subsidiary of NextEra), contacted her about arranging meetings between local citizens and Timothy Bryant, NextEra's senior manager for external affairs and new development.
The meetings, which will be held at the chamber, will be by appointment only and limited to one or two people at a time. The hours allotted for the meetings are 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday, Oct. 21-24. To schedule a meeting, call the chamber at (850) 997-5552.
Meanwhile, Attorney David Collins, whom the commission hired in mid August to represent it in its dealings with NextEra, told the Monticello News last week that he is pursuing a twofold approach with the company.
First, Collins said, he continues negotiating with NextEra in the hope that the issue can be resolved absent litigation.
Consequently, he said, he has been trying to convince NextEra to adopt Commissioner Stephen Walker's proposed alternative route for the transmission line. Walker's proposal calls for the line to go south on U.S. 19 to U.S. 27 and onto the Florida Gas Transmission (FGT) pipe easement into Leon County, instead of following the Waukeenah Highway south to the FGT easement, the company's preferred route.
He was also, Collins said, exploring other possible alternative routes.
“The truth is that rather than put a legal fight into motion and cost the taxpayers more money, I would rather negotiate,” he said. “I want to give NextEra a reasonable alternative.”
Simultaneously, Collins said, he was working with South Florida Attorney George Cavros and a group of other lawyers who were working pro-bono to explore the feasibility of filing a federal suit for injunctive relief against NextEra.
Collins referenced a published piece that Cavros wrote in 2018, lambasting Florida Power and Light (FPL) for making an end round of the courts to get its way in a situation involving a transmission line in South Florida. FPL also is a subsidiary of NextEra.
In the piece, Cavros excoriates a bill that then Gov. Rick Scott signed into law in 2018 stripping local governments of their authority over transmission line development.
“Money in politics typically never leads to good outcomes for utility customers,” Cavros wrote, noting that FPL exerted oversized influence in Tallahassee through signifiant campaign contributions and the use of lobbyists, including an $805,000 contribution in 2016 to Scott's Let’s Get to Work political committee.
The new law, Cavros wrote, stemmed from a legal battle between FPL and a number of Miami-Dade County local governments over a transmission line that was routed through a densely populated urban area and across environmentally sensitive land. When FPL lost the court battle, according to Cavros, it tried to get the Florida Supreme Court to overturn the ruling. And when the latter gambit failed, FPL turned to the Florida Legislature, which in 2018 passed a bill “revising the definition of the term (“development”) to exclude work by electric utility providers on utility infrastructure on certain rights-of-way or corridors.”
The result, in Cavros' strongly-worded conclusion, was that local governments and
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communities had little say in stopping transmission lines or mitigating their effects because of the utility companies' “big-monied influence” over state government.
Collins, who has been in contact with Cavros and is working with him and other attorneys, said they are exploring the possibility of a federal lawsuit under the same theory that he used in his defense of Clerk of Court Kirk Reams in the latter's dispute with the Governor and Florida Senate.
“The law is the law,” Collins said. “In the case of Reams, the Governor and Legislature followed the law. They didn't violate state law, but they violated the U.S. Constitution.”
The U.S. Constitution, Collins argued, derived from the forefathers' desire to ensure the people's basic rights and limit government's overreach, as opposed to the previous monarchial system, where the king could impose his will on the people arbitrarily.
“Our government is based on the will of the people,” Collins said. “Under our system, the Florida Constitution can limit the power of the government even more. They can make the individual have more rights than the federal government. So if the Legislature is able to put on more regulations than the federal government, why can't the local government fight the will of the state?”
The state statute that the Governor implemented in 2018 was solely for the benefit of the utility companies, he said.
“Just because the Legislature passes a law, it doesn't make it right,” Collins said.
He said it was all theoretical at this point. But the idea of protection under federal law was one that was gaining traction, he said. Basically, he said, what the power companies had done was to use the political system to their advantage to get the term “development” redefined and so preempt local governments' authority.
“This preemption is becoming a problem throughout the country,” Collins said, adding that the issue was separate and apart from imminent domain.
The point, he said, was that he and the other attorneys continued exploring the feasibility of filing on injunction against the company based on either the preemption issue or the Commerce Clause in the U.S. Constitution, which grants the federal government the authority to regulate interstate commerce.
“Being a multimillion corporation, who can say that their power doesn't affect interstate commerce?” Collins asked, adding that NextEra was a private corporation with reported annual revenues of nearly $17 billion in 2018.
“I said this was not a complex issue in the beginning and it's not,” Collins said. “What's right and what's wrong is not complex, although how we get there might be complex. But the law is the law. This is basically about equal protection under the law and local governments being stripped of their ability to regulate development for their own citizens.”