By Raul J. Valdes-Fauli, Mayor of Coral Gables

Hurricane Irma inflicted severe damage on most of South Florida, and Coral Gables suffered significantly as a result.  We’ve all noticed the disheartening damage to our community, and suffered through the massive inconvenience of widespread power outages.

In the wake of all this, Coral Gables is considering a lawsuit against Florida Power & Light (FPL).  Although we have not taken a final decision on our path forward, even the mere mention of this discussion has provoked lively debate from all sides of the issue.  Many have applauded our efforts to hold accountable those responsible for our safety and convenience after major storms, channeling their own suffering by encouraging our strategy.  Others question the wisdom of “attacking” FPL when there is a perception it’s misguided and likely fruitless. 

As a reasonable person, I can completely understand both sides of these arguments and make no claim this is a simple issue.  However, as Mayor of Coral Gables, I’m forced to make tough calls based on the facts, and improve the lives of constituents to the best of my abilities.  For that reason, I do think a lawsuit with FPL is a potentially-effective strategy for us moving forward.  Here are a few points to consider:

It’s Not About the Workers

The single most important point I can make is that a potential lawsuit has nothing to do with the individual FPL employees from our state, and the thousands who traveled from afar to lend a helping hand.  Their generous hard work has been incredible, under very difficult conditions, and we thank them for their herculean efforts to get our power restored.  Our complaint is with the systemic corporate policies of this multi-billion-dollar organization, and our perception that not enough planning, investment or foresight went into storm preparation.

A Monopolistic Attitude

Many have referenced the fact that FPL maintains a monopoly on the business they operate, as do many utilities across the country There exists an inherent need for these public-private partnerships, and the cost of operating a utility is so vast that in many cases it only makes sense with one partner.  That said, nothing dictates that FPL needs to act like a monopoly.  As reported by this newspaper, FPL had record profits of $1.7 billion just last year, largely due to cost-cutting measures and pulling back on critical investments such as tree-trimming.  This is exactly what South Floridians don’t want to hear as they sit in the dark, sweltering without power, hoping for a return to a semblance of normal life.  Even FPL’s recent response to Coral Gables seemed callous, overly-aggressive and incendiary.  It’s a simple fact that they provide a service, and should act like they’re in the service business.  The customer is always right, and they should aim to keep municipalities and taxpayers happy. 

Just the Facts

Some have argued to me that Coral Gables should have done more to prepare for this storm, and the blame should lie with us.  I fervently refute this insinuation.  The entire Miami-Dade County budget calls for two tree-trimming trucks, while Coral Gables actively employs six of our own.  That’s right, you read that correctly.  All of MDC, with its $7 billion budget, has two foliage trucks; while our small city of 50,000 people has a fleet of six vehicles that was very active in doing everything it could in advance of the storm. 

So what could FPL have done differently? 

  • Tree trimming assistance to help residents better manage imminent power failures due to overgrown trees.
  • Strengthen weak, rotting or faulty wooden polls that hold the power liness.
  • Manage people’s expectations better.  Too many of my constituents have complained about their “ticket being closed” even though their power was still out, and estimates being grossly inaccurate in terms of when power would be restored.  In stressful and dire circumstances. people cling to hope of when life will be back to normal.  FPL should more responsibly manage its communications during the wake of major storms.

We’re not alone in this anger.  Pinecrest also announced they are considering a lawsuit, and this week we heard of the development of a citizen class-action lawsuit against FPL.

As we saw with the horrific news about nine deaths at a nursing home that had lost power, electricity in a sweltering city is not a light matter.  I am in no way blaming this tragedy on FPL.  I merely mention to reinforce that these situations are often life or death, and it’s critical that we collectively take stock of what worked well, where there exists room for improvement and how we can avoid the same mistakes moving forward. 

I didn’t run for Mayor in spite of thorny issues.  I ran for this position because of thorny issues. It comes as no surprise that a devastating storm which inflicted so much damage will arouse fierce dialogue and have passions running high.  I accept both positive and negative feedback in stride.  What I won’t do is let criticism stop me from doing my job to protect the residents of Coral Gables, and always enhance their quality of life.  My loyalties lie not with FPL, but with the people of The City Beautiful.