After more than a month of finger-pointing and name-calling over the length of power outages after Hurricane Irma, the Coral Gables commission says it will sue Florida Power & Light to force the utility to upgrade its infrastructure within the city.
After threatening legal action and fining the state’s largest power utility over its response to Hurricane Irma, city commissioners on Tuesday officially directed their legal team to file a lawsuit, although there are still hopes that the city and FPL can reach a settlement outside court.
The vote was 4-0. Commissioner Frank Quesada didn’t discuss the item or vote as his law firm is currently involved in a class-action lawsuit against FPL. Quesada also recused himself from his law firm’s case.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
The city’s lawsuit isn’t seeking any money or damages but is essentially asking a judge to force FPL to upgrade its infrastructure, electric poles and transformers. The draft of the city’s complaint also argues that FPL breached its contract by not maintaining that infrastructure.
“The most recent storm exposed that the city and FPL are not on the same page,” Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli said. “We have done our duty and FPL hasn’t and that’s what this lawsuit is all about.”
FPL has argued that the utility was prepared for the storm, but that the city neglected its responsibility to keep its lush tree canopy trimmed. Some of those trees fell on FPL lines, making it difficult for the company to restore power quickly.
The city fined the utility more than $60,000 for missing the initial target deadline of Sept. 17 for full power restoration in the Gables. Full restoration didn’t come until about two weeks after Irma made landfall.
In public statements shortly after the storm the company described the City Commission as “self-entitled politicians” and called the city’s response “ludicrous.”
“The fact is the city of Coral Gables has for many years resisted FPL’s well-documented efforts to trim trees and harden our electric system,” an FPL statement released last month said. “Unfortunately for our customers in that area, they are now paying the price in terms of extended outages due to hundreds of trees that have fallen into our lines.”
FPL’s attorney, Alvin Davis, said that now that time has passed, the utility is willing to meet with Gables leaders, and he apologized for some of the forceful language.
“I think it’s clear that hurricanes don’t bring out the best in our diplomacy,” Davis said at the meeting.
Davis said that he expects the lawsuit to be dismissed and that the Miami-Dade Circuit Court would direct the state’s Public Service Commission to handle the case.
“This is an artfully crafted complaint but I still believe that it will be dismissed,” Davis said.
Despite that, commissioners said they wanted to proceed. Commissioner Michael Mena supported filing the lawsuit but also argued that an effort should be made to settle.
“I want to be able to tell our residents that we did everything we could before this was filed,” Mena said.
If there’s no resolution between the city and FPL, the city’s lawsuit against FPL will be the latest in a recent pattern of legal action and lawsuits by the city. The city was also previously involved in a case with the cities of Miami, South Miami and Pinecrest over FPL’s plan to place transmission lines along U.S. 1. That plan was eventually tossed out by the Third District Court of Appeals.
City Attorney Craig Leen said that he thinks the lawsuit ultimately could have impact beyond the Gables and is primarily about protecting residents.
“We’re concerned that if this had been a category 3 or 4 storm in Coral Gables that it would have devastated the grid,” Leen said.
This story has been updated to clarify Commissioner Frank Quesada’s action.