By Lisa Zahner
INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — Since 10:26 p.m. on May 16 when he saw the flashing police lights in the rear-view mirror of his red Jeep Cherokee, County Administrator Joe Baird’s life has not been the same.
The long-time barrier island resident has lived – and gone about his daily work – in the vortex of the most public scandal to hit Indian River County in recent memory. “Fear is a good motivator,” Baird recently told our sister publication, Vero Beach 32963, in the first interview since he was acquitted of Driving Under the Influence. “I worked even harder because I couldn’t afford any errors.”
While a residual cloud of outrage from some quarters of the public continues to hang over the 27-year County employee, Baird insists he hasn’t missed a beat – and that he’s ready to move forward. Even on his first day back to work after the trial, Baird was focused on turning the wheels of county government with a lot less grease.
“The first issue is going to be dealing with declining tax revenue two years in a row, our budget has decreased the last three years,” Baird said. “We’re down by 158 full-time employees from a few years ago. It’s our job to run the county. It’s our job, but it’s going to be a challenge to maintain the same level of service with a lot less money.”
Members of the County Commission, for the most part, also seem eager to put this unexpected and unwanted summer diversion behind them. Pummeled by angry citizens at the office and at the grocery store, urging them to fire Baird or at least suspend him pending a verdict, the five County Commissioners – who are Baird’s only bosses – did neither.
Commissioner Gary Wheeler, a former Sheriff, said he has strong personal feelings about anyone picked up for driving under the influence and “other people likewise are offended at anyone who is arrested for DUI.
“But as far as the arrest and everything, I really don’t see that it has anything to do with Joe being able to do his job,” Wheeler said. “That I don’t believe will be a factor, as he was found not guilty and that’s the way the system works and I accept that.” While Commissioner Joe Flesher declined to offer an opinion on Baird’s future effectiveness, Commissioner Peter O’Bryan said he felt Baird had risen above sniping by critics to maintain a high level of job performance.
“A lot of people have taken the opportunity to take a lot of shots at Joe Baird and he took it and acted professional manner,” O’Bryan said. “I think Joe was able to set aside all the personal issues and put aside the publicity.”
O’Bryan said Baird had stayed focused and put forth a budget to the Board of County Commissioners which, despite the challenging economic climate, maintains services to local residents.
“The bottom line is that there is nobody who cares more for the residents and taxpayers of Indian River County than Joe Baird,” O’Bryan said.
Even before his arrest, Baird knew he was a lightning rod. It goes with the job. He runs what amounts to a $300 million business and he implements difficult policies set forth by the five elected County Commissioners. And despite the summer swirl of controversy, in his second-floor office in building A of the County Administration Complex, Baird buried himself in the huge piles of pending projects and unresolved issues on his desk (which he cleaned off for our picture).
Baird points out that when it comes to leading the 888-person county staff, only a small group of executives report to him directly.
He gets together with these department heads at least once a week in the county’s version of a cabinet meeting.
“We meet on Mondays to discuss the commission agenda and any issues or problems,” Baird said. “The controversy didn’t affect the county staff or my department heads. I insulated all of them from this.
“I called every one of my department heads personally and told them what happened so they wouldn’t find out by reading it in the paper. I have had the full support of a lot of people I’ve known on a professional basis around the state, everyone has been very supportive. The commissioners themselves have been supportive.”
Baird privately believes he was unfairly targeted by the Vero Beach Police Department, that he got a raw deal.
“I always thought I was not guilty. I went through the court system and was found not guilty by six people that I don’t even know. You can’t be convicted without a trial in America,” he said. “I felt for the jury because they did their job and it was tough on them due to all the publicity. I just feel bad that the people on the jury have been criticized, they listened to the facts and the evidence and came back with a verdict.”
“This has been very hard on my family and hard on Karen,” Baird said. Karen Deigl, Baird’s girlfriend of more than three years, testified on his behalf in the trial. Baird said his friends and family bolstered him with their support, helped balance out the barrage of insults and even threats, and got him through the ordeal. “I’ve got a lot of supporters and I’ve got a lot of critics,” he said.
Despite all the public scrutiny and being either admired or hated depending on how he executes the policies set by the county commissioners, Baird said he loves every day of his job. Looking back, he says he wouldn’t trade it for a partnership and a corner office in a CPA firm. “It’s very interesting, it’s challenging because what I do is very diverse, but you meet a lot of great people,” he said. “Every day is different, and you’d better be able to take the criticism.”