Vero Beach High students get real world lesson in politics at candidate forum

VERO BEACH — More than 100 Vero Beach High School students plan to attend Wednesday night’s Vero Beach City Council candidate forum in their auditorium, all in an effort to get a firsthand look at the democratic process in action.

American Government teacher Martin O’Neal said that he expects about 80 percent of his 150 students to show up – though some might be there only for the extra credit. For many of his students, O’Neal said that they are aware of at least one hot issue the candidates will face – electric rates.

“They are familiar with some of the pains” that come from high utility bills, O’Neal said, noting that many students live in Vero Beach or near enough to the city that their families are city utility customers.

O’Neal said that he is not really preparing his students for the forum per se, though they are talking a bit more about local issues than they would have normally.

“I don’t want them to come into it blind,” the teacher said.

O’Neal and event organizer John Marr, of the Indian River County Tea Party, both said that they are looking forward to the forum as a way to give the students a real world example of the political arena.

“It’s like a foreign language,” the teacher said of how students see government.

His challenge has always been to get his students to see a much bigger picture than what they are used to – a world that includes more than the Friday night football game, their boyfriends and girlfriends, and their college applications.

“I want them to be much more active,” O’Neal said.

And while his students plan to attend the forum, O’Neal said that he does not anticipate them to stand up in the audience to ask the candidates questions during the forum.

“I’d be surprised, but not shocked,” the teacher said.

Marr said that he’s excited that the students are going to be at the forum and that he’d like for them to participate.

He added that if the students are uncomfortably standing up to ask their question, they would be welcome to write their questions on a piece of paper to hand to the moderator to ask it for them.

“I’d like to have them as engaged as possible,” Marr said, noting that he would understand if the students were a bit intimidated by the process.

The candidate forum will be held at the school’s Performing Arts Center, 1707 16th St., from 6 to 8 p.m. The Indian River County Tea Party is hosting and organizing the forum as a way to help inform the public on what the issues are and where the seven candidates stand on those issues.

“Vero Beach is facing important, fundamental issues ahead,” said Marr.

Those issues include utility rates – including electric – utility services, and the city’s budget.

Marr said that though only Vero Beach residents are allowed to vote in the municipal election, it is his hope that others living outside the city would attend and participate in the forum.

Non-residents could be influential in the race this go-round due to the utility issue. Many of the city’s customers live outside the city.

Marr said that non-residents could participate in the elections by contributing to the campaigns they support, campaigning for the candidates they support, and by encouraging their friends and family who live in the city to support their chosen candidates.

There are two seats available on the Vero Beach City Council and seven people competing for those seats. The candidates include incumbents Bill Fish and Debra Fromang and challengers Ken Daige, Brian Heady, Jack Shupe, Susan Viviano and Charlie Wilson.

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