VERO BEACH — While speaking before the Indian River Shores Town Council on Thursday, Operation Clean Sweep founder and County Commission candidate Charlie Wilson announced that volunteers collected 510 signatures in eight hours from a booth at the Hibiscus Festival on Saturday.
This number — providing that all the petitions are certified as valid by the Supervisor of Elections — is more than half the 1,006 signatures needed to place a referendum on the ballot amending the charter of the City of Vero Beach to exclude the expenditure of public dollars on the operation of an electric utility.
“Since the organization started, we’ve raised over $2,000, some of that $5 at a time by people just handing us money so we could print the petitions,” Wilson said. Wilson brought the stack of signed petitions to show the Town Council and said the organization receives another group of signatures each day in the mail. Originally Wilson had planned to host a rally to disburse volunteers all over Vero to collect all the signatures in one day.
With the Hibiscus Festival results, those being mailed in and the ones Wilson said he expects to get from planned advertising inserts in two local newspapers, the rally will most likely be unnecessary.
Indian River Shores Mayor Bill Kenyon questioned Wilson as to whether or not the referendum will hold up to a legal challenge.
“The point has been made that the statement that you’re putting on the ballot, is it enforceable by law?” Kenyon asked. “A lot of people don’t think you’ll be able to stop a city from providing a service.”
Wilson responded that the Operation Clean Sweep attorney Elizabeth Brooker had signed off on the language, which he read into the record. The referendum would require that the City of Vero Beach have an offer on the table from a willing buyer and that the buyer be a power provider that is regulated by the Florida Public Service Commission.
The offer would need to be enough to retire all the debt of the electric utility and the utility would need to be liquidated within 24 months. Any assets, such as the baseload generation purchase rights of power from the Stanton coal plants and St. Lucie nuclear power plant, if deemed nontransferrable, could be retained by the city for the purpose of receiving power and selling it back to the grid.
“Hopefully that would be at a profit,” Wilson said, adding that coal and nuclear power are the least expensive types of electricity available, costing only a fraction of the power that is produced by gas or fuel oil at the Vero Beach Power Plant.
Only registered voters who live within the city limits of Vero Beach are permitted to sign the petitions to place the referendum on the ballot. If the effort is successful, only residents of the City of Vero Beach will see the referendum on the ballot when they go to the polls in November. The 61 percent of electric customers who live outside the city will have no say on this issue.
Between now and November, Wilson said he expects the City of Vero Beach government to do everything in its power to keep the referendum off the ballot.
“We fully expect that this will go to circuit court,” Wilson said.
Operation Clean Sweep has figured time for a court battle into its timeline, Wilson said, so that, if needed, they would theoretically have time to make whatever corrections to the language that might be dictated by the court and to collect a second set of 1,006 signatures on a new petition.
Vero Beach Councilman Brian Heady spoke to the Shores council from the podium as well, as he’s been providing periodic updates to the Shores on utility issues.
Heady said he has his differences with Wilson about the referendum — that he would prefer the city taking another path — but considering the opposition that exists to make a change, he is beginning to get resigned to the fact that customers are running out of options.
“I think the city is failing to do what they should do,” Heady said, adding that he takes partial responsibility for the inaction, as he hasn’t been successful at swaying his fellow council members over to his side and he’s often left as the odd man out on votes.