VERO BEACH — Two very different paths face recently hired City Manager James O’Connor as he prepares to step into his new job in Vero Beach.
The first path he might take would be to lead the effort to help the city divest itself of its electric utility and the water-sewer utilities, to streamline Vero Beach city government and cut expenses, and potentially reduce the scale of his own job and see his salary cut in half when his contract comes up for renewal in 2014.
The second path he might take – based on what would appear to be O’Connor’s record of long-standing support for municipal utilities – would be to lead a staff and consultant-driven effort to find a way to keep Vero’s electric, water and sewer utilities, and somehow quell the clamor from ratepayers for the city to get out of the utility business.
There is no way of knowing which course O’Connor will pursue as Vero prepares to open negotiations with Florida Power & Light on June 8. But based upon his responses to questions, O’Connor does seem to see his role in the process as head negotiator.
“I believe it will be my job to bring the best contact available to Council for consideration. This will require having information from ratepayers on their expectations from the electric system as well as the expected rate of return the City would receive from the potential selling of the system,” O’Connor said.
“It is my understanding that Council, if it is good for the City and utility rate payers, are on record to sell the electric system. As in all business deals, the terms and conditions of the contract will determine the final decision but it will be my job to bring a contract to Council.”
The rub lies in what kind of contract O’Connor would ultimately bring to the Vero Beach City Council.
The proposed sale of the electric utility to Florida Power and Light is now under direct assault by the Florida Municipal Electric Association, and O’Connor brings to Vero a history of involvement with the FMEA, the Florida Municipal Power Agency and the Florida Municipal Utilities Association.
He served on the board of directors of the FMPA and the FMUA, and is a past president of FMEA.
“I believe the experience I had while in Bartow with FMUA and FMPA will provide me the insight into the relationships with power suppliers within the state of Florida,” O’Connor said. “While serving on both boards we had many occasions to discuss power supply agreements between investor-owned utilities and municipals.”
“I should add while serving in Bartow, I had recommended against long-term power supply contract with FMPA or anyone else,” he said.
Barry Moline, Executive Director and chief lobbyist for the Tallahassee-based FMEA, said he looked forward to working with O’Connor.
“Jim served as president of FMEA in 1987-1988,” Moline said. “I’m pleased that the Vero Beach City Council hired Jim, who has extensive knowledge about municipal electric utilities.”
Moline, who is on record predicting that FP&L would never make a serious offer to Vero and that the company would try to “steal the system,” indicated he thought O’Connor was a good person to have lead negotiations now that FP&L has made an offer.
“Considering the important decisions facing the City Council, it will be vital to consider all the facts of the situation and sort out the best option for the citizens of Vero Beach,” Moline said. “Jim is a level-headed leader who will guide the Council through the maze of issues to do what’s best for the community.”
According to FP&L and to Councilwoman Tracy Carroll, the point person on the electric sale, the June 8 meeting will not be open to the public.