‘Experience’ in obstruction not what Vero city Council needs

News Analysis

The Vero Beach City Council said last week that they want to appoint someone “experienced” to fill the seat vacated by Councilman Joe Graves, who resigned because he’s moving outside the city limits.

But experience with a previous era’s problems does not necessarily equate to wise judgment in today’s big decisions.

Graves might not have been the most seasoned or sage council member – he was thin-skinned at times when criticized and he sometimes over-inflated the importance of being a municipal official in a small burg of 18,000 people – but he possessed several qualities that made him a good fit for rapidly evolving situations that the council finds itself dealing with these days.

While on the council, Graves generally approached issues with an open mind. He knew how to seek and accept counsel, and he listened to differing opinions. Graves was not afraid to admit what he did not know. He also was not afraid to change his mind should facts change, or if his position evolved over time.

Those are attributes the city council members should be looking for as Vero navigates the ongoing pandemic, and major decisions regarding the future of the city’s riverfront utility sites. Instead, they seem stuck on “experience” as their number one criteria.

The deadline for interested people to apply to fill the vacant seat is 5 p.m. Friday, but as of press time Monday, only two people had put themselves up for consideration – 83-year-old former mayor Dick Winger, and a political newcomer, retired police sergeant Christopher Drake.

Winger, a Central Beach resident and longtime cheerleader of the Indian River Neighborhood Association, served on council from 2011 to 2017, and while he definitely has experience, he may not be the best person to approach the city’s biggest issue with the required open mind.

Indian River Democrats published an undated commentary penned by Winger in which he took a derogatory tone about voters trusting the city council to decide the future of Vero’s riverfront utility sites.

“The idea would be, developers would bring in proposals this summer, and … you would have granted Council the authority in advance to decide the future of these extremely important and valuable tracts. You know what will happen. This is the same City Council who wanted to sell the old Dodgertown Golf Course to Hulbert Homes, bring a developer into the Marina, sold the downtown post office to a developer, and make Riverhouse into a brewery in the middle of McWilliams Park,” Winger wrote.

Whatever institutional knowledge he may bring to the table, Winger seems opposed to the concept of commercial development on the riverfront and would likely arrive on the dais with his mind already made up before the first developer even gets the chance to pitch a vision for the project.

The council during Winger’s tenure was adept at obstructing progress under the guise of “Keep Vero Vero.” At the time, the huge deal they were trying to thwart was the sale of Vero Electric, which ultimately went through and now benefits the entire community.

Vero Beach is no longer a place that people – when looking at real estate – avoid because of exorbitant electric bills. Real estate agents no longer need to sort out properties on the Vero Beach electric system with a special code and warn buyers about the high energy costs for their home or business.

If Winger and his cohorts had gotten their way, a good portion of our readers would still be making checks out to Vero Beach Utilities for electric each month instead of Florida Power & Light.

Let that sink in.

Drake’s cover letter says he moved to Vero Beach in 2018, that he and his wife have a 10-year-old child and that he owns a business that serves the defense industry, the U.S. Department of Defense and other government agencies.

The 46-year-old states he served 23 years as a police officer, moving up in rank from an entry-level sworn officer position with the New York Police Department and then with the Shelter Island Police Department on Long Island, where he attained the rank of sergeant, was a supervisor and worked in emergency management.

Drake is also a longtime volunteer firefighter and served on the Suffolk County Parks Administration Board of Trustees.

“Vero Beach is a very special community that deserves a city council that is flexible and capable,” Drake wrote, asking for the council members’ consideration to fill the balance of Graves’ term until November.

Drake said the small community of Shelter Island where he worked the majority of his law-enforcement career shares has many things in common with Vero Beach, including a seaside location, relatively affluent demographics, and concerns about growth and expansion.

With regard to his defense-industry support business, Drake said he has no vested interest in any local vendors that might do business with the city or come before the city, so he sees no potential conflicts.

“I have a firm belief that instilling continued confidence in the community on behalf of the city is a top priority,” Drake said in his application, adding that he feels he could contribute to competent and collective decision making.

Former Mayor Pilar Turner – a specialist in engineering and finance who, unlike Winger, was always on the correct side of the electric issue – sadly is not applying for the seven-month council appointment.

Someone with her leadership ability and knowledge of city finances would be perfect. Plus, she will have to look at whatever ends up being developed on those sites every single day as the view is very literally in her back yard.

Former Mayor Harry Howle transitioned from the end of his second council term in 2019 to serving on the Three Corners Steering Committee. He could step in without missing a beat, but he’s not applying because he said the council already has the perfect solution to the vacancy.

“Well, believe it or not, I did consider it. However, I think the last highest vote getter behind the three that won the election should be the person … I think John Catugno has a shot,” Howle said.

Catugno, a Central Beach resident, lost by only 432 votes to Councilwoman Honey Minuse in November. Cotugno’s international corporate experience, and the fact that he recently chose Vero Beach as his new home, when he had a multitude of options, could bring a fresh perspective to decisions about how Vero can position itself for the future to attract people like him who want to contribute to the community.

He serves as vice chair of the city’s Utilities Commission, so Cotugno is more than familiar with the two parcels to be developed and how they’ve been used and what will need to happen to transform the riverfront from utilitarian industrial worksites to something that will be a commercial and aesthetic success.

If Cotugno and other qualified city residents apply by 5 p.m. Friday, at least there will be some sort of robust contest and Winger will not be selected easily due to his “experience.”

Regardless, the sitting council members should make Winger defend his negative attitude about commercial development on the riverfront. It’s the city’s stated goal to make the project pay for itself, and yet another park on high-value waterfront real estate will not bring in any revenue to make the three corners work for Vero Beach.

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