Utilities Commission rejects proposed Authority

By Michael Bielecki

VERO BEACH — At a special 10:30 a.m. meeting today, the Vero Beach Utilities Commission made a unanimous recommendation to keep the status quo and retain their positions on the board.

Public outrage over the cost of electrical power, coupled with the serious threat of legislation regulating the city’s ability to control the way it runs its utility business led the Vero Beach City Council to seek the recommendation to create the proposed Utility Authority. The creation of such an authority would mean the disbandment of the current commission. Utility Commission Chairman Lee Everett was dismissive of the ability of an appointed Authority.

“The Advisory Committee has developed a good feeling on if the utility is being run well or not. You can’t find seven people who can do a better job than the current five do. Not paying these seven (and two alternates) is ridiculous. If you are going to do it like that, there should be a per-meeting compensation if you want there to be accountability.”

Vero Beach Electrical Utilities Director R.B. Sloan supported the chairman’s opinion.

“The elimination of this group would have a negative impact on the community,” said Sloan. “It amazes me the conclusions that people are coming to. And I can’t believe this idea has gotten any traction.”

The current members’ fear stems from the possibility that members of the new Utility Authority could be influenced by factions wishing to sell off the utility’s assets and get out of the electric business and that an authority with, at least in theory, more decision-making power, could take the city in an unwise direction.

Critics on the opposite side of the issue claim the proposed authority offers no real change, as members would still be appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the city council and that council members would still be required to vote up or down every policy or rate change approved by the authority.

Barry Moline, Executive Director of the Florida Municipal Electric Association spoke at Tuesday night’s council meeting and gave his highest recommendation for the creation of such an authority.

“This action would give all of your customers representation in all utility operations,” Moline said during the council meeting. “You will provide the most representation of any electrical utility in the State of Florida.”

The proposed authority would answer directly to the city council. The council would also be able to change any decisions made by the Authority.

“You appoint the members, and you should be able to correct any deviation in their decision making that you see fit,” Moline told the council. “It’s your authority, and they work for you.”

Once created, the Utility Authority would have seven members selected by the City Council. The members would serve two-year terms without term limits and without salaries.

The seven would include the following: two people from inside the city, two from unincorporated Indian River County, one from Indian River Shores, and two at-large individuals. There would also be two alternates — one from the city and one from outside the city limits.

The Utility Commission’s recommendation flies in the face of what City Manager Jim Gabbard said three days ago during the city council meeting about the utility authority he proposed, with the help of consultants.

Gabbard described the proposal as the city’s effort to “hold up its end of the deal” in its promise to Rep. Debbie Mayfield and Rep. Ralph Poppell, who Gabbard said told him they would pass legislation regulating the utility should the city not move toward better representation of all its rate payers, including out-of-city residents.

“This is a sweeping change, as far as I’m concerned and if someone fails to realize this, it boggles the mind,” Gabbard said.

The recommendation of the commission will now go back to the city council members, who are expected to make a decision in November.

Vero Beach 32963 reporter Lisa Zahner contributed to this story.

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