New Vero council has utility issues, healing on its plate

By Lisa ZahnerVERO BEACH — Newly elected Vero Beach City Councilman Brian Heady said the first thing the city needs to do now that the election is over is to begin to repair the trust and address the genuine pain that’s been caused by its mismanagement of the electric utility.

“The city has to heal some of the hurt of the citizens and do something about the pain caused by the rates and do something about it sooner rather than later,” he said. “We need to heal from the overcharging.”

While they’re working on healing the rift, Charlie Wilson also wants to pick an old, explosive political scab. Wilson said he intends, should he have two supporting votes, to challenge the legality of the OUC contract based on several reasons, including the fact that four of the five council members did not fully read the document before it was approved, as reported in our sister publication, Vero Beach 32963 (click on link for full story). There has also been discussion that the council was not aware they were issuing a final approval to the contract, but just a vote to move ahead with entering into a contract with OUC. The sum of these things and other undisclosed legal arguments, Wilson feels, may be enough to give the city a chance to take a step back and re-think the relationship with OUC and all its requirements, such as maintaining ownership of the power plant for 20 years and an early-out penalty of up to $50 million.When asked if he would support Wilson’s challenge of the OUC contract, Heady did not close the door on the prospect.

“I’ll have to see exactly what his challenge is,” he said.

Some of the terms of the contract, since the public has had access to it over the past two months, have shown themselves to be less than palatable to the rate payers. Even Electric Utility Director R.B. Sloan spoke less than glowingly on Tuesday about some of the legal language in the agreement, though he defended the decision to go with OUC over Florida Power and light, calling it a “hands down choice.”

Sloan called the OUC contract “binding” and said it was authorized and signed for 20 years, that it has out provisions but out provisions that are too costly to be viable, in his opinion.

“There’s an assumption you can sell the plant tomorrow,” Sloan said of electric plant. He added that the growing movement to sell the plant will necessitate a “P.R. war” that the city will have to wage to get information out to the public, which would be difficult in this political environment.

“I completely understand” people are upset, irate and “almost militant,” he said.

All along, Sloan has assured residents and council members that the new arrangement with OUC will wash out to rates 20 percent lower than current electric bills.

“Time will validate your actions,” Sloan told the council regarding its decision to go with OUC and get out of FMPA.

Related to the new OUC contract taking effect is another rate increase, which Wilson said he would not vote for as the proposal stands.

“I think we should at least table it until we see what happens on the power cost side,” he said.The Utility “Authority” ordinance

On Tuesday, the Mayor Abell-led council voted to extend the second public hearing on an ordinance to establish a Utility “Authority” or a Utility Commission to replace the current Utility Advisory Committee made up of citizens appointed by council members.

This was not expected to be on the plate of the new council, as the five seated members were set to vote on the ordinance as written and to begin assembling the new group.

Wilson said he wants to hear all the details and hopes the city takes another look at the proposal to make sure it creates the necessary oversight and be fair to customers.

“If it’s all for show, why do it?” he said. “If it’s just political baloney, why bother.”

One essential piece of the puzzle related to the authority,Wilson said, is State Rep. Debbie Mayfield (R-Vero Beach). According to reports from Jim Gabbard during council meetings, Mayfield has promised to introduce legislation tightening the reins on the city’s utility should the council not institute real oversight and representation of out-of-city customers “in good faith” and in a timely manner.

The nuts and bolts of Mayfield’s proposal, which is also being supported in concept by local legislative delegation leader State Rep. Ralph Poppell (R-Vero Beach), are largely a mystery.

“We don’t know what it is that she’s working on and I want to talk to her before we go any further,” Wilson said. “I really have to have all the facts and the information on both sides, I’m going to be listening and want to have all the details.”

Daige said he’s glad that the council extended the public hearing so they can get more information. He agreed that a sit-down with Mayfield to find out what she wants to see from the city is a must before any ordinance is passed. Then, he said, due to the delay and changes that have been made or would be made to the ordinance, it should start the approval process all over again.

“I think we need at least two more public hearings on it,” Daige said.

A looming legal challenge?

A citizen complaint, Wilson said, which was reported to Police Chief Don Dappen, resulted in a pre-election challenge to Wilson’s candidacy, based on his residency status. After a lengthy investigation in which Wilson’s neighbors and girlfriend were interviewed and he was watched to see where he slept at night, Wilson was cleared of any claims that his candidacy was invalid.

There has been some circles in City Hall floating the possibility of another legal challenge — in the form of a lawsuit against the City – in an effort to unseat Wilson

Abell said the challenge was beyond the bounds of the City because it can’t sue itself.

“The city can’t challenge Wilson if he wins legally. Only an individual can challenge.” Abell said.

He declined to say if he knows who might be pursuing such a challenge.Heady said that, despite false reports that he intends to mount an eligibility challenge to Wilson’s election, he is excited about Wilson’s victory and looks forward to working with him.

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