Meet Mayor Sawnick: A skateboarder on a mission

Editor’s Note:  At 28 years old Kevin Sawnick becomes not only the youngest, but the first Democrat in decades to be elected Mayor of Vero Beach. What are we to make of this relative newcomer to the political scene, who rode the coattails of the Obama phenomenon into office? This profile was written this summer – about six months into his first term — by 32963 Associate Editor Michelle Genz as part of a series of articles on the Vero Beach City Council. It has been edited for the Web and for timeliness.

By Michelle Genz, Vero Beach 32963 Associate Editor

VERO BEACH — If Kevin Sawnick had his way, he would skateboard to city council meetings. He’s always seen it as a cheap, clean and sociable form of transportation, and laments that the means of getting around that served him so well in college is no longer an option in the town he helps to govern.

On alternate Tuesdays, when Sawnick pulls up a chair to the city council’s table, his attitude is not unlike a college kid’s. He is there to learn, to voice opinions, to develop his own agenda on behalf of his constituents – in his case, he believes, constituents concerned about job losses, skateboard parks, and a downtown with more things to do.

The man whose former honorific was president of the Young Democrats, Sawnick has endeared himself to his council cohorts as eager to study hard, think hard and then make hard decisions.

“I do a lot of homework reading articles online, talking to people, trying to get as much information as possible,” he said.

Meanwhile, he’s giving his own exams at his day job. Sawnick, who has a Master’s Degree in criminal justice, drives to the southwest part of the county each day to teach math and social studies to inmates at the Indian River County Correctional Institute, a state facility housing convicted felons age 14 to 20. Some are in for two years, he says; others are in for life.

“It’s crazy sometimes,” he says. “About 99 percent of them are wanting to learn. So most of the time it’s pretty good. But it’s pretty stressful.

What’s more stressful? City council, or being around prisoners eight hours or day? “I’m not sure,” he says, shaking his head.

At 28, Sawnick brings the voice of a new Vero to the council. Younger by half than most of the members, he chats up a very different constituency on street corners and downtown restaurants – he rents a house near the county school board offices, north of the downtown area.

Summer evenings often find Sawnick walking or riding a bike through the 10-square-block area that seems to offer up friends at every corner. Since his election in Nov. 2008 – a tight race with only 204 votes separating the field of four candidates, three of whom won office, Sawnick’s fresh face is now widely recognized.

After a day on the job at the prison, Sawnick comes home and goes online, looking up issues on the internet, from utilities to healthcare to urban development. Weekends, he gets out and about, talks – and listens.

“I love it,” he says. “Talking to people in the city, trying to get things done, and trying to be fair to people, too. In the past, other political people are rude, they don’t listen, they don’t want the public’s input. “Being a young person myself, I know there aren’t too many young people involved in city government,” he said. “The main thing is getting more people involved. I’ve been talking to high schools, finding out what’s on their minds and just telling them what I do at the city. That way they know that there are younger people involved, too.”

At the other end of the demographic spectrum, Sawnick finds admirers who look at him with pride. “They’ll say I’m like their son or grandson, or they’ll compare me to their kids, like ‘My son’s 25 and he’s not involved in anything.’ It’s like a parent-son thing with them.”

Of all his interests, Sawnick has been consistently a proponent of a vibrant downtown, for everything from art to architecture. “When I visit towns, I always try to visit their downtowns,” he says. “Walking down the street and having buildings of a certain type around you, seeing what’s there, and what there is to do, in a small area, that tells you a lot about a place. It’s where people go to get things done, and where they go for fun. Music, art galleries, restaurants, places to hang out.

“But there’s not much to do around here,” he laments. “We need some projects downtown, to make it a streetscape area. This isn’t like Royal Palm Pointe, or Sexton Plaza. But it would be great to transport (those areas’ improvements) to downtown.”

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