Update: Tuesday 6:55 p.m.
VERO BEACH — Florida Representative Debbie Mayfield’s recent flier to Vero Beach utilities customers living outside the city is drawing fire from both city and county leaders.
But as councilmen and commissioners criticized the state legislator’s mailer, Rep. Mayfield said she doesn’t know where the comments are coming from. She pointed out that the city has known she has been working on legislation that would change how the city does its electric business and the county has supported her efforts. To Rep. Mayfield, the mailers were a way for her to communicate with her constituents and seek their support.
“We get hundreds of calls,” she said from residents upset about the electric issue.
Earlier in the day, during both the County Commissioners board meeting and the Vero Beach City Council meeting, leaders took issue with the flier.
“This is a very well-crafted, well done piece of misinformation,” said interim Electric Utility Director John Lee said during the Vero Beach City Council meeting Tuesday morning.
At the same time at the County Administration building, Commissioner Gary Wheeler said that the mailer misrepresented the truth and was leading people in the wrong direction. Later, he called the mailer “low class politics.”
Rep. Mayfield appeared on local radio news host Bob Soos’ News Magazine show Tuesday morning to discuss the mailer, which Soos received in his mailbox the day before. He and 4,863 other city customers living outside the city were expected to receive the mailers Monday and Tuesday.
The mailer’s statements include:
“Vero Beach Utility is unfairly charging you higher utility rates!”
“Help put an end to their unfair rate hikes today!”
“We need to have all Vero Beach Utility customers represented in Indian River County, not just a select group.”
“It’s absolutely terrible,” Commissioner Gary Wheeler said of the mailer after the commission meeting Tuesday. He took issue with the way the information is presented, saying that “the way she puts it” only county customers are hurting, not city customers, too.
“They’re getting stung,” he said.
Wheeler also said that, while he’s not defending the city, he believes the city has been working on the electricity rate issues.
“You don’t accomplish anything by slinging mud,” he added.
Mayor Kevin Sawnick said he had spoken to Rep. Mayfield about having a chance to see anything that would go out to the public prior to mailing and was visibly disappointed that Mayfield had not held to that.
“This was a big surprise when I saw this, this is not working together,” Sawnick said.
Rep. Mayfield said late Tuesday that she did meet with Mayor Sawnick and agreed to provide him and the city council with the proposed legislation. She said the mailer was never part of that conversation.
Sawnick said it was discouraging to see something like the mailer go out right at a time that, “I think we’re moving in the right direction.”
Rep. Mayfield said that it isn’t about whether or not she believes the city is doing enough to fix the electric utility issues – it’s about her constituents, who keep telling her that the city is not doing enough.
Vero Beach City Manager Jim Gabbard said the piece is inaccurate and, had the city been informed, “We could have helped her and prevented a lot of angst on the part of the people who received this.”
Gabbard told the council he would give Rep. Mayfield a call to discuss the direct mail piece. As of Tuesday night, Rep. Mayfield had not received a call from Gabbard, she said.
Councilman Brian Heady also took Rep. Mayfield to task for sending the mailers in the first place, calling the mailing “a total waste of tax dollars.”
Rep. Mayfield disagreed.
“We have within our budget to send out communications to our constituents,” she said. How much money was actually spent on the fliers was not known Tuesday night, as Rep. Mayfield said she did not have that figure.
Rep. Mayfield said on air the mailer was to serve two purposes — one to inform her constituents about the issue and, two, to garner support for the upcoming local legislative delegation meeting.
The state representative plans to bring forward two bills at the Jan. 26 meeting and hopes to get support from her fellow legislators to take the bills to Tallahassee.
“The intent of the (consumer protection) bills is to place the City of Vero Beach Utility under the jurisdiction of the Public Service Commission,” an e-mail from Rep. Mayfield’s office states. “These Consumer Protection Bills will work to make sure that all citizens of both the City of Vero Beach and Indian River County are represented by an independent authority. Keep in mind that the majority of utility customers are currently county residents who do not have the ability to vote on city issues.”
If successful in passing the legislation, the bills would:
Define the City of Vero Beach Utility as a public utility. Therefore, it will have the same reporting requirements as all major utilities like FPL and Progress Energy.
The Public Service Commission would also have rule making authority to customize specific requirements for the utility – more power than it currently has in approving new rate structures for the city.
And, when a complaint is filed it will be accepted and processed in the same manner as a public utility by the Public Service Commission.
The mailer contains a petition asking residents to support Rep. Mayfield’s bills to place the Vero Beach Utility under the purview of the Public Service Commission.
“If you’re going to be in the utility business, then you should operate and be managed like all other utility businesses, just like Florida Power & Light, just like Progress (Energy),” Rep. Mayfield said on the radio.