Referendum could put Vero out of the electric business

VERO BEACH — Growing impatient with the City of Vero Beach’s operation of its electric utility, a group led by former City Councilman Charlie Wilson is preparing to launch an effort to put the electric question to a vote.

Their plan, announced during an hours-long city council meeting last week that resulted in little new information about the current electric contract, would see a referendum placed on the city ballot this coming November, which if approved by city voters, would force Vero into the sale of the utility. Wilson challenged the city council to take the initiative to place the item on the ballot asking whether or not Vero residents want the city to sell the power utility or to continue providing electric service.

No council member immediately stepped up to the challenge. Wilson gave them a two-week deadline, after which, should the city not begin the process of approving a ballot initiative, he will lead a petition drive.

“It’s a very different place we had here than we had in November. And some people don’t think it’s good, but I think it’s good,” he told the council. “It’s clear that the council will not — and the staff certainly will not — succumb to the will of the voters, so as a result, Statute 166 will allow a referendum to go on the ballot.”

Vero old timers might remember that the city voters approved a referendum to sell the utility to Florida Power & Light in 1976, but federal officials disallowed the sale to prevent Florida Power and Light from monopolizing the Florida electric market.

That concern is believed to no longer be an impediment to such a sale.

Electrifying the ballot

Based on the number of registered Vero voters for the last general election, Wilson and his followers must collect 1,060 signatures from voters who reside within the Vero city limits.

Petitions must be submitted to Supervisor of Elections Kay Clem at least 100 days prior to the election.

“The plan is to get 100 volunteers to collect 10 signatures each, to meet in a central location for a rally and send them out all over the city collecting signatures,” Wilson said of trying to get all the needed signatures in one day sometime in March.

Wilson has met with an attorney to review the language of the proposed petition and had numerous meetings with city and county officials about the process.

Pam Director, a barrier island resident and Democratic state committeewoman, recently headed up a petition campaign to collect 2,000 signatures in support of fair redistricting. Director was impressed with the idea of hosting a rally and collecting all 1,060 signatures in one day. The fair districting petition campaign lasted almost six months.

“The major thing is that it’s hard work and you really have to have some solid people who are not afraid to walk up to everybody and ask for their signature,” she said. “It’s hard to find those kinds of people, but once you assemble a good team, it’s a matter of getting out there and doing it. For us, not a single person said he wouldn’t sign.”

Wilson is also assembling a board of directors for an organization called “Operation Clean Sweep,” which will run the referendum campaign and also recruit and support candidates for the four City Council seats up for grabs in November.

Incumbent County Commissioner Joe Flescher, whose county seat Wilson is now seeking in the November election, said he supports allowing city voters to have a say on this important issue.

“I believe the city electric customers are paying a premium as well as the citizens of the local area are for the service,” Flescher said. “If the people have exhausted all other possibilities, I support anything that will reduce those prices.”

Could this actually work?

Carole Jean Jordan joined a Republican women’s group in 1973 and has been a force in local, state and national politics ever since. Currently the county’s Tax Collector, Jordan has served as chair of the Republican Party of Florida and on the Republican National Committee. A city resident for nearly 40 years, Jordan also knows about Vero politics.

“It certainly can get people excited,” Jordan said. “If something of great interest is on the ballot, it can turn out the vote — but you may have a no vote.”

Jordan said the city’s utility crisis has spilled over into her own office at the county. As tax collector in charge of tags and licenses, she sees people every day trying to adjust their lives around their efforts to keep the lights on at their homes and businesses.

“The utility issue has people very passionate because it’s so expensive and especially difficult on people with fixed incomes,” she said. “We’ve seen people turning in vehicles or giving them to their kids because they can no longer afford a vehicle.

But would residents support it?

Councilman Brian Heady dismissed the idea of a referendum, contending Vero residents won’t vote against their financial interests. He noted that property taxes would rise sharply if the money skimmed from electric bills — about $8 million — was not flowing into city coffers.

“I could see the customers outside the city voting for this, but I’m not sure about city residents. Why would people vote for something that would make their taxes go up?” he asked shortly after hearing of Wilson’s plans.

Skepticism about the competency and motives of the city and the people running the city’s electric business, combined with prospects of 30 to 35 percent reduction in bills under another provider, may prove to outweigh the fear of higher property taxes.

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