UPDATE: Sawnick returns from Washington, D.C. electric conference

VERO BEACH — Councilman Brian Heady said he was surprised Tuesday evening to find a memo in his city council mailbox notifying him that Mayor Kevin Sawnick was in Washington, D.C., representing the city’s electric utility at the American Public Power Association conference.

“Just a quick reminder that I will be in Washington this week attending the APPA rally,” the Feb. 22 memo stated. The reason Sawnick used the word “reminder” in the memo was that the council had approved an item “Mayor Sawnick attending APPA Legislative Rally” as the description of the trip on the Feb. 2 Consent Agenda, with no backup documents, date or location.

Having just returned from the rally Wednesday evening, Sawnick said he thought his itinerary had been in the backup, but no itinerary was available online with the usual agenda backup. When asked why the trip was not discussed, Sawnick said, “It was on the Consent Agenda and it was approved, no one pulled it for discussion.”

The trip, Sawnick said, consisted of meetings with members of Congress and networking with other officials from municipal electric utilities around the country.

“It was all great stuff, getting to hear what other cities are doing, they’ve got a lot of the same issues that they’re dealing with and it was interesting to hear about how they’re dealing with them,” Sawnick said. “Like how to keep rates down and whether to continue operating their own systems or not. They also talked about energy issues and climate change.”

From the rally Sawnick said he will share “a lot of paperwork” with his fellow council members and with city electric staff.

When asked if he met with Commissioner Wesley Davis or the mystery company the county is courting while he was in Washington, D.C., Sawnick responded that he was not aware that Davis was in D.C. meeting with anyone for economic development reasons.

Sawnick was one of 17 members of the Florida Municipal Power Agency at the conference advocating for the issues of municipal power utilities. In 2004 and 2005, Vero Beach tried to exit the FMPA and embarked upon a failed arbitration process which cost nearly $2 million in consultant and legal fees.

Then in 2009 top City of Vero Beach officials repeatedly portrayed FMPA and its All Requirements Project as the source of and reason for last summer’s high electric rates. But the city still purchases electricity through the FMPA and is tied to contracts related to the St. Lucie nuclear plant and the Stanton 1 and 2 coal plants.

City Clerk Tammy Vock said FMPA is reimbursing Sawnick for his travel expenses. This was confirmed by FMPA spokesman Mark McCain, who spoke to VeroNews.com from Washington, D.C.

“Our Board of Directors a number of years ago decided that our energy issues were very important and that they would do anything they could do to encourage members to come up for the legislative rally,” McCain said. “FMPA set aside funds to pay for 12 to 14 people to go, one representative from each city on a first-come, first-serve basis. We sent something out and they had to let us know that they wanted to go.”

McCain said Sawnick attended a meeting on Tuesday afternoon with Senator Bill Nelson and members of the Florida Municipal Electric Association. McCain said members would be meeting with members of the House of Representatives all day on Wednesday and that they had received a briefing about the issues critical to municipal electric systems that are currently before Congress.

Vock said a city official attends this conference each year. It is not clear why the trip — as it was planned well in advance and concerns the city’s electric utility — was only placed on the Consent agenda and not discussed during a public meeting or why there was no backup was provided about the nature of the travel. Council members traditionally talk about major travel plans during their matters.

“I bring up all my travel plans during my matters, anytime I’m traveling on city business. In fact at the last meeting I talked about a trip I was taking to Tampa to a conference,” Heady said. “Mayor Sawnick taking a trip to Washington, D.C., never came up.”

Heady also said he recalled back in November that the council discussed previous out-of-state travel by council members and that it was the consensus of council that all training and travel should be completed within Florida. The city had been criticized in past years for sending officials to Washington, D.C., and to Las Vegas on city business.

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