What’s next for Gabbard after exit as Vero Beach City Manager?

VERO BEACH – Vero Beach City Manager Jim Gabbard’s retirement announcement on July 23 – though billed as a surprise and something he’d just decided for sure that morning — was no shocker to anyone following local politics.

In a display of pride and ego, he engaged in public chest beating with Councilman Brian Heady, both at City Hall and in the County Commission chambers, and in a stream of back-and-forth memos.

For months, city staffers have whispered behind-the-scenes that Gabbard was a man at the frayed end of his emotional rope. Many thought Gabbard’s demise would come involuntarily should voters usher in a completely new City Council on Nov. 3.

With five years vested in the top job with the city, Gabbard will exit with no golden parachute, but with a third government pension, meaning he’ll collect a check from the city every month for the rest of his life.

Months ago, the 61-year-old Gabbard vowed to stay on the job at least another year to see through the possible sale of the electric utility to Florida Power & Light.

Along with that, he would have been faced with the daunting but inevitable task of trimming the city’s bloated bureaucracy.

Personally and politically, Gabbard made the choice that now was the best time to leave on his own terms. It seemed like an especially good time for a man who some predict will reinvent himself and run for public office.

Appointed in the wake of scandal after former City Manager David Mekarsky was fired in 2005, Chief Gabbard, coming off a failed run for Sheriff in 2004, was seen as the straight shooter the city needed to clean up its act.

“I think the council took a lot of comfort in knowing the person, his background and his character,” said Caroline Ginn, who served as a Mayor of Vero Beach when Gabbard was Police Chief and later went on to serve on the Board of County Commissioners.

“I wouldn’t know about his experience level for the job,” Ginn said. “We had a couple of people who had the experience level and they didn’t produce. We had several that didn’t work out.”

Ginn said she has deep concerns for the city’s future and said the council needs to get a handle on pensions, on what to do the electric utility and about what is viewed as an overstaffed government.

“One of the problems is when the council gets too close to the staff,” she said. “It’s not good to be that close to the staff.”

 Councilman Brian Heady — who has never been accused of being too close to the staff – was the city’s official “gadfly” when Gabbard transitioned from Police Chief to City Manager.

Heady agreed with Ginn that the promotion of the top cop was because of strong relationships he’d built over the years.

“I think it was a political appointment because of whom he knew,” Heady said.

“He was somebody who was already there and they could put him in there and can Mekarski.”

When asked if he thinks Gabbard had the qualifications to be City Manager, Heady hedged.

“I dislike the word qualifications. Do I think that he had the ability to lead? I think that was demonstrated as Police Chief and as head of a department,” he said. “I don’t think that you need to have qualifications so much as you have to have ability.

“I think too often we look for managers who are qualified, if you will, or knowledgeable if you will, in a particular field,” Heady said. “In reality what we need is a manager with the ability to look at issues and ferret through the data and make good, sound decisions based on the information that’s available.”

Despite five years of one crisis after another, Gabbard retains his reputation as a good guy among the people who work and support local campaigns.

Some call Gabbard “Teflon Man” for his ability to survive anything.

Political watchers say that his resignation allows him to exit the city manager’s position relatively unscathed – and perhaps benefiting from some sympathy for having suffered for the city’s mistakes but not having masterminded them.

“They have thrown so much at him, he has had so many difficult things to deal with,” Ginn said. “Leaving is good for Jim in many ways, but it’s not good for the city. He’s a very good man.”

 Gabbard’s exit has been cocktail party fodder ever since the announcement, but nowhere more so than at the recent Republican Rally at the Heritage Center.

The consensus of those in the know in local politics is that the myriad of issues facing Gabbard became too much, politically.

During his tenure Gabbard faced the electric rate crisis, the debacle of the signing of the Orlando Utilities Commission contract, the election of Brian Heady and Charlie Wilson – followed by Wilson’s ouster — and now a possible sale of the electric utility, the city’s biggest money maker.

Facing tough economic malaise, a sale almost inevitably would force the city to raise its artificially low tax rate.

“I guess when you’ve been in that kind of pressure cooker as long as he has been, it would be a relief to go,” Ginn said.

And just last week, the Inspector General of the Department of Homeland Security announced his agency was conducting an audit of the city’s handling of the 2004 hurricanes and their aftermath.

“He’s leaving under the same circumstances he came here – gosh, the controversy, so many of the same things going on,” Heady said.

No matter what his critics might say about his abilities, Gabbard’s forte is team-building and the management of a large staff.

In Republican circles, the consensus is that Gabbard could mount a Republican primary challenge to Sheriff Deryl Loar in 2012.

It’s no secret that the rank-and-file deputies at the Sheriff’s Office aren’t particularly fond of the housecleaning Loar performed shortly after his election. The Sheriff’s Office legal staff has been mired in lawsuits ever since.

Then last fall, Loar faced off against his own employees in a battle before the Board of County Commissioners.

When Loar switched deputies to eight-hour shifts from 12-hour shifts — despite cries that it would disrupt their family lives — they started looking for a new boss.

The new boss would have to be a guy with the reputation of taking care of his people.

It’s no surprise that some of Gabbard’s biggest opponents are happy to see him go.

“I would say it was good timing,” said former Councilman Charlie Wilson.

Wilson agrees that Gabbard is smart to retire before the November election.

Heady has already called for his termination, and if two more likeminded people are elected, chances are the embattled city manager would not be long for his job. The retirement allows Gabbard to leave on his own terms, at his own time.

“It’s one down and four to go,” Wilson said, referring to Vice Mayor Sabe Abell, Councilman Tom White, Councilman Ken Daige and City Attorney Charles Vitunac, who all played a part in the Orlando Utilities contract debacle and whom Wilson holds responsible for the high electric rates.

Gabbard and Vitunac – who were brothers-in-law and remain very close friends – have had a strong allegiance on the city’s dais. Some think Vitunac may be next to go, but Wilson bucks that thinking.

“My guess is that Charlie Vitunac will hang in there by his fingernails until they drag him from the dais,” Wilson said.

While it’s yet to be seen if any other key officials will decide now is a good time to retire, the next dilemma will be whether to move ahead with a search or to let the new city council — potentially four new members if there’s a complete turnover — select the new City Manager.

Daige is pushing for the recruitment to start now. The matter will be tossed about over the next few weeks.

“If they left that seat empty, I think the city could do just fine for a while,” Heady said.

Heady added that Public Works Director Monte Falls, or potentially Finance Director Steve Maillet, who quit but then extended his tenure by one year, would be more than adequate in the interim, and choosing one of them for the position would save the city some money.

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