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Attorney on trial for conspiracy in Heaton hotel case
week of June 14, 2018

Vero Beach lawyer Eric Granitur went on trial Monday at the federal courthouse in West Palm Beach, charged with conspiracy and making false statements in connection with mortgage loans that helped developer George Heaton keep moving ahead a decade ago with construction of the Vero Beach Hotel & Spa. Among those set to testify against him was Heaton, who agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for a plea deal that will limit his own sentence to no more than five years in prison. Granitur, 60, who performed escrow work in 2008 and 2009 for condominium units at the hotel, maintains his innocence, but prosecutors allege he and others lied to lenders about incentive programs, such as cash-to-close rebates, used to lure prospective buyers to the Ocean Drive development during the real estate slowdown. This illegal move gave commercial lenders a false impression of the viability of the luxury hotel and condominium project, they say. Developers then were able to secure the funds they needed to finish construction without proper scrutiny and to the detriment of the banks. READ FULL STORY


Cleveland seen expanding medical training here
week of June 14, 2018

As Cleveland Clinic and the Indian River Medical Center enter the final stretch of partnership negotiations, one hospital board member finds herself in the sweet spot. When Dr. Juliette Lomax-Homier, a practicing gynecologist and dean of the Fort Pierce campus of Florida State University’s medical school, cast her vote in January for the Cleveland Clinic to take over Indian River Medical Center, she saw a bright future for her program and the students it trains as well as for the hospital that serves Vero Beach. With the upcoming acquisition, there is a strong likelihood her students will train at a future Cleveland Clinic Indian River, and talks are underway for Cleveland to take over Martin Health’s three hospitals, where FSU students also train. Suddenly, a program that for a decade has quietly trained 40 medical students a year could find itself offering rotations at as many as four Cleveland Clinic hospitals. “Who would have ever thought this could happen?” she asked. READ FULL STORY


Will valet stands or garage be answer to parking shortage in Central Beach?
week of June 14, 2018

Continuing their search for solutions to the parking shortage in the Central Beach business district, Vero city officials are now exploring the possibility of putting as many as four valet stands along Ocean and Cardinal drives. They also heard a proposal for a parking garage from longtime Vero businessman Mark Tripson. The valet suggestion, introduced by Vice Mayor Lange Sykes at last week’s City Council meeting, could involve the use of smart phones, municipal parking areas at Jaycee Park, South Beach and Riverside Park, and shuttles to transport the valets to the lots. “The technology in that industry has advanced dramatically,” Sykes said, referring to drivers’ ability to use their smartphones to call the valet stands and request their cars 15 minutes in advance. Sykes said he believes beachside shoppers and diners, particularly those who complain that they can’t park close enough to their destinations, would opt to use the valet service, especially if their only cost was a tip. READ FULL STORY


Keep fingers crossed on Vero Electric sale for three more weeks
week of June 14, 2018

Just one final, nerve-wracking, three-week period hopefully remains for stakeholders in the Vero Electric sale. The Florida Public Service Commission is expected to issue a formal ruling this week approving the sale of Vero Electric to Florida Power & Light, following up on a nail-biter 3-2 favorable vote last week, but a 21-day review period follows the ruling. If there are formal objections during that period, it is possible the deal could still be delayed or derailed. If there’s no challenge by the end of the review timeframe, the ruling will be final, and the parties can proceed toward a closing. The 3-2 vote came after nearly two hours of testimony about the carefully crafted $185 million deal that was the result of a decade of effort. The PSC said the transaction involved “extraordinary circumstances” that permitted them to approve the deal, even though FPL plans to pay $116.2 million more than what the PSC staff said the Vero utility was worth. READ FULL STORY


School Board candidates say current board not doing its duty
week of June 14, 2018

Scandals and other problems under the current School Board have attracted a bumper crop of candidates for the three board seats that will be voted on in next fall’s election. So far, 10 candidates have filed to challenge incumbents in districts 1, 2 and 4. Three candidates who made statements and answered questions at the Democratic Women’s Club of Indian River County last week contended the board currently is dysfunctional, doing the bidding of Superintendent Mark Rendell instead of properly overseeing him. “Our School Board [wrongly] acts at the direction of the superintendent,” said Merchon Green, who is running for the District 2 seat currently occupied by Dale Simchick. Stacey Klim, who is running for the District 4 seat now filled by Charles Searcy, said the current setup is a “flipped system,” which results in the School Board rubber-stamping whatever Rendell recommends. “In addition to roles flipped, it’s a matter of expertise,” said Mara Schiff, noting that people with no educational or financial qualifications can run for a seat on the School Board, which is responsible for a budget of nearly $300 million. Schiff is running for the District 1 seat now held by Shawn Frost. “The board ends up defaulting to whom they think has expertise. We need to shift that.” READ FULL STORY


Algae blamed for lack of fish near inlet last winter
week of June 14, 2018

The area around the Sebastian Inlet, long renowned as a fishing location attracting anglers from across the state and nation, had an unusually small catch this past winter and scientists blame brown algae fed by sewage leaking from septic tanks. "It wasn't good all winter long," said light-tackle charter boat captain Glyn Austin. "Typically, we catch a lot of jacks and a lot of bluefish, pompano and flounder in the inlet, but many times you'd go in there and it was dead." Inshore fisherman Tom Pierce recalled murky water with 8-inch visibility he encountered in the Indian River Lagoon near the inlet. The coffee-colored flats were clotted with algae, making it impossible to see schools of spotted sea trout that normally roam the seagrass beds in the area. After casting a range of lures for two hours without a bite, Pierce and his companion motored south to Vero Beach where they found clearer water and a handful of keeper trout. READ FULL STORY


Old Dodgertown golf course development plan moving forward
week of June 14, 2018

Vero Beach City Manager Jim O'Connor said Friday a Lakeland-based builder and his partner have decided to try to move forward with their plan to purchase the Dodgertown golf course property and transform it into a mixed-use development that would contain retail shops, restaurants, hotels, office buildings and possibly townhouses, along with plenty of green space. When developer Mark Hulbert presented a conceptual plan for the project to the City Council last week, several council members expressed concerns about the idea of building a residential community so close to the Vero Beach Regional Airport, and Hulbert said he would consider pulling the townhouses from the plan if the project still makes financial sense without them. "I called him the next day to see what they thought about the meeting and ask if they were still interested," O'Connor said of Hulbert, whose partner in the project is Terry Borcheller, a race-car driver who lives in Vero Beach. "He said they're moving forward and hiring a planner to turn their concept into an actual proposal," O’Connor added. "They've done similar projects in the Lakeland area, so I think this one might actually have some legs to it." READ FULL STORY


Power surcharge strongly opposed by local officials
week of June 7, 2018

In the days before the Florida Public Service Commission approved the Vero electric sale on a 3-to-2 vote, local officials lodged emphatic objections to the PSC staff’s stance that Vero customers would need to pay a cost-recovery surcharge on their electric bills to make Florida Power & Light’s other 4.9 million ratepayers whole after the $185 million acquisition. Though the PSC staff recommended approving the acquisition of Vero’s 34,000 customers and expanding FPL’s current service territory to encompass all of Vero Beach, Indian River Shores and unincorporated Indian River County, the staff also said $185 million was too much for FPL to pay for Vero’s lines, poles, equipment and customer base. Any dollar amount above what is fair for the system infrastructure and ongoing business of a utility with 34,000 customers would need to be recouped via a cost-recovery surcharge or “rider,” the staff says in its report. Whether the staff provided commissioners with supporting analysis or calculations not included in the backup for the agenda item was unclear. But in the end, the PSC approved the sale with no surcharge on Vero customers. READ FULL STORY


Stalled restaurant project hunts far and near for tenant
week of June 7, 2018

Vero Beach-based commercial realtor Billy Moss has taken over the listing for a stalled restaurant project under construction on Ocean Drive, marketing the site to potential tenants from Miami to Los Angeles. “I was in the restaurant business in Las Vegas, Chicago and California, and this is what I do,” said Moss, who specializes in selling and leasing restaurant properties. “I’m reaching out to people all over the country. “We’re approaching some nationally known chefs, and a lot of awesome people are looking at the location,” he added. “Of course, we’re also entertaining talks with local people. “It’s very important to the owners that we get the right tenant.” The property, located across from Bobby’s Restaurant & Lounge, is owned by Sony Investment Real Estate Inc., the Miami-based company that also owns the buildings to the immediate north and south, on the west side of Ocean Drive, between Acacia and Banyan roads. Moss, who took over the listing from the Rita Curry Real Estate Team in April, said Sony is seeking a tenant that will sign a five-year, triple-net lease for the restaurant – the tenant would pay all taxes, insurance and maintenance expenses that arise from the use of the property – with rent of $12,000 per month. READ FULL STORY


Top water official says county facilities polluting lagoon
week of June 7, 2018

The county spent millions building two artificial marshes intended in part to reduce the amount of pollution going into the Indian River Lagoon, but now a top water official says the facilities are actually increasing the flow of harmful chemicals into the ecologically sensitive estuary. The 67-acre Spoonbill Marsh, which is supposed to treat mineral-rich effluent from the county’s north water purification plant and clean nutrients out of lagoon water that is mixed with the effluent, was built north of Grand Harbor in 2008. The West Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility marsh, built in the 1990s, is intended to remove nutrients from treated sewage effluent before it flows into the 8th Street Canal, which leads to the lagoon. But David Gunter, who has been superintendent of the Indian River Farms Water Control District for more than 40 years, says both marshes are malfunctioning and leaking large amounts of algae-producing nitrogen into the lagoon. A series of massive algae blooms has decimated the estuary in recent years, killing seagrass and aquatic animals. READ FULL STORY


Judge Cox to rule whether Stand Your Ground can be applied retroactively
week of June 7, 2018

A circuit court judge is likely to weigh in on whether Florida’s evolving Stand Your Ground statute can be applied retroactively as she revisits an alleged fratricide from more than three years ago. Judge Cynthia Cox, who presides over the felony court bench in Indian River County, has granted Mark Deffendall and his attorney, Assistant Public Defender Alan Hunt, a second chance to apply Florida’s Stand Your Ground statute to his defense. Deffendall, 43, was arrested in October 2014 after police say he shot and killed his brother, Eric, at their father’s home and airplane hangar on De Havilland Court in Vero Beach. Months after his arrest, Cox denied Mark Deffendall’s initial request to have his case dismissed under Florida’s Stand Your Ground statute. The burden of proof at the time was on the defendant to show the act was in self-defense, and after hearing testimony from several people, including the Deffendall, his family and friends, Cox said he failed to prove his case. READ FULL STORY


Clearing for The Strand, new community next to Palm Island, underway
week of June 7, 2018

After 14 years and three developers, work is finally underway on a new subdivision that will occupy the last large development tract in Indian River Shores. The Shores Planning, Zoning & Variance Board approved a master plan for The Strand in May, and the Patten Company is now clearing the 34-acre site that extends from Highway A1A to Jungle Trail between Palm Island Plantation and Indian Trails. According to the master plan, The Strand will include 47 single-family homes and 21 townhomes in five buildings. The townhomes will be situated near the community entrance, with houses further back from the road, arranged around a small lake that will serve as a park-like water feature as well as a stormwater retention pond. The townhomes were listed with Dale Sorensen Real Estate on May 21 and company co-owner, Matilde Sorensen, said the units are now for sale. “People can put down a refundable $10,000 deposit and choose the unit they want,” Sorensen said. Pre-construction prices for the townhomes range from $799,000 to $995,000, according to Pat Mays, managing broker at Sorensen’s Cardinal Drive office. She said the company will put a staffed sales trailer on site as soon as utilities are installed. READ FULL STORY


All Aboard Florida gets time to sell bonds for Orlando stretch
week of June 7, 2018

All Aboard Florida got another break from an indulgent federal government last week when the U.S. Department of Transportation granted the company more time to issue $1.15 billion of Private Activity Bonds to finance the second phase of its high-speed passenger rail service. “This propels our project as we extend Brightline to Orlando, developing a transportation network that will benefit the entire state,” said Brightline President Patrick Goddard. The tax-exempt bonds were allocated in December and set to expire May 31. So far, investors have not rushed to buy the bonds. The seven-month extension through the end of the year was granted on the condition that the company continue to seek alternative financing. The rail company’s access to Private Activity Bonds, which are subsidized by the government and offer tax-exempt interest rates to investors, remains a source of contention as counties along the Treasure Coast fight to keep Brightline trains from traveling through their communities. The train, which travels at speeds up to 110 miles per hour, launched a West Palm Beach to Fort Lauderdale line in January and extended service to Miami last month. READ FULL STORY


‘Marsy’s Law’ could become part of Florida constitution
week of June 7, 2018

A victims’ rights constitutional amendment Floridians will vote on this fall that sounds like a good idea on the surface is actually a bad idea that clutters up the state’s constitution and could violate the rights of defendants, according to opponents. On the ballot in November, bundled confusingly with questions about the judicial retirement age and the power of administrative law judges, is a victims’ rights measure called Marsy’s Law. The initiative was conceived and has been pushed nationwide by California tech billionaire Henry Nicholas, after his sister, Marsalee “Marsy” Nicholas, was stalked and killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983. Family members of Marsy Nicholas, who had not been notified that the man accused of killing her was out on bail, ran into the man at a grocery store just a week after her death. Clearly defined victims’ rights could have avoided their trauma, advocates for Marsy’s Law argue. Florida’s proposed Marsy’s Law, approved by the Constitutional Revision Commission this month, presents voters the opportunity to change the state’s charter document to include victims’ rights, such as the right to be notified of all criminal proceedings, the right to confer with the prosecutor before a plea agreement is offered, and the right to discuss matters of criminal restitution. READ FULL STORY


Vero arts groups take stock of cuts in state funding
week of May 31, 2018

The drumbeat of news alerts about possible arts funding cuts began just as Vero’s cultural season was reaching its peak, staffers so swamped with shows and concerts they hardly had time to inhale. They managed a collective gasp, though, when they learned in March that state matching grants many rely on had been slashed by a staggering 90 percent. Today, as their audiences head north or settle in for the lassitude of summer, Vero’s signature cultural institutions are taking stock of the blow dealt them by a governor and state legislature who consider the arts non-essential. The cuts in the state’s Division of Cultural Affairs recommended matching grants will cost Riverside Theatre and the Vero Beach Museum of Art $140,000 each. McKee Botanical Garden will lose $100,000. Smaller but still important Vero arts groups, including the Theatre Guild, Ballet Vero Beach and Vero Beach Opera, will get next to nothing under the new protocols. READ FULL STORY


Vero facing final hurdle to electric sale in PSC
week of May 31, 2018

A long-awaited Florida Public Service Commission staff recommendation was released late last week with some good news for Vero Beach, but with some complex analysis that will keep supporters of the sale of the city’s electric utility to Florida Power & Light on tenterhooks until the PSC meets next week. The good news was the PSC staff recommendation that the Commission on June 5 approve the sale and amend FPL’s service territory to include Vero’s 34,000 customers in and outside the city. This positive sign should not be overlooked, said utility activist and CPA Glenn Heran. “Don’t forget that those first two recommendations in the report are significant victories.” But in a 23-page document loaded with detailed financial and legal analysis, the PSC staff indicated it doesn’t think acquiring Vero’s 34,000 customers warranted FPL’s $185-million-plus purchase offer. What this will mean to the sale remains to be seen. READ FULL STORY


IRMC may charge non-emergency copay to ease ER crowding
week of May 31, 2018

When patients arrive at the emergency department of Indian River Medical Center, they are assessed by a medical team to determine the urgency of the illness or injury. Patients also provide financial and insurance information. For those patients who are medically indigent and arrive with a non-emergency, what is not assessed is a copay. In other words, if someone with little or no income and no insurance shows up at the ER for treatment of a non-emergency condition, they are not required to pay for treatment. Instead, the county’s Hospital District – which exists to provide medical care to indigent residents of the county – reimburses IRMC for any expenses. That policy appears on the verge of changing. In the hopes of thinning out the seemingly eternal ER logjam, hospital officials are considering charging a fee to those people who up till now have been treated for free. The hope is that a copay would discourage medically indigent people with non-emergency issues from heading straight to the hospital when they would be better treated by a primary care physician in a clinic. READ FULL STORY


Owner of half-sunk boat by 17th St. Bridge to be charged
week of May 31, 2018

Nearly two months after a 35-foot catamaran hit a power line by the 17th Street Bridge, caught fire and caused a temporary power outage, the crippled vessel last week remained partially submerged in the Indian River Lagoon, just south of the bridge. It could be July before it is removed. Lt. Dustin Lightsey of the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, which has police jurisdiction over state waters, said the boat has been declared a "derelict vessel" and that the owner will be criminally charged for abandoning it. Under Florida law, abandoning a derelict vessel in state waters is a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum of one year in jail, a $1,000 fine or both. Lightsey, who oversees FWC patrols of the waters in Indian River and southern Brevard counties, refused to identify the boat's owner, saying only that he's in the Bahamas. "We're working the case and our officer has contacted the owner in the Bahamas," Lightsey said. "He can waive his rights to the vessel or have it moved. Either way, the boat has been there for several weeks, so he's going to be charged." READ FULL STORY


Plans unveiled for new luxury community in The Shores
week of May 31, 2018

One year after Indian River Shores auctioned off a five-acre oceanside parcel to the Lutgert Companies, the Naples-based developer has submitted plans for a proposed luxury-home community called Surfsedge. Plans show a 12-unit condominium spanning the east end of the parcel, built above ground-level parking so that it overlooks the ocean, with 12 single-family homes arranged along a private street occupying the space between the condo and A1A. Lutgert executives said last year they hoped to break ground on the first model home around January 2018. At that time, the company was interested in purchasing a nearby property owned by Florida Institute of Technology to expand the development and make it truly beachfront. Efforts to meet with FIT officials to pursue that purchase delayed planning for the development, according to Lutgert. “We had hoped there would be some connection with the FIT site but after we submitted a proposal, FIT went dark and we haven’t heard anything other than they were considering other options,” Lutgert project manager Mike Hoyt said last week. READ FULL STORY


Mental Health Association leader retiring
week of May 24, 2018

Dr. Robert Brugnoli, whose leadership at the Mental Health Association turned the agency around when it was at the brink of collapse five years ago, has informed the agency he intends to retire at the end of this year. Brugnoli, a native of Staten Island, N.Y., who holds doctoral degrees in clinical and school psychology on top of master’s degrees in school and community psychology, has served mental health needs in Indian River and St. Lucie counties for more than 30 years. Recruited in 1987 by what is now the Behavioral Health Center, he moved to Vero Beach after brief posts in Daytona and with the V.A. in Miami. He eventually went into private practice here and consulted for St. Lucie County schools through 2012. At the end of that year, he took on his most visible role, as president and CEO of the Mental Health Association, brought in to stabilize an agency in crisis. In what will be a six-year tenure, he will have done just that, after ushering in a new board, recruiting staff and restoring fiscal viability. READ FULL STORY


Youth Sailing seen tacking toward a Riverside site
week of May 24, 2018

Vero Beach Mayor Harry Howle said last weekend that he believes “there’s no real chance” the City Council will approve the construction of a community sailing center on the lagoon-front property currently occupied by the municipal power plant, adjacent to the 17th Street Bridge. “From a sailing standpoint, that’s probably the best location, but the City Council is charged with doing what we believe is in the best interests of the city,” Howle said. “And the fact is, that’s a prime piece of property. “It’s too valuable for that use, or even a park,” he added. “We have a rare opportunity to replace an industrial area with something that could be wonderful for the city and residents of our community. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re not going to put the sailing center there.” Howle was doubling down on his remarks to representatives of the Youth Sailing Foundation at the May 1 City Council meeting, where he said any plan for the group to build on the power plant site was “kaput.” READ FULL STORY


Orchid Island Brewery seeking to move into city building in a park
week of May 24, 2018

The owner of Orchid Island Brewery wants to move his operation from Portales de Vero just off Ocean Drive to the City of Vero Beach’s picturesque River House community center and event facility on the lagoon – a novel idea that is not meeting with unanimous public enthusiasm. River House – located in MacWilliam Park which is adjacent to and just north of Riverside Park – is currently rented on a full-day or partial-day basis for more than 200 private, club and organization events per year, said Recreation Director Rob Slezak. Orchid Island Brewery owner Alden Bing says he would continue renting out the space, just as he does in his current location. Councilman Tony Young and several residents who spoke at the public podium at last week’s City Council meeting opposed the idea. They professed to love the brewery, but said they feel it doesn’t belong in a city-owned building in the middle of a park near where kids play baseball. Shared parking, with the ball fields, neighboring dog park and River House users all competing for the same spaces, might also be a concern. They note the area already has a sometimes-raucous bar nearby in the Riverside Cafe. READ FULL STORY


Former Norris brokerage booms as part of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices
week of May 24, 2018

Two years after longtime island real estate brokerage Norris & Company was acquired by Berkshire Hathaway, the ownership change has turned out to be a blockbuster success. In the first quarter of this year, the small island office was among the top three out of hundreds in the 17-state Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices south region, measured by increase in agent commissions. “We were thrilled by that,” says Carol Prezioso, managing broker at the sea-foam green real estate office on Ocean Drive that was Norris & Company for many years. “The success of the office has exceeded our expectations,” says Carol Hill, regional manager for Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Florida Realty, which bought the business in February 2016. Income, transaction sides, market share and agent count are all up since the acquisition – in some cases dramatically. Comparing figures from the fourth quarter of 2015, right before the acquisition, with the fourth quarter of 2017, Prezioso says transaction sides were up some 38 percent, while dollar volume jumped just a hair under 40 percent, from $39,747,706 to $55,614,000. READ FULL STORY


Shores town manager calling it quits after 28 years
week of May 24, 2018

When Indian River Shores Town Manager Robbie Stabe announced last week that he’ll be stepping down in late July, he was the third key Shores official to call it quits this spring. Mayor Brian Barefoot and Chief Building Official Jose Guanch also have resigned. Stabe’s announcement came on May 17, five years plus one day after he officially shifted from Public Safety Director, which is a combination police and fire chief job, to Town Manager, taking over for Richard Jefferson. Stabe, 55, is leaving on doctor’s orders. “I was faced with a decision – do I ignore my doctor’s advice and tough it out and risk my health? Or do I recognize that just shy of 28 years of service is enough and retire?” Stabe said. When he was Public Safety Director, Stabe had a stressful job, but he got regular time off. As Town Manager, not so much. A long weekend has had to suffice as a vacation and that seems to have taken a toll. READ FULL STORY


Major construction project underway on Old Winter Beach Rd.
week of May 24, 2018

The major construction project currently underway on Old Winter Beach Road has multiple goals. It is intended to solve road flooding problems, block stormwater runoff into the lagoon, and put in place a section of pipe that will carry reuse water from the mainland to the Johns Island Water Management system. The project will also put the road, which was erroneously laid out partly on private property when it was built in 1923, in the right place, moving it south, closer to The Shores community. The $1.5 million project, which got underway this month, is slated for completion by December. The project extends a half-mile from Jungle Trail to A1A. The most intense work is at the western end, where 36 inches of water collected during Hurricanes Matthew and Irma, said project manager Amy Adams. “At 40 inches, a car is floating away.” The western stretch of the road will be raised 2 feet to remedy the problem with standing water. It will also be moved 20 feet to the south because part of it is on property that belongs to River Club, a community on the north side of the road. READ FULL STORY


Jury didn’t buy drug doctor’s story that he was set up
week of May 24, 2018

Johnny Benjamin, the former Vero Beach spine surgeon recently convicted on federal drug charges, told the jury that convicted him he believes he was set up. The jurors clearly didn’t buy it. According to court transcripts obtained by Vero Beach 32963, the once-respected doctor who is now facing life in prison denied knowing the drugs found in his baggage at the Melbourne airport last year were supposed to be oxycodone. Someone must have planted them, he testified under oath at his trial last month. The doctor, who has since been stripped of his medical license, pointed the finger at Zachary Stewart, his co-defendant and longtime friend turned medical sales associate. Stewart, along with Kevan Slater, the third co-defendant in the case, were the first suspects linked to the fentanyl-laced painkillers found at the scene of a Palm Beach County woman’s 2016 overdose death. Both men took plea deals in exchange for consideration of leniency at sentencing and helped federal agents build a case against the doctor. READ FULL STORY


Drug doctor’s lawyers bid to recall jurors
week of May 17, 2018

Lawyers for Johnny Benjamin, the former Vero Beach spine surgeon facing life in prison on federal drug charges, clashed with prosecutors last week over a defense bid to bring the jurors who convicted the island resident back for the court room for questioning. Donnie Murrell, the lead West Palm Beach trial attorney on Benjamin’s case, asked the judge May 1 to recall the jury. Benjamin was convicted and jurors discharged April 27. After the panel was excused, a clerk found a document entitled “Here are 30 do’s and don’ts of jury deliberations,” Murrell wrote the court. While the list itself isn’t clearly prejudicial, its presence is proof that at least one juror ignored the court’s instructions and conducted their own outside research. “The concern, of course, is what is unknown here,” Murrell stated. “What other materials, if any, were brought into the jury room? If other material was introduced, how many jurors were exposed to it? Did it have an impact on their deliberations and/or the ultimate verdict? Unfortunately, the only way to determine the answers to these questions is to summon the jurors back to the courthouse and ask them.” READ FULL STORY


Director who brought big names to Sunrise Theatre dumped
week of May 17, 2018

When the City of Fort Pierce took over the historic Sunrise Theatre after a donor-funded $11 million renovation, officials apparently didn’t understand what the president of the board during that decade-long renovation, Vero attorney Michael Horowitz, says he already knew: “Theatres never make money, never,” Horowitz says. Now, the man Horowitz hired to bring big-city talent to the small-town theatre, John Wilkes, has been let go by Fort Pierce’s city manager. An interim director has been appointed – Sharon Engle, Wilkes’ assistant at Sunrise, while a search for Wilkes’ replacement is expected to take several months. The city intends to hold a public workshop in June to see what people “desire for the future of the Sunrise Theatre.” Wilkes, 65, had been chief operating officer of West Palm’s Kravis Center and executive director of Sarasota’s Van Wezel Hall before joining the Sunrise in 2008. An Ontario native who once handled booking for Toronto’s 10,000-seat arena, Wilkes had developed countless personal connections from his long career. READ FULL STORY


Tipster says Burkeen’s co-workers knew the boss was stealing tires
week of May 17, 2018

The day after retired Assistant Fire Chief Brian Burkeen was arrested for an alleged black-market tire sales scheme, Indian River County Commissioner Tim Zorc got an anonymous tip. While the community at-large might have been shocked to see Burkeen’s alleged fall from grace, those who worked alongside him knew what their boss was up to, but were too afraid to report him, the informant said. “There was a very real fear of retribution among the firefighters, so no one turned Burkeen in, though it was pretty widely known what he was doing,” the message states, according to e-mails obtained by Vero Beach 32963. “[The] County might want to institute some sort of anonymous tip line for waste and theft,” it said. Burkeen, 55, a longtime county official who also briefly served on the Sebastian City Council, was purchasing new tires at Goodyear stores using county funds and then selling them to private buyers he met at work and online, police say. READ FULL STORY


Sheriff seeks extra funds to cover cost of a lawman for every school
week of May 17, 2018

Sheriff Deryl Loar is asking for extra money in his 2018-19 budget to hire up to 15 new deputies to meet the state’s requirement that a law-enforcement officer be assigned to every public school. In the wake of the Valentine’s Day mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Gov. Rick Scott signed into law a bill that mandated the beefed-up security on school campuses. To meet that demand, Loar was forced to temporarily reassign deputies to the School Resource Officer program for the remainder of the soon-to-end academic year – changes he said put a strain on the agency’s staffing and budget, since the School District covers only about half the cost of the additional manpower. “It’s definitely been a challenge since March,” Sheriff’s Maj. Eric Flowers said. “We didn’t want to reduce our presence on the road, so we didn’t reassign anybody from our road patrol division. But it has impacted some of our specialty deputies.” Flowers said deputies from other units – crime prevention, agriculture, marine and traffic, as well as background investigators – were temporarily reassigned to schools. READ FULL STORY


Cleveland Clinic a finalist to acquire Boca Raton hospital
week of May 17, 2018

Cleveland Clinic Florida has made it into the final round of health systems being considered by Boca Raton Regional Hospital. From a field of five announced in March, Boca Regional leaders have narrowed the field to two: Cleveland Clinic and Baptist Health South Florida. Orlando Health, a one-time suitor of Indian River Medical Center, did not make the cut. Boca’s search for a partner began in earnest in June 2017, a month after CEO Jerry Fidele announced he intended to retire in August 2018. Earlier this month, Fidele, widely respected for having turned the hospital around 18 months into his 10-year tenure, announced he is postponing his retirement by a year to ease the hospital’s transition to new ownership. Should Cleveland win out over Baptist, the addition of the 400-bed Boca hospital would provide a geographic lynchpin for a proposed South Florida-based system that appears to have Indian River Medical Center in Vero as its northernmost presence. Negotiations between Cleveland Clinic and Indian River are in the final stages, and advisor Jamie Burgdorfer said the transaction is “moving along well.” READ FULL STORY


Two oceanfront homes to be auctioned off in June
week of May 17, 2018

Concierge Auctions, which has become a regular player in Vero’s luxury real estate market, is getting ready to sell two more oceanfront homes on the island in June. The sales will come on top of six Concierge auctions here in 2017. One home, currently listed at $6.7 million by Sally Daley & Company Real Estate, is located at 1804 Ocean Drive in Old Riomar. The other, at 908 Holoma, behind the Village Shops in Indian River Shores, is listed with Premier Estate Properties broker associate Cindy O’Dare for $2.3 million. Both homes will be sold at no-reserve online auctions. Bidding will begin at 4 p.m. on June 12 and continue through June 15, to accommodate bidders in other time zones and countries. Bidders are required to put up a refundable $100,000 deposit and show proof of funds sufficient to close if they are the high bidder. The Riomar house is a beautiful example of the British West Indies-style, solidly built on pilings at a high elevation in 2012 in accordance with Florida’s updated building codes. READ FULL STORY


School superintendent plays fast and loose in presenting report card
week of May 17, 2018

Superintendent Mark Rendell tried to make the case that things are going great in the School District to the Indian River Taxpayers Association luncheon last week, and some of his claims played fast and loose with the facts. The guest speaker reported the School District was named “best place to work” in Indian River County last year, which is something he might well be proud of, and claimed the honor was based on results of employee surveys. In reality, CareerSource based the award on a single survey completed by an administrator. The questionnaire was filled out by then-Assistant Superintendent William Fritz, whose contract was not renewed. As head of the Human Resources Department, Fritz negotiated union contracts that ended in impasses last year, imposing big hikes in employee insurance premiums to make up for a $7 million deficit in the health insurance fund, which he also oversaw. Rendell said the district has given raises the last three years to teachers, resulting in a nearly $48,000 average teacher salary, which matches the state average. He added that Indian River’s average beats out surrounding counties. READ FULL STORY