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Hospital ratings confuse patients, cause concern
week of March 14, 2019

The drive to turn patients into savvy consumers appears to have stalled again, with the latest Hospital Compare star ratings stirring up more controversy than confidence. Released last week by the government’s Centers for Medi- care and Medicaid Services, the ratings remained unchanged at Indian River County hospitals: two stars out of a possible five for both Cleveland Clinic Indian River and Steward Sebastian River Medical Center, same as the last time they were rated in 2017. While marketing departments at both hospitals shrugged off the mediocre scores, hospitals elsewhere are loudly complaining about the methodology CMS is using, creating controversy that caused multiple delays in the release of the latest ratings. Instead of helping consumers make smart choices about where to receive healthcare, the ratings seem to be adding to the confusion patients face when trying to decide on a hospital to call their own. While Indian River and Sebastian River scored the same in the latest CMS release, they scored differently in last fall’s Leapfrog Hospital Safety Grade, in which Indian River was awarded a B and Sebastian River got a C. READ FULL STORY


Vero to replace aging water main in John’s Island
week of March 14, 2019

The City of Vero Beach this week is slated to dig up and replace a galvanized street main that is delivering poor-quality drinking water to residents in a John’s Island neighborhood, but as aging pipes in the community continue to deteriorate, fixes like this might be only a Band-Aid on a much larger problem. Residents in the 400 block of Silver Moss Drive live in a first-class country club community on a street where a home sold recently for $1.4 million, but they have been drinking and bathing in dingy yellow water. New Town Manager Joe Griffin contacted Vero utility officials after complaints from residents, including one from a woman who said no matter how she tries to filter or purify her tap water, it still comes out yellow. Two residents spoke to Vero Beach 32963 by telephone, but did not want to be quoted by name. One said the water had been discolored for some time. The other water customer had recently moved in and could not say how long the water had been that way. READ FULL STORY


Police, park department move to clean up Pocahontas Park
week of March 14, 2019

After a flurry of complaints, phoned in and posted on social media sites, about conditions in Pocahontas Park – homeless people camping out, aggressive beggars, drug use, trash and broken playground equipment – Vero Beach city officials have taken action on several fronts to clean up the popular downtown park. The city’s recreation department sent crews to remove litter and leaves, and city police have increased patrols to prevent homeless people and other vagrants from sleeping on benches during the day, camping in the park at night, and leaving behind trash and human feces. Police also have cracked down on public drunkenness, begging for money and harassment of park visitors, particularly mothers who take their young children to the playground. “We’re keeping watch,” Vero Beach Police Capt. Kevin Martin said. “We’re doing more walk-throughs, so there’s an increased police presence in the park. And if we get a call, we go over there immediately. READ FULL STORY


Harbor Branch Foundation and FAU are back in court with a new judge
week of March 14, 2019

A new judge has been assigned to oversee a lawsuit filed by the Harbor Branch Foundation against Florida Atlantic University in March 2017, and both sides were back in court filing motions last week in their struggle for control of the Foundation’s $72 million endowment. Circuit Court Judge Lawrence Mirman is the latest judge assigned to the high-stakes case, after two earlier judges recused themselves because of potential conflicts of interest. On March 6, lawyers for FAU and the Foundation submitted an extensive list of witnesses they intend to call during the upcoming trial so Mirman can review the names and make sure he doesn’t have any personal or business relationships that would prevent him from overseeing the lawsuit. “Because the prior two judges assigned to this case have been recused, the parties wish to address any potential conflict with the court as soon as possible,” the joint motion stated. Attorneys for both sides noted the delays have prolonged the dispute and increased the cost of litigation. They requested a phone conference with the judge to discuss the issue. READ FULL STORY


Roofing company faces dozens of complaints over work not done
week of March 14, 2019

When Vero Beach homeowners Randy Smith and Jan Turban hired Alliance Group to replace their roof and gutters, they were told the job would be done within six weeks. Nine months later, after paying Alliance $16,000, their roof was still only partially installed and had not been worked on for months, leaving their house exposed to rain and humidity which they say has caused thousands of dollars in damage. An investigation by Vero Beach 32963 found that Smith and Turban are among dozens of homeowners in Indian River and surrounding counties who have either filed lawsuits against Alliance or lodged complaints about the company with the Florida State Attorney General’s Office or the Florida Better Business Bureau. The complainants allege they hired Alliance to repair their roofs, paying thousands of dollars upfront, and then never heard from the company again or heard only excuses for why work was not underway or completed. Alliance owner Adam Ryckman, whose office is in Port St. Lucie, acknowledged during an interview on Feb. 25 that many of the complaints are true and blamed the problems on subcontractors and construction managers who didn’t do the work they were hired to do. READ FULL STORY


Judge denies motions of man charged with DUI manslaughter
week of March 14, 2019

Circuit Court Judge Daniel Vaughn has denied all motions filed by a man charged with DUI manslaughter, including his request to have his alcohol and GPS monitoring bracelets removed and house arrest lifted while he awaits a trial date. At a contentious Feb. 20 hearing in a packed courtroom, Edward Ray Wheeler, 65, of Sebastian, claimed he needed to take up to 12 medications, most of which contained alcohol, to treat unspecified health problems. He also told Vaughn the alcohol monitoring bracelet he is required to wear costs $250 a month, an expense he said was causing “financial hardship” for his family. Angry, emotional family members of the two people Wheeler is accused of killing while driving drunk begged the judge not to grant Wheeler’s requests. In his decision, Vaughn noted the restrictions placed on Wheeler, including house arrest, were part of the bond conditions he had agreed to. Vaughn said Wheeler failed to present any documented evidence to back up his medical requests. READ FULL STORY


Sheriff Loar won’t seek re-election; Flowers, Rosell quickly in race
week of March 7, 2019

Deryl Loar will be 53 years old when his third and final term as Indian River County’s sheriff expires in January 2021 – young enough to pursue other opportunities as he embarks on the next phase of his life after leaving the sheriff’s office. “I’ve gotten a few calls about things I’ll consider doing when I’m finished here,” Loar said Monday, shortly after the sheriff’s office released a statement announcing that he would not seek re-election to a fourth term. “I’m not going to retire at 53 and go sit on the couch,” he added. “Financially, I should be fine, but I have to do something. There are opportunities out there, and I’ve got to see which one fits best. “It’s going to be exciting to see what happens, but it’s too soon to say what I’m going to do.” It wasn’t too soon, though, for Loar to say he might not be done with politics, leaving open the possibility he would either run for another elected office – beyond the county level – or serve as a political appointee. READ FULL STORY


Judge: New trial of accused killer of Brian Simpson to start April 8
week of March 7, 2019

A request last week by murder suspect Henry Lee Jones to replace his current public defender was swiftly shot down by Circuit Court Judge Daniel Vaughn, who gave Jones two options: “Utilize your current public defender,” or “represent yourself.” Either way, the judge said, Jones’ retrial for the killing of Brian Simpson during a 2011 burglary at the Central Beach resident’s home will begin April 8. Vaughn issued his decision during a brief hearing on Feb. 28, and did not wait for a response from Jones, who was hustled out of the courtroom and back to the county jail. Jones, who was convicted of a 2011 murder on the island but then had his conviction overturned on appeal, has a history of requesting and then dismissing his court-appointed attorneys. Jones was found guilty of first-degree murder in 2014 and received a life sentence. According to testimony at his trial, Jones shot Simpson after he and an associate got caught inside the Simpson family’s Fiddlewood Road house. READ FULL STORY


Utility wars redux: Shores and Vero now at odds over reuse water rates
week of March 7, 2019

There was a sweet, fleeting peace over the holidays between Vero Beach and Indian River Shores after Florida Power & Light closed on the sale of Vero electric, but now the Shores and Vero are at odds once again over utility rates. This time, the dispute involves reuse irrigation water, and differing interpretations of a contract signed seven years ago. The discrepancy between the rate Vero is charging, and the rate Indian River Shores says its residents should be paying is more than a quarter million dollars annually. In 2012, tens of millions of dollars in Indian River Shores’ water and sewer utility business was up for grabs. The town was on the verge of terminating Vero’s utility franchise and contracting with Indian River County Utilities for service, but some last-minute horse trading ensued and Vero offered to give the Shores the same exact rates they’d be charged by Indian River County. The Shores Town Council, in good faith, executed a new 15-year franchise agreement with Vero with the certainty that residents’ rates would be directly tied to county rates for the term of the contract. READ FULL STORY


With new No. 2, Cleveland Clinic to focus on efficiencies
week of March 7, 2019

Cleveland Clinic Indian River has a new chief operating officer, after a year and a half during which that position was vacant at the Vero hospital. Ralph D. Turner, who for the last two years was Cleveland Clinic’s executive director for patient support services, arrives in Vero next week. That’s just in time to begin work on what system-wide CEO Dr. Tom Mihaljevik announced last week is a new focus on operational efficiencies, particularly at the healthcare company’s recently acquired Florida hospitals and other expansion projects. Mihaljevik’s announcement was part of his annual State of the Clinic address, which revealed the health system’s operating income fell last year by 19 percent. Operating income is equivalent to operating profit, the amount that remains after a company pays its operating expenses. Mihaljevik said increasing costs of care and decreasing reimbursements were to blame for the decline. To study those factors, he announced the formation of the Center for the Study of Healthcare Delivery at Cleveland Clinic. Mayo Clinic launched a similar initiative in 2011. READ FULL STORY


Val Zudans chosen to lead Vero into next century as mayor
week of March 7, 2019

Those who expected the Vero Beach City Council to go with a sentimental choice for mayor on Monday – choosing Tony Young to lead the city 100 years after his grandfather became Vero’s first mayor – were a bit shell-shocked when Val Zudans was overwhelmingly elected mayor for the next eight months. Harry Howle nominated Zudans, saying he’d given the matter a great deal of consideration. Laura Moss nominated new council member Robbie Brackett, but Brackett politely declined, citing his need to learn how to be a councilman first. Prompted by shouts from the public in the gallery, “Tony, nominate yourself,” Young reluctantly and uncharacteristically finally nominated himself. But when it came down to a decision, Zudans got four of the five votes, giving him the mayor’s middle seat and the gavel. Laura Moss thought she should be awarded the ceremonial vice mayor title because of her public involvement and appearances at public and social events in the city, but Young was then unanimously chosen as vice mayor and will lead council meetings in the event Zudans is absent. READ FULL STORY


Train critics seek upgraded safety measures for Virgin Trains USA
week of March 7, 2019

A new railroad watchdog group wants Gov. Ron DeSantis to require Virgin Trains USA to pay for extra safety measures if the high-speed passenger rail service eventually zips through the Treasure Coast as planned. The Florida Alliance for Safe Trains is calling upon DeSantis to ratchet up the Florida Department of Transportation’s scrutiny of the Virgin Trains project and require stronger safety protections. Installing security fencing the length of the train tracks to protect against trespassers was among the initiatives FAST promoted during a news conference on Feb. 26 at the Vero Beach Heritage Center. Additional safety measures are also needed to prevent mishaps at hundreds of at-grade railroad crossings throughout the state, several FAST members said. There are 32 at-grade railroad crossings on Virgin Trains tracks in Indian River County and 21 in St. Lucie County. Potential safety initiatives for Virgin Trains operations were among the recommendations in an Oct. 31, 2018 report about the Florida Passenger Rail System by the state Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability. READ FULL STORY


Federal government gives area hospitals relatively low ratings
week of March 7, 2019

After months of delay as it tried to get its methodology right, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services has updated its star ratings for U. S. hospitals – and for Indian River, Martin and St. Lucie counties, the news is not good. Despite ongoing efforts, Cleveland Clinic Indian River and Sebastian River Medical Center, the latter now owned by Steward Health Care, were unable to raise their rating. Both got two out of five stars, same as when they were rated in December 2017. Lawnwood Regional Medical Center and Cleveland Clinic Martin Health, which consists of three hospitals in Stuart and Tradition, both dropped to one star from two. Indian River scored below the national average in four of seven broad areas: patient experience, readmissions, timeliness of care and efficient use of medical imaging. The hospital’s mortality rate was the same as the national average. Safety and effectiveness of care were above average. It is important to note that, while their names now reflect the change of management, the Cleveland Clinic hospitals’ CMS scores reflect performance data collected long before the Cleveland takeover. READ FULL STORY


Environmental Learning Center loses 2nd top exec
week of February 28, 2019

Less than a month after the abrupt resignation of Environmental Learning Center Executive Director Molly Steinwald, the county’s flagship environmental education organization has lost another top executive: Chief Operating Officer Margaret Kearney. Board Chairman Don Barr described Kearney’s departure as a surprise, the same thing he said about Steinwald’s departure in January. He also said Kearney leaving was “not totally unexpected.” In a written statement, Steinwald, who had served as executive director since 2014, said she resigned “due to differences in governance and understanding of the immediate needs of the organization.” Kearney, who was hired as COO in 2016, also submitted a letter of resignation to the ELC Board and the ELC Foundation Board in which she explained the reasons for her exit, according to a source, but the letter has not been made public. READ FULL STORY


Future of Gifford Health Center remains unclear
week of February 28, 2019

On the afternoon of Friday, Feb. 8, the County Health Department notified the Indian River Hospital District that after 15 years, it was pulling its caregivers out of the Gifford Health Center effective March 1, despite a lease and funding agreement with the Hospital District that extends through September. But less than two tense weeks later, the Health Department did a 180: Instead of pulling out of Gifford and consolidating services at its main clinic three miles away, it agreed to consolidate adult and pediatric primary care at the Gifford center, for at least the next three months. The off-and-on-again decisions by the Health Department were the latest tense chapter in a longtime relationship that recently has seemed to be increasingly in jeopardy. District trustees appeared dumbfounded and deeply disappointed by the Health Department’s decision to pull out of Gifford when they met at the district chairman’s meeting last Wednesday, which was their first chance to speak together about the matter due to Sunshine laws. READ FULL STORY


New Beach Planet store opens on Ocean Drive
week of February 28, 2019

Shortly after noon Saturday, as “GRAND OPENING” banners flapped in the sea breeze, a slow trickle of curious shoppers wandered into the new Beach Planet store on Ocean Drive, across from Bobby’s Restaurant, to see what the place had to offer. “It was OK,” store owner Yair Alon replied when asked about his opening weekend. “It was not good, but it was not bad. We got a few tourists who came by Friday and Saturday. Sunday was a little slow. “It’ll get better once people know we are here and see what we have.” The store is managed by Alon’s daughter, Shani, who said many of the people who stopped in told her they liked the store and its wide selection of beach merchandise. She said only 70 percent of the inventory arrived in time for the opening. “In two or three weeks,” she said, “we should be fully stocked.” This past weekend, shoppers found displays of beach chairs, umbrellas and children’s toys, as well as skim boards, in the open-air entryway. READ FULL STORY


Local governments still spraying with suspected carcinogen
week of February 28, 2019

Even though the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has stopped spraying herbicides containing the controversial chemical glyphosate on its managed waters while it evaluates health risks, neither the city of Vero Beach, Indian River County, nor the Indian River Farms Water Control District has any plans to curtail use of weed killers. All three local government bodies acknowledge using herbicides containing glyphosate for landscaping or weed control in drainage ditches or canals – despite findings of the World Health Organization, the state of California, and researchers at the University of Washington that glyphosate, the main ingredient of the popular weed killer Round Up, increases the cancer risk of people exposed to it. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found in 2017 that glyphosate is not likely to be carcinogenic in humans, but a panel of scientists that advises the agency criticized the study behind that finding. City, county and water control district officials all say the products they use in or near water are approved by the EPA and the Florida Department of Agriculture, are applied carefully and sparingly, and only used when mechanical methods of weed control are not feasible. READ FULL STORY


Vero Beach (sort of) clarifies council election ordinance
week of February 28, 2019

Vero Beach voters had a special election this week because of a dispute over whose responsibility it was to make sure Linda Hillman signed all her paperwork. Part of the argument used in court by Hillman’s attorney, before the case was settled, was that Florida Statute should be applied to the local Vero election. The portion of state law Hillman’s Tallahassee lawyer liked was the part that appears to require state elections officials to notify candidates if something, such as a signature or a document, is missing and to give the candidate a chance to fix the paperwork. That application of state statute over a municipal election, as Hillman’s attorney pushed for, would have shifted the responsibility for making sure the submitted documents were complete from candidate Hillman to City Clerk Tammy Bursick. Vero’s attorneys argued that city code, not state statute, applies to city elections, and that in city code, the responsibility clearly falls on the candidate alone. Circuit Judge Paul Kanarek never got to rule on this fine point of law. Before the trial date, the city agreed to hold a special election with Hillman on the ballot. READ FULL STORY


Judge asked to not loosen bond conditions in DUI death case
week of February 28, 2019

Family members and friends of a man and woman killed in a collision with an SUV driven by a man charged with DUI manslaughter packed the courtroom and reacted emotionally last week when the man asked Circuit Court Judge Daniel Vaughn to loosen his bond conditions. Edward Ray Wheeler, 65, of Sebastian sought permission at the Feb. 20 hearing to have his alcohol and GPS monitoring bracelets removed and his house arrest lifted so that he can undergo knee surgery and take up to 12 medications, most of which contain alcohol. Wheeler told the judge he is charged $250 per month for the alcohol monitor, which is “causing a financial hardship” for his family. “This man is in so much pain, shock and remorse,” said Wheeler’s attorney Robert Stone. Stone also referred to the fatal incident last Sept. 13 as an “unfortunate accident,” which prompted a quick rebuke from family members and friends of the deceased, who had squeezed into the courtroom and took turns pleading with the judge to deny Wheeler’s requests. READ FULL STORY


Gifford rappers suspects in Vero deputy’s slaying
week of February 21, 2019

Indian River County Sheriff’s detectives believe the two Vero Beach-connected rap musicians charged earlier this month with first-degree murder in Miramar were involved in the shooting death of an off-duty deputy in Gifford two years ago, two high-ranking law enforcement sources said. The sources, who agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity, said the fact that Jamell Demons, also known as YNW Melly, and Cortlen Henry, also known as YNW Bortlen, were at the scene of the shooting of longtime deputy Gary Chambliss was common knowledge in the Gifford community. According to the source most knowledgeable of the case, the two rappers were standing in a group and firing gunshots when Chambliss, who was standing about 170 yards down the street, was struck by a stray bullet. Detectives believe one of the rappers fired the fatal shot. Capt. Tony Consalo, head of the Sheriff’s Office’s criminal investigations division, would not say whether either or both men are suspects, but he confirmed that detectives working the Chambliss case will attempt to talk to them. READ FULL STORY


After long wait, more sand coming to Vero beaches
week of February 21, 2019

A decade after Vero Beach residents and businesses were told their critically eroded beaches were next on the list for replenishment, the city’s oceanfront may finally start getting the promised $4 million sand dump in November. That means more than 11,000 heavy dump trucks staging along A1A and Ocean Drive during the height of the 2019-2020 season. The project was supposed to begin last fall, and a great many things could postpone the start date again – the biggest unknown being $2 million in state funding that may not materialize. But if all goes well, the county will have the final permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in hand by the end of February and will approve a final sand source, obtain construction easements and surveys, and put the project out to bid in July. By August the county commission is expected to award the job to a contractor, who would be ready to mobilize on Nov. 1 at the end of sea turtle nesting season. READ FULL STORY


State seeks to raise history of violence in Jones murder trial
week of February 21, 2019

The State Attorney’s office last week asked Judge Daniel Vaughn for permission to use testimony they admit is “circumstantial evidence” during the upcoming trial of Michael David Jones, who is charged with murdering island resident Diana Duve in 2014. Chief Assistant State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl and lead prosecutor Brian Workman argued the evidence – testimony about an earlier altercation between the couple during which Jones allegedly choked and threatened to kill Duve – helps establish the murder was premeditated. Jones’ attorney, Assistant Public Defender Stanley Glenn, who opposes the prosecution’s efforts, said the testimony is based on “hearsay,” and questioned its relevance to the case. “What the state attorney wants to introduce is hearsay, not facts,” Glenn said. “There is so much emotion attached to the testimony they want to introduce, it would unfairly prejudice the jury.” Vaughn did not make an immediate decision on the issue, and said he would issue a written opinion “as soon as possible.” A trial date has not yet been scheduled for Jones in the now five-year-old case. He is currently charged with first-degree murder. If convicted, Jones could face the death penalty. READ FULL STORY


Tuesday’s City Council election: Old Vero versus new Vero
week of February 21, 2019

What is Tuesday’s Vero Beach City Council election about? It’s the first election in a decade that is free from debate about the sale of Vero electric. Some say this election is about “growth” but other than the two large riverfront parcels to be leveled over the next five years after utility structures are removed, plus the old postal annex property and a few other scattered parcels, Vero is virtually built out. So it’s not really about growth. The power structure of Vero Beach is a constant tension between old Vero and new Vero. Between people who were born locally and have deep roots, and people who made their living and raised their kids somewhere else and who now offer up their own ideas about how things should be done. If anything, that is what this rather dull election is probably about. On the old Vero side there’s Councilman Tony Young. Young not only wants to get re-elected, but to preside as mayor during the city’s centennial year, 100 years after his grandfather, A.W. Young, was the first mayor of the city. READ FULL STORY


Bond terms eased for accused John’s Island home healthcare aide
week of February 21, 2019

A home healthcare aide charged along with another woman with swindling an elderly John’s Island couple and credit card companies out of more than $500,000 has been released from house arrest after nearly a year. Circuit Court Judge Daniel Vaughn on Feb. 11 approved a request by Chiquita McGee, 30, that her ankle monitor be removed and she be allowed to begin attending her children’s school-related functions. But while he released her from house arrest, he imposed a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew on McGee. McGee and Sophia Shepherd, 31, both face two felony charges of exploiting an elderly adult and scheming to defraud a financial institution. If convicted, the women could face up to 60 years in prison. Investigators say the two Vero Beach women “willfully conspired” to commit crimes, using credit cards for unauthorized expenses and “fraudulently” obtaining checks they used to buy high-end jewelry, clothing and a car engine and to pay for cosmetic dental work and plastic surgery. READ FULL STORY


Seagrass beds in Indian River Lagoon near Vero found to be relatively stable
week of February 21, 2019

When Dennis Hanisak, organizer of the annual Indian River Lagoon Symposium, was asked last week about the state of the lagoon today compared to its condition after the outbreak of the catastrophic 2011 algae "superbloom," his response was not upbeat. "In eight years, has the lagoon gotten better or worse? It has not gotten better," he answered. "It's at a pretty low level. It's going to take a fair amount of time to do the restoration that needs to be done.” But Hanisak also had some good news. Among many gloomy scientific reports at the symposium, one of the few bright shops came from his own study of seagrass near Vero Beach. He found that over the past 10 years, seagrass beds in the south-central lagoon from north of Vero Beach south to Fort Pierce have remained relatively stable, despite pollution, algae blooms and other environmental stressors. This stretch of the lagoon is "an important refuge for seagrass beds and the organisms they support – an Ark," he told the symposium, in an apparent reference to the biblical Noah's Ark that protected biodiversity from deadly floods. "Sea grasses are resilient when given the chance." READ FULL STORY


Pilot study gets underway on horseshoe crabs in the lagoon
week of February 21, 2019

Horseshoe crabs – those dark helmets with spindly legs and a sharp tail you sometimes see lying in the wet sand near the water line – have been around for hundreds of millions of years, and live in the Indian River Lagoon. Today, their blood is critical for testing vaccines and other injectables for contamination, and their young are valuable in the aquarium trade. But nobody knows how many there are in the lagoon or whether the population is healthy. To answer these questions, marine scientists have enlisted about 20 Indian River and Brevard county residents as volunteer field researchers in Horseshoe Crab Watch. The pilot program, which began in 2015 in Florida's Big Bend region, is now being extended to the Treasure and Space coasts and scientists recently gave the volunteers a half-day of training at the Environmental Learning Center in Vero Beach. "This entire program is based on citizen participation," Claire Crowley of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) told the gathering. READ FULL STORY