Charlie Wilson, Brian Heady win election of surprises
It was an election of upsets and surprises.
Two new city council members – frontrunner Charlie Wilson and activist Brian Heady – rode into offi ce on the wave of a singular issue, rising utility costs.
The two are not likely to see an end to their turbulent ride onto a board they have made to appear woefully out-of-touch with those it represents.
“This is what I call an Etch-A-Sketch moment,” Wilson said. “It’s like when you’ve played with it and tried to draw something and you get the lines all crooked and you’ve really screwed it up, you just take the thing and you shake it.”
Wilson and Heady will start two year terms Friday, having unseated incumbents serving on a board both portrayed as easily led by staff and naïve – to the point of signing a $2 billion utility contract without reading the fine print.
But if there is a Cinderella story, it belongs to Heady, perennial candidate, self-professed people’s champion, local gadfly with a mighty ax to grind. He will now sit on the dais of a board that has repeatedly shunned his sometimes abrasive methods, accusing style, and at least once had him removed from proceedings.
Watching results at home with his wife and pets, even he didn’t believe his win until City Council member Kevin Sawnick called him.
“I am more honored than surprised,” said Heady, who claims he spent nothing – not even the costs of signs-- on the campaign. ““What got me elected wasn’t the glossy ads. It was people talking to people. And that’s a good thing.”
Wilson has been preparing – attending meetings and workshops, and also surrounding himself with professionals to advise him on the legal, fi nancial and other implications of actions the city has taken and may take in the next months.
But there has been much ire and friction between those entrenched in power and the candidates, all saying they are working on behalf of the citizens and ratepayers of the city.
Now, presumably, they’ll have to fi nd some common ground. And with Heady on the board, no one is sure how that will be done.
“The way things are now, everybody thinks that you all have to get along and vote with your friends and look where that has gotten us,” Heady said. “People want someone up there who is not going to worry about whether or not the other Council members are their friends, someone who will vote the right way for the residents of the City of Vero Beach.”
Heady is proof that persistence pays off. He himself isn’t sure how many times he’s run—but he has run numerous times for City Council, for County Commission and once as a write-in candidate for U.S. Senate in the 1990s. Though the personalities and the issues have changed over the years, Heady has remained steadfast in his role as a renegade.
“You know, it’s interesting. During this campaign I received some advice. Someone asked me if I know the defi - nition of insanity, that you can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect to get a different result,” Heady said.
“They said, Brian, you have to change, but I’ve been saying the same things for years because I believe them to be true.”
Heady has been criticized and even escorted out of council chambers for calling the city leaders “liars, cheats and thieves,” a message that obviously resonated with Vero voters after the summer of discontent.
“The same things I’ve been saying for years, I guess that’s what the voters wanted to hear this year,” he said.
For Wilson, a seasoned broadcast journalist and political operative, the fourth time was the charm.
Wilson ran for a seat in the Florida House in the 1980s and lost to Charles Sembler in the Republican primary. He had two more unsuccessful bids for offi ce – the Indian River Hospital District in 2004 and for Indian River County School Board in 2008.
Tuesday’s victory was the perfect storm for Wilson. He capitalized on the combination on voter discontent with the incumbents for their lack of action and the city’s lax attitude over utility issues. In that mix, Wilson made himself the only candidate with a plan – and at least some solution.
His mantra was “get us out of the electric business.”
“We have seriously mismanaged ourselves into a huge hole,” he said. “I don’t expect people to be able to see into the future, but the assumptions used were very wrong. Going forward we need to ask better questions.”
Instead of fi nding ways to keep utility customers who live outside the city in the system against their will, Wilson said he would focus on running the utility like a business that was competing for customers.
“If we have happy customers, they’re not going to want to go anywhere else,” he said. “If we treat them well and give them a good value, they will not want to get off the system.”
Other items on Wilson’s agenda will be close scrutiny of the city’s fl agging pension system, which has had to contribute unprecedented amounts into employee pension funds to ensure its viability, a review of employee health benefi ts and of ways to run the city more effi ciently and effectively.
“What you picked me to do is to come up with a plan to operate the city as small as possible and less expensive, while having all the things we expect out of the City of Vero Beach.”
Enough with the platitudes and sound bites. The election is over and the voters have issued a mandate for change. Now, comes the hard part, settling into council business and keeping promises to voters.
Picking the next mayor – from within
On Friday, the new council members will be sworn in and will join Sabe Abell, Tom White and Kevin Sawnick at the dais. The City of Vero Beach does not elect its mayor and vice mayor, but instead chooses them from within.
Members may nominate themselves or each other and, once the nomination is seconded, the council members vote. Should more than one member be nominated, council members must decide whom to vote for as mayor, then as vice mayor.
The mayor runs the meetings, sets the tone and helps shepherd discussion, but he or she is not permitted to make a motion to vote or take action on any matter. The mayor may second a motion.
For this reason, Charlie Wilson said he does not want to be mayor, as he wants the option to make motions on the issues he deems crucial to the next steps for the city.
Vice Mayor Tom White could not be reached on election night as to whether or not he would seek a promotion to mayor, a post he’s held before. Abell said he would accept a nomination to return to the mayor’s seat.
Whoever will be the next mayor, Wilson said he hopes to see a change in the way citizens are treated.
“I want to see fairness from the chair and I would like to see people feel welcome to come to the podium to speak to the council,” he said. “Even if they come to ask a question that you’ve answered 1,000 times, it’s the first time you’ve answered it for them.”
Kevin Sawnick would be an interesting choice for mayor. Known as someone who does not speak up a great deal, but who asserts valid points and advocates for the common citizen when he does, Sawnick could be the voice that would bring the disparate factions of the status quo and the change-makers together.
Sawnick, by far the youngest member of the council and the only Democrat, said he would accept a nomination for mayor if it meant that he could help push issues forward that are important to the people he represents.
“There are really two groups of people who talk to me the most about what’s going on in the city. The fi rst group is the older, retired folks and they’re very concerned about the utility issues,” he said. “The second group is the young people, a lot of them are working in Melbourne or Port St. Lucie and they’re concerned about good jobs and about having a social life here.”
When discussions get off track from reality, Sawnick has been known to bring council members back around to the concerns of actual people — some of whom are out of work, hurting and struggling to make ends meet.
What to do about the OUC contract?
Charlie Wilson campaigned on a platform of a radical change of course in short order — getting out of the pending contract with the Orlando Utilities Commission, which is set to go into effect on January 1.
Wilson has mounted the charge to challenge the contract on many fronts, not the least of which is the fact that four then-seated city council members have gone on record saying they did not fully read the contract before they signed it, and that staff had redacted portions containing costs and millions in fees if the city pulled out of the OUC contract.
Over the past few weeks, the city has pulled out all the stops in its public relations campaign to keep the OUC contract and stay in the power business.
Mayor Abell continues to stand by the contract.
“We spent a long time looking at the contract, and we felt we got a pretty good deal from OUC,” Abell said.
The only member of the 2008 council who was not part of the contract debacle, Sawnick, said the city has suffered for the way it was handled.
“I’m sure it seemed like the right thing to do at the time, you can always look back on things you did in the past and think that you could have done something better,” he said.
“Maybe the way it was done and kept from the public was the only practical way to do it, but it still looked very bad.”