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Vero Beach City Council candidates offer views on key issues
BY MARY BETH MCDONALD - COLUMNIST (Week of October 1, 2009)

VERO BEACH — Low voter turnout in recent years has kept City of Vero Beach incumbent Council Members comfortable in their seats, but astronomical utility bills and other proposed costly City initiatives have produced increased voter interest and a record crop of candidates for the two seats up for grabs on November 3rd.

In an effort to find out where these candidates stand before they wind up making multi-million-dollar decisions that you then get to pay for, Vero Beach 32963 has asked the seven that will be vying for the votes of Vero Beach residents to state their positions on some of the key issues of the day. Some were forthright, while others equivocated, but in the end they all responded in some fashion to our questions.

The seven candidates who will be on the ballot – including incumbents Bill Fish and Debra Fromang – are the most to enter a two-seat race in the history of the City. The range of experience varies from lifelong resident (Fromang) to virtual newcomer (two-year resident Jack Shupe), while their positions on the issues confronting Vero Beach run the gamut from strongly opinionated to surprisingly out of touch.

Also on the ballot are incumbent former City Council Member Ken Daige, along with Charlie Wilson and Susan Viviano. Rounding out the field is Brian Heady – perennial candidate for office and a frequent presence on the City Council’s public podium, who has thrown his hat in the ring once again hoping that “the tenth time will be the charm.”

In order to gauge the field, Vero Beach 32963 polled the candidates on their background and positions on key issues ranging from what they would do about soaring utility bills to why they deserve your vote in November. Each candidate responded via e-mail.

At the top of the list and tugging at the purse strings of every City utility ratepayer was this question: What do you feel is the most important issue facing the City of Vero Beach? Five of the candidates – Daige, Heady, Fromang, Shupe and Wilson — said soaring utility rates were the biggest single problem facing voters.

“Our quality of life in Vero Beach is unique and irreplaceable but the harmony of our community is being placed in jeopardy by indefensibly high electric rates,” Wilson said.

Among those who did not list the highcost of electricy, Fish said next year’s budget was the most pressing issue facing the city, while Viviano listed expanding the tax base.

When asked if they would vote in favor of the expected utility rate increases that are under discussion, only three candidates – Daige, Heady and Wilson — provided a direct “No” response. The other four offered answers ranging from more study was needed, to Fish’s two-word response, “What increase?”

Fromang said: “The increase in base rate was recommended by consultants, the finance commission and the utility commission. I will take these recommendations into account as well as public comment in making the decision to ensure that the electric utility is fiscally sound.”

Shupe’s answered that he is “not in favor of more rate increases,” while Viviano said her position on a rate increase was, “Only if absolutely necessary.”

One of the hot-button topics this past year has been the city’s consideration of building an all-expenses paid health clinic for City employees. City officials contended it would save the city money in the long run, but numbers to back up those claims were never provided.

When the candidates were asked if they could support a health clinic for city employees, all responded in the negative, save one. Incumbent Fish puzzlingly answered, “I will do my own research.”

The candidates were queried on how they would trim the City budget without trimming services, which brought a variety of responses. Fish said the city should continue the hiring freeze it is now operating under.

Fromang pointed toward taking a look at employee benefits.

“The budget needs to be trimmed, no doubt,” she said. “The City Council needs to look at the budget more carefully – including its own. Out of necessity this must include a review of all employee benefits including City pensions and insurance. The finance commission should be utilized this budget year to ensure all budget problems are examined carefully. The City Council needs to be more creative in looking at the City’s benefits rather than thinking about cutting the benefits of the taxpaying public.”

Wilson also said looking at employee benefits was his top priority when considering budget cuts and went on to list consolidation of departments, the return of real estate to the tax rolls, the joining with the county on cooperative cost-saving measures and the curbing of unnecessary travel by city officials as other areas to be targeted.

Candidate Heady also listed “City Council Members travel to faraway places” at the top of his list for budget cutting.

“Stop ALL unnecessary projects and reevaluate spending practices,” was the suggestion of former Councilmember Daige.

Candidate Shupe, on the other hand, said the budget was already “bare-bones” but that he would carefully consider each expenditure request. Candidate Viviano stated she would, “research the spending and evaluate efficiency of current services.”

The candidates were also asked what the one thing they would change in the city, which elicted this response from Fish: “The City runs very well, which is one of our strengths.”

Others did see room for improvement. “I would change the free hand given to administrators with little or no oversight by City Council,” said Heady.

Fromang said she would ask for a utility rate studies every three to five years; Daige said he would like to shore up the city’s budgeting process with the books being written so that anyone can understand them. Wilson urged accountability by Council Members for their decisions the same way it occurs in the business world.

Shupe asked for more transparency at Council meetings and the extension of the three-minute rule on public speaking except when large audiences are present. Viviano said she wanted to “bring leadership, professionalism and more effective management techniques to improve productivity in all areas.”

Early voting for City Council begins October 19 and runs through Oct. 31. In our Oct. 15th issue, we will announce our endorsements for the two Council seats. To see complete answers by the candidates, visit our sister publication, in the coming days. You will also find video of the candidates speaking to the Republican Executive Committee on the Web site.