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Can Joe Baird emerge from a summer cloud?
BY LISA ZAHNER - STAFF WRITER (Week of September 3, 2009)

Since 10:26 p.m. on May 16 when he saw the flashing police lights in the rear-view mirror of his red Jeep Cherokee, County Administrator Joe Baird’s life has not been the same. The long-time barrier island resident has lived – and gone about his daily work — in the vortex of the most public scandal to hit Indian River County in recent memory.

“Fear is a good motivator,” Baird said in the first interview since he was acquitted last week of a Driving Under the Influence charge. “I worked even harder because I couldn’t afford any errors.”

While a residual cloud of outrage from some quarters of the public continues to hang over the 27-year County employee, Baird insists he hasn’t missed a beat – and that he’s ready to move forward. Even on his first day back to work after the trial, Baird was focused on turning the wheels of county government with a lot less grease.

“The first issue is going to be dealing with declining tax revenue two years in a row, our budget has decreased the last three years,” Baird said. “We’re down by 158 full-time employees from a few years ago. It’s our job to run the county. It’s our job, but it’s going to be a challenge to maintain the same level of service with a lot less money.”

Members of the County Commission, for the most part, also seem eager to put this unexpected and unwanted summer diversion behind them.

Pummeled by angry citizens at the office and at the grocery store, urging them to fire Baird or at least suspend him pending a verdict, the five County Commissioners — who are Baird’s only bosses – did neither.

Commissioner Gary Wheeler, a former Sheriff, said he has strong personal feelings about anyone picked up for driving under the influence and “other people likewise are offended at anyone who is arrested for DUI.

“But as far as the arrest and everything, I really don’t see that it has anything to do with Joe being able to do his job,” Wheeler said. “That I don’t believe will be a factor, as he was found not guilty and that’s the way the system works and I accept that.”

While Commissioner Joe Flesher declined to offer an opinion on Baird’s future effectiveness, Commissioner Peter O’Bryan said he felt Baird had risen above sniping by critics to maintain a high level of job performance.

“A lot of people have taken the opportunity to take a lot of shots at Joe Baird and he took it and acted professional manner,” O’Bryan said. “I think Joe was able to set aside all the personal issues and put aside the publicity.”

O’Bryan said Baird had stayed focused and put forth a budget to the Board of County Commissioners which, despite the challenging economic climate, maintains services to local residents.

“The bottom line is that there is nobody who cares more for the residents and taxpayers of Indian River County than Joe Baird,” O’Bryan said.

“I’m glad the commission showed some poise,” said Chairman Wesley Davis, who controls commission meetings with the skill and dexterity of the seasoned auctioneer that he is. “Just because he’s the County Administrator, he doesn’t give up any of the rights that our soldiers in Afghanistan are fighting to protect.

“If I had a choice, obviously I wish it had never happened. But Joe is a very effective County Administrator and I would expect that to be the case going forward,” Davis added.

Even before his arrest, Baird knew he was a lightning rod. It goes with the job. He runs what amounts to a $300 million business and he implements difficult policies set forth by the five elected County Commissioners.

And despite the summer swirl of controversy, in his second-floor office in building A of the County Administration Complex, Baird buried himself in the huge piles of pending projects and unresolved issues on his desk (which he cleaned off for our picture).

Baird points out that when it comes to leading the 888-person county staff, only a small group of executives report to him directly.

He gets together with these department heads at least once a week in the county’s version of a cabinet meeting.

“We meet on Mondays to discuss the commission agenda and any issues or problems,” Baird said. “The controversy didn’t affect the county staff or my department heads. I insulated all of them from this.

“I called every one of my department heads personally and told them what happened so they wouldn’t find out by reading it in the paper. I have had the full support of a lot of people I’ve known on a professional basis around the state, everyone has been very supportive.

The commissioners themselves have been supportive.” Baird privately believes he was unfairly targeted by the Vero Beach Police Department, that he got a raw deal.

“I always thought I was not guilty. I went through the court system and was found not guilty by six people that I don’t even know. You can’t be convicted without a trial in America,” he said.

“I felt for the jury because they did their job and it was tough on them due to all the publicity. I just feel bad that the people on the jury have been criticized, they listened to the facts and the evidence and came back with a verdict.”

Baird conceded that the past three months have been quite an education. “I think that Joe, and probably a lot of people, have learned some valuable life experience in going what he went through,” said Commission Chairman Davis.

“In life, you learn a lot of things, and what you learn first of all is that you never get yourself into this kind of predicament ever again,” Baird said. “But you learn and you move on and you don’t blame anyone else. Have you ever heard me blame anybody? I can take it on the chin.”

What kind of person seeks out and relishes the job of Official Designated Intimidator and Punching Bag for the County, leaving the elected commissioners to do the glad-handing, consoling, empathizing and back-slapping that gets them reelected?

What kind of man wants to be the hammer and the bearer of bad news — the front line of defense when county government is under attack and the place where the buck stops when something goes wrong?

First and foremost, the 52-year-old Baird is a political animal. He’s as gregarious as he is tough. He can work a room or stare down an opponent with equally steely intensity.

He’s not the guy you want to sit across the negotiating table from, but he is the guy you’d want at your party. He’s quick and he’s adaptable. Some say he’s dangerous. Part of that comes from his upbringing, having to change schools and make friends in every new town, not having any real roots to fall back on socially or academically.

“I was born in Africa, we moved around a lot,” Baird said.

His mother and father hailed from Scotland, where Baird’s father earned a medical degree in the British system.

“My dad went to medical school on a scholarship, so he had to work in service to the Queen,” Baird said. “So we lived all over the place, we lived in India, Scotland, Canada and the United States.”

Dr. Baird’s work for the British crown came to a close and the family moved from a 1,200-person town in Saskatchewan, Canada to Miami, when Joe was in high school. He moved to South Carolina, attended Clemson University for a couple of years, but finished up his studies in accounting at Florida Atlantic University and went to work as a staff accountant in the Indian River County Clerk of the Court’s office in June of 1981.

While attending college, Baird worked two summers at Piper Aircraft. He supervised the “tool crib” and was responsible for ordering and maintaining small tools. Baird also did carpentry work one summer in Colorado and worked at a drug store in South Carolina for a year while a student at Clemson.

By the time he got his bachelor’s degree, Baird knew he did not want to go into public accounting or auditing. He preferred to use his knack for numbers in a managerial capacity.

“I like using accounting to make decisions. You don’t get to make any decisions as a public accountant,” he said. “I worked for a public accounting firm for a short time and all you do is go in and clean up after other peoples’ problems.”

A year after joining the County staff, the bright, hard-working and ambitious young Baird was already on an upward trajectory. He was transferred to the Utilities Department and given the title of Assistant Utilities Manager. After another 18 months, he was promoted again to Financial Manager and Assistant Utilities Director.

Two years later Baird became Budget Director, where he wielded power over expenditures and trained his protege, Jason Brown, who took over for him in 2000 when Baird was promoted to Assistant County Administrator. After a stint as Acting County Administrator while Jim Chandler was very ill, Baird became County Administrator in March 2004.

While his tenure has not been without controversy – much of it focused on the subsidy given Piper Aircraft to remain in Indian River County and the negotiations that left Vero Beach odd-city-out in the effort to bring a replacement for the Dodgers here for Spring training — Baird was honored in 2005 by the Barrier Island Coalition with its Outstanding Citizen Award.

Along with being named one of the 40 most influential people in Indian River County, he twice has been named “Miser of the Year” by the Taxpayers’ Association of Indian River County.

Baird clearly thrives on the kind of wheeling and dealing that makes massive public works and road projects come to fruition. But despite his ferocity in the boardroom, Baird said he felt helpless and totally unprepared in navigating the court system these past three months.

“I am not used to being in the judicial system in that manner,” Baird said.

While his first marriage, which resulted in two children who grew up here and graduated from Vero Beach High, ended five years ago in divorce, Baird said the separation was amicable and he was in a courtroom “for a total of three minutes.”

So his first appearance for the DUI charge was pretty much his first time in a courtroom as a party to a case. He said it was excruciating to not be able to jump up and say something, to make arguments in his own defense.

“Obviously it’s hard to listen to that and not having the opportunity to respond,” he said. “It’s a situation I’ve never been in before.”

But said he had a great deal of confidence in defense attorney Bobby Guttridge. “I didn’t really know Bobby, but he came recommended by several people, he did an excellent job,” Baird said. “I think both sides acted in a professional manner and the Assistant State Attorney Mr. (David) Dodd did a really great job presenting the state’s case.”

Baird said the publicity and speculation swirling around the case was difficult for those around him.

“This has been very hard on my family and hard on Karen,” Baird said. Karen Deigl, Baird’s girlfriend of more than three years, testified on his behalf in the trial.

Baird said his friends and family bolstered him with their support, helped balance out the barrage of insults and even threats, and got him through the ordeal. “I’ve got a lot of supporters and I’ve got a lot of critics,” he said.

Despite all the public scrutiny and being either admired or hated depending on how he executes the policies set by the county commissioners, Baird said he loves every day of his job. Looking back, he says he wouldn’t trade it for a partnership and a corner office in a CPA firm.

“It’s very interesting, it’s challenging because what I do is very diverse, but you meet a lot of great people,” he said. “Every day is different, and you’d better be able to take the criticism.”