Ex-Mayor joins race for Vero Council
A game-changer is about to be unleashed on the race for Vero Beach City Council.
Former Vero Beach Mayor A. Craig Fletcher – a seven-generation Vero native -- told Vero Beach 32963 on Monday he plans to seek to return to the City Council to help get the city out of the electric business, and work to take back control of Vero Beach from city staff.
As electric costs soared and the debate over getting the Vero out of the electric business raged, City Hall insiders often dismissed those who opposed the city’s power operation as carpetbaggers --- most of them living outside the city limits.
That won’t fly against Fletcher, whose grandfather moved to Vero Beach in 1903 and built the first bridge across the Indian River. His father was a former mayor of Vero and his brother was an Indian River County Commissioner.
Like the rest of Vero ratepayers, Fletcher skeptically waited until January for the promised drop in electric costs,. The bill he received for January -- double what his bills were last summer -- proved the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
Encouraged by his wife Arlene, a long-time Vero resident and activist in many local causes, Fletcher began assembling a small group for advice and support in his decision to run again after a six-year absence from the City Council.
“The first point isn’t how we’re going to get out of the electric business, the next point is that we do get out of it,” Fletcher said. “This is going to be the first step of getting the control of the city back in the hands of the City Council.”
Fletcher said he’s tired of backroom deals and the public being kept in the dark about issues vital to their lives and their pocketbooks. He said he is running because he realizes that residents have lost control of their own city.
Former Vero Beach Councilman Charlie Wilson said Fletcher’s bold announcement represents a sea change in the conversation, which has been viewed as a city versus county battle, pitting those outside the city who account for 60 percent of the electric utility’s customer base against the city taxpayers.
Wilson said he expects that Fletcher is only the first in a “long line of candidates” who will announced their candidacy with utility issues at the forefront of their campaigns.
“This is an indication that even the establishment realizes the importance of selling the electric system,” Wilson said.
“As Craig Fletcher announces his position, that makes the sixth former mayor who has indicated to me that the city needs to get out of the electric business.”
Seven generations of Fletcher’s extended family and four generations of his immediate family have made Vero their home, making the 68-year-old retired engineer about as inside as inside gets in the town.
After two terms on council, a stint as mayor and a six-year break, Fletcher is ready to come back and tackle the issue that he was itching to take on back in 2004, but the political will was just not there to do it.
“When I looked at the projected growth and what it cost to run those gas generators, I knew the city would have to continue to go outside to purchase power and there was just no business plan for staying in the electric business,” he said.
Now disillusion over broken promises of rates equivalent to FP&L has hit critical mass. Dismay over the city’s bungling over the Orlando Utilities Contract -- which Fletcher calls the product of the staff negotiating in a dark room -- has damaged the records of incumbent council and top staff.
Fletcher sees an opportunity not only for himself, but for others willing to jump into the fray to save the city they love.
“The reason why I’m getting into this early is because I hope that some other qualified candidates will run,” Fletcher said.
Getting out of the electric business, for Fletcher, is a no-brainer. He said a deal should be brokered for the sale of the transmission and distribution assets, if the city can find a willing buyer in FP&L.
As for the aging power plant itself, he sees it as basically irrelevant going forward.
“Personally, I’d like to sell that thing off at 18 cents a pound and get it off that beautiful piece of riverfront property,” Fletcher said.
Whatever the city ends up doing, it needs to come down from the council, not as some recommendation of the staff -- a staff concerned with protecting territory and keeping their jobs and pensions intact.
Fletcher said planning needs to be emphasized and, in his experience, the staff only plans on a very short time horizon and the council members plan only ‘till the end of their term in office.
“The council needs to define it legally as a policy statement, and I don’t care about triggering the penalty in the OUC contract.
“I don’t think we would have to pay the $50 million, but even if we did, the models clearly show that we would still be better off.”
Fletcher met with local CPA Glenn Heran, who has become famous for the aforementioned “model” which depicts the various scenarios for selling the electric utility, about two years ago.
At the time, Heran said Fletcher told him and his father, Finance Committee Bill Heran, that he was very interested in the issue, but that many of his supporters, who represented the established families and business interests of Vero Beach, were not fully on board with a sweeping change just yet.
Heran said he was more than a bit disappointed at the time that Fletcher didn’t join the ranks of those severely disenchanted with the Vero Electric Utility, but he welcomes the former mayor to the race.
“I would support anybody who is articulate on utility issues and who is in favor of selling the system to FP&L. If Craig Fletcher is that guy, then I support him,” Heran said.
“I hope he understands the millions of dollars the city will save every year by getting out of the electric business.”
After people like Heran and Dr. Stephen Faherty laid the groundwork and former Councilman Charlie Wilson fired the first shot across the bow, what the issue now needs, according to Heran, is candidates who can not only win, but close the deal to change the power structure, so to speak, of the city.
“He needs to have the courage of conviction to get this done, the courage to fight,” Heran said.
“In November we need to bring in enough people who know about this issue to tell the staff what to do, not to be told what to do by the staff.”
Since that meeting with Fletcher and the Herans, the City of Vero Beach experienced the oppressive rate hikes of the summer of 2009, the scandal over $3 million in expenditures for consultants who advised the city not to go with secret Bidder Number Two, which turned out to be FP&L and the altered -- some would say botched -- contract with OUC, including a $50 million penalty clause.
“I was furious about the OUC contract,” Fletcher said. “I do believe that the staff overstepped their legal bounds and the city council, on their part, abandoned their responsibilities to the public.”
Five minutes spent with Fletcher and there’s no doubt he’s intelligent and deeply engaged in the issues facing the City of Vero Beach.
Indian River Shores resident Bill Jenkins is acting as Fletcher’s technical advisor on all things electric, so he’s seen the analytical, often geeky side of Fletcher in action, but he’d rather have a brainiac on board than the offering now seated on the council.
Jenkins ran a 100 megawatt power plant attached to a paper factory in Fernandina Beach for more than 12 years.
The coal-fired plant produced enough cheap electricity (3.4 cents per kilowatt) to not only power the paper mill, but also sold electricity to the City of Jacksonville. Jenkins, who grew up in the Vero Beach area, served as powerhouse superintendent for Container Corporation of America.
“I think Craig has a genuine, bona fide interest in the well being of the City of Vero Beach and the technical expertise to do the job,” Jenkins said.
Fletcher is a voracious learner, loves details and doesn’t shy away from hours of homework and stacks of paperwork.
After serving a tour in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in the 1960s, Fletcher worked in Europe and the Canary Islands doing civil engineering.
He also worked at Piper Aircraft and with the Dade County Parks Civil Engineering Department. He has served on the city Code Enforcement Board and on the county Planning and Zoning Commission.
While on council for four years, he said he read every piece of paper that came across his desk and that he was the first council member to ask for a computer in his office, to aid in his research and communication with staff.
Since retiring from McDonell- Douglas, where he worked on antitank missile systems during the Cold War, Fletcher has consumed himself with his passion for golf and for antiques, especially old watches and clocks.
He takes them apart and rebuilds them in his machine shop for months at a time. It’s tedious, intricate work. Fletcher is patient, thorough and an expert at dissecting things, whether they be contracts or grandfather clocks.
Just the thought of the city council not reading a complete document of a $2 billion contract in its entirety gets him really steamed.
“They just want the Cliff Notes version, they want it broken down for them and when you do that, you rely on the staff interpretation or the interpretation of consultants who work for the staff,” he said.
Fletcher said he does not intend to join forces with Operation Clean Sweep in this campaign, and that he’s “leery” about the referendum effort being undertaken.
He said the city should go willingly to get its territory taken over to avoid years in court.
“I think a referendum would end up causing a great deal of litigation and the Public Service Commission will get involved, and the PSC doesn’t do anything quickly,” he said.
When asked if he would have the will to participate in radical change in the city’s top staff, Fletcher was quick to recall that he spearheaded the effort to terminate City Manager Rex Taylor.
He said he also was opposed to hiring City Attorney Charles Vitunac after his less than stellar career with the Board of County Commissioners.
But Fletcher places much of the fault for goings on with the council, as one would blame a parent for an out-ofcontrol child.
“The City Council needs to take control of the city back from the staff,” Fletcher said.
“The current staff needs to be given clear policy statements -- clear directives to follow and they need to follow them.”
In November, Fletcher will take on one incumbent who successfully defeated him in 2004. Vice Mayor Sabe Abell, with the help of the Indian River Neighborhood Association, unseated the two-term councilman.
“At the time, everyone was concerned about growth and I agreed with them, but I didn’t agree with them as much as others did,” Fletcher said.
“The IRNA told me they would show me how much power they had and the way to do that was to get somebody out.”
If elected, Fletcher will have to work with once-enemy Councilman Brian Heady to get things done. There is still ill will between the two over the city, under Mayor Fletcher, suing Heady for campaign finance violations. Fletcher said he wants to find ways to work with whoever is on council to come to a swift and prudent conclusion to the electric issue.
“I stir the pot a lot and that’s why people have strong feelings about me, as they do with Brian, but stirring the pot is not enough,” Fletcher said. “In order to get something done on the city council, you need to be able to count to three.
“Going around beating people on the head politically all the time doesn’t get things done.”
In regard to the upcoming private meetings involving FP&L, City Manager Jim Gabbard and Acting Utility Director John Lee, after the public expected the whole deal to be negotiated in the sunshine, Fletcher said he would put his foot down if he was currently seated on the council.
“I would be in Jim Gabbard’s office when they (FP&L) showed up and I’d be complaining about the fact that it wasn’t before the city council itself,” Fletcher said.
“There should be no more contracts with redactions given to the city council, it is not up to the staff to decide whether or not the city council can be trusted.
“You elect the members of the City Council to represent you and you trust them to do that. You don’t elect the staff.”