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Rising again: Indian River Neighborhood Association
BY LISA ZAHNER - STAFF WRITER (Week of April 1, 2010)

It is considered the most powerful political organization in Indian River County. 

The Indian River Neighborhood Association, 7,000 members strong, has been behind every significant effort to curb growth in Indian River County over the past six years. 

It has successfully backed candidates for office, strategically placing like-minded candidates on boards, among them County Commissioners Gary Wheeler, Joe Flescher and Peter O’Bryan, as well as former Sebastian City Councilwoman Dale Simchick, who is now running for county commission. 

It was the driving force behind the effort to move Indian River to a charter-form of government, where all major decisions would require referendum approval by voters. 

The fight was long and protracted and failed in 2007, when Flescher broke ranks and voted against the IRNA and Wheeler, who had made him a viable candidate. 

That loss has cast a pall over the group’s identity since. In 2008, the IRNA endorsed Honey Minuse to run against incumbent Sandra Bowden and former Vero City Council member Bob Solari in one Republican Primary for a County Commission seat, and relative unknown Susan Boyd to challenge Wesley Davis for another. 

Neither IRNA candidate won. Davis and Solari, both opponents of charter government, won their primaries and coasted to election. 

Perhaps because of its losses in 2008, bring up the IRNA with local politicians today and most are likely to distance themselves publicly, while simultaneously courting its members behind the scenes for both votes and contributions. 

Though contributions to its political efforts over the past year have plummeted (a sign of the economic times, say board members), it is preparing to endorse two County Commission -- and possibly some Vero City Council candidates -- this election cycle. 

It stands a good chance of ending the year with three IRNA-friendly votes on the County Commission. The group has started the election cycle in earnest with an ad campaign in local publications, including Vero Beach 32963, reminding snowbirds to request their absentee ballot – which in this heavily Republican county, is a sure-fire way to gauge support for its candidates even before the primary election polls open. 

So how did a group that began in quiet, historic Riomar become so powerful in just six years? The answer lies in how it courted wealthy donors, and stuck to the one issue that wealthy retirees in Vero Beach cared about – keeping growth in check. 

Founded in March 2004 and morphed out of the Riomar Neighborhood Association, the Indian River Neighborhood Association’s numbers surged as it went countywide and expanded its scope of influence, mostly by supporting efforts to curtail explosive growth during the tail end of the boom years, said Executive Committee Member Honey Minuse and President and Founder John Higgs. 

At the beginning, the IRNA took on the causes of neighborhoods and brought in volunteers with legal, financial and technical expertise to help individuals and resident groups get problems solved. Severe drainage issues in Rockridge were among the first complex policy fights taken on by IRNA volunteers. 

“We have a vital role in this community, people depend on us,” Minuse said. 

But it wasn’t long before the group moved into politics. It quickly began taking on bigger issues and backing kindred souls for public office and key committees, organizers said. And it sought the dollars of the financial heavyweights in town, largely those on the barrier island. 

A good portion -- roughly 80 to 90 percent -- of the IRNA Political Committee’s funding comes from residents in the 32963 zip code, records show. 

But critics say that is only a small window into who belongs to the IRNA and how it funnels money to the candidates it wants elected or issues it wants to push. Its membership roster is kept confidential. 

The movers in the organization are clearly influential, and members are free to back candidates and issues as individuals. 

Higgs said the match between the IRNA and affluent communities on the beach is a natural one. 

“The people who live in 32963, particularly in John’s Island, are community minded and public spirited,” he said. 

“There is a little bit of selfishness involved,” Higgs continued. “If the county population doubles, which it’s projected to do, there is only one A1A and there is only one stretch of beach.” 

Just as its main topic – growth – tapered off, so has the organization’s revenues. In 2008, reports filed with the Supervisor of Elections show the IRNA took in $37,000 in contributions, most of which it spent on issue advertising. The annual receipts for 2009 amounted to only $12,000. At the same time, the group added a paid staffer, Executive Director Brian Carman, to the mix. The first-quarter report for 2010 won’t be available until late April. 

Former Vero Councilman Charlie Wilson, who is running for a County Commission seat, is probably the most vocal opponent of the IRNA. He called the group elitist and anti-business. He blames its anti-growth stance as being partially responsible for the high unemployment and general economic malaise of Indian River County. 

“The Indian River Neighborhood Association started out as an organization who wanted to preserve our quality of life. Unfortunately, their plans have led to a quality of life for some but misery for many others,” Wilson said. 

Higgs, however, describes the IRNA as not anti-growth, but a proponent of “managed growth,” which he defines as sustainable development that is not based upon residential home building. Higgs added that the IRNA is pro-tourism and that it did not oppose any of the recent hotel projects on the beach, and that it sees huge potential in developing Dodgertown into a sporting destination. 

Higgs said the IRNA, by putting pressure on government to be accountable and follow its own development rules and regulations to the letter, has protected homeowners or businesses. 

“We’re not threatening anyone’s survival, we just changed the way business is done,” Higgs said. “I think what’s happened is when we started to become effective, the old boys couldn’t walk into any office and get the permits they wanted because someone was watching and a lot of people got upset.” 

Ask about the IRNA in Fellsmere, where the organization fought for changes when the city tried to annex thousands of acres of desolate pasture, scrub land and groves, and you’ll hear the east versus west, haves and have-nots undertones. 

Fellsmere City Councilman Joel Tyson said the IRNA has what he called a “moat mentality.” 

“It’s like they think, ‘We’re here now, close the drawbridge and don’t let anybody else in,’” Tyson said. “If we would have all done that 15 years ago, most of them wouldn’t be here.” 

Higgs said that because the IRNA was involved, the approved plans were “vastly better” than what was originally proposed and planned. 

The IRNA’s efforts to change the county’s government to a charter form would have given voters control over large expansion plans. 

The fact that the IRNA -- at the time working hand in hand with County Commissioner and former Sheriff Gary Wheeler -- pushed for a charter form of government marked that as the IRNA’s issue. Every so often the talk of charter government rears its head. 

“I say it’s dead, let’s not waste time discussing it,” Higgs said. “It failed and we decided not to bring it up again. I don’t know anyone who is talking about it.” 

Higgs said the IRNA is inherently political.  

“If the IRNA wants to have an impact on what takes place in the county government, we have to have people in office who are sensitive to our issues and who understand the importance of managed growth,” he said. 

With its controversial positions and its secretive membership, critics say the organization is most adept at taking a position that might not be popular, then pawning the blame off on individual members, not on the organization. 

For example, the IRNA took a position supporting Ocean Park but not Humiston Park. Yet, individual members came out strongly against the plan. 

“We’re split on things sometimes and still take a position, but when we’re split on something and we have members passionately on one side, even if they’re in the minority, sometimes we’ll just not take a position as an organization,” he said. 

On April 15, the IRNA will announce which candidates it is endorsing in two County Commission races at its membership luncheon to be held in the Tiffany Room at Captain Hiram’s in Sebastian.