Growing impatient with the City of Vero Beach’s operation of its electric utility, a group led by former City Councilman Charlie Wilson is preparing to launch an effort to put the electric question to a vote.
Their plan, announced during an hours-long City Council meeting last week that resulted in little new information about the current electric contract, would see a referendum placed on the city ballot this coming November which if approved by city voters, would force Vero into the sale of the utility.
Wilson challenged the City Council to take the initiative to place the item on the ballot asking whether or not Vero residents want the city to sell the power utility or to continue providing electric service.
No council member immediately stepped up to the challenge. Wilson gave them a two week deadline, after which, should the city not begin the process of approving a ballot initiative, he will lead a petition drive.
“It’s a very different place we had here than we had in November, and some people don’t think it’s good, but I think it’s good,” he told the council. “It’s clear that the council will not -- and the staff certainly will not -- succumb to the will of the voters, so as a result, Statute 166 will allow a referendum to go on the ballot.”
Vero old timers might remember that the city voters approved a referendum to sell the utility to Florida Power & Light in 1976, but federal officials disallowed the sale to prevent Florida Power and Light from monopolizing the Florida electric market.
That concern is believed to no longer be an impediment to such a sale.
Electrifying the ballot
Based on the number of registered Vero voters for the last general election, Wilson and his followers must collect 1,060 signatures from voters who reside within the Vero city limits.
Petitions must be submitted to Supervisor of Elections Kay Clem at least 100 days prior to the election.
Wilson said he doesn’t want to take any chances in case the city challenges the language, or there are issues with any of the signatures. He has been meeting with volunteers this week and plans to organize a rally to collect the signatures in one day, sometime in March. “The plan is to get 100 volunteers to collect 10 signatures each, to meet in a central location for a rally and send them out all over the city collecting signatures,” Wilson said.
As far as a timeline goes, Wilson said February is research month. He has met with an attorney to review the language of the proposed petition and had numerous meetings with city and county officials about the process.
He’s also assembling a board of directors for an organization called “Operation Clean Sweep,” which will run the referendum campaign and also recruit and support candidates for the four City Council seats up for grabs in November.
Incumbent County Commissioner Joe Flescher, whose county seat Wilson is nowseeking in the November election, said he supports allowing city voters to have a say on this important issue.
“I believe the city electric customers are paying a premium as well as the citizens of the local area are for the service,” Flescher said. “If the people have exhausted all other possibilities, I support anything that will reduce those prices.”
City Manager Jim Gabbard would not take a telephone call from 32963 asking for a comment on the proposed referendum.
Could this actually work?
To get an idea what this initiative would take to succeed, Vero Beach 32963 asked people involved in and knowledgeable about Indian River County politics and grassroots efforts.
Carole Jean Jordan joined a Republican women’s group in 1973 and has been a force in local, state and national politics ever since. Currently the county’s Tax Collector, Jordan has served as chair of the Republican Party of Florida and on the Republican National Committee. A city resident for nearly 40 years, Jordan also knows a little bit about Vero politics, being married to former Mayor Bill Jordan.
“It certainly can get people excited,” Jordan said. “If something of great interest is on the ballot, it can turn out the vote -- but you may have a no vote.”
This is not the first time a city issue has caused everyone in Indian River County to take notice, according to Jordan. She said Vero issues have always dominated county politics.
In her memory, Jordan said she hasn’t seen an issue bubble up and boil over in Vero politics since the City Council approved the construction of The Spires condominiums on Ocean Drive.
“After that, the whole City Council changed,” she said.
Jordan said the city’s utility crisis has spilled over into her own office at the county. As tax collector in charge of tags and licenses, she sees people every day trying to adjust their lives around their efforts to keep the lights on at their homes and businesses.
“The utility issue has people very passionate because it’s so expensive and especially difficult on people with fixed incomes,” she said. “We’ve seen people turning in vehicles or giving them to their kids because they can no longer afford a vehicle.
“It’s a shame that it’s gotten to this point, that some of the issues haven’t been taken care of at this point,” she said. But enthusiasm and even anger, according to Jordan, is not enough to get the ballot initiative through and to make it stick. She cautioned that many such efforts have been thwarted because they’ve been found to be unconstitutional, so the language has to be crafted in a way that will hold up to legal challenge.
With four City Council seats up for election this fall, two county commission races, a U.S. Senate seat and the governor’s mansion all up for grabs, political armchair quarterbacks have quite a year set out for them in 2010.
Getting to the bottom of it
Referenda and amendments to the state constitution are generally at the bottom of the ballot and that is where political pro Jordan said voter education comes in.
“You have to make sure that people don’t just vote in the top few races and get tired of it and stop there; you have to pique their interest enough so they get all the way down,” she said.
That may be less of an issue in November than it would normally be, as the City of Vero Beach will already have a popular tax abatement initiative on the bottom of the ballot. This legislation would create incentives for businesses to locate in the city. Two state fair districting amendments will also be on the menu for voters.
“If you have the city election, the referendum and the amendment for fair districts on the ballot, that would definitely draw attention to that part of the ballot in the city,” she said. “I think it’s a fair and effective way to do it. The people should have a voice in this issue.”
Pam Director, a barrier island resident, recently headed up a petition campaign to collect 2,000 signatures in support of fair redistricting. Director was impressed with the idea of hosting a rally and collecting all 1,060 signatures in one day. The fair districting petition campaign lasted almost six months.
“The major thing is that it’s hard work and you really have to have some solid people who are not afraid to walk up to everybody and ask for their signature,” she said. “It’s hard to find those kinds of people, but once you assemble a good team, it’s a matter of getting out there and doing it. For us, not a single person said he wouldn’t sign.”
As Democratic State Committeewoman representing Indian River County, she will also coordinate the marketing efforts to get voters to mark “yes” for Amendments 5 and 6 in November. Director admits that her own home is on the FPL system, but says she has not been immune to the high rates as she and her husband own a business in the city.
“We’ve felt it at our business with our office electric bills,” she said.
Director said she would be curious to find out how, logistically, the changeover would work, and that, when it dispatches volunteers out to forage for signatures, Operation Clean Sweep should have some ready answers for voters who ask tough questions.
She said the fair districts issue was a fairly easy one to explain, but the electric issue is more complicated, both politically and financially.
Councilman Brian Heady dismissed the idea of a referendum, contending Vero residents won’t vote against their financial interests. He noted that property taxes would rise sharply if the money skimmed from electric bills -- about $8 million -- was not flowing into city coffers.
“I could see the customers outside the city voting for this, but I’m not sure about city residents. Why would people vote for something that would make their taxes go up?” he asked shortly after hearing of Wilson’s plans.
Skepticism about the competency and motives of the city and the people running the city’s electric business, combined with prospects of 30 to 35 percent reduction in bills under another provider, may prove to outweigh the fear of higher property taxes.