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Nominee with most votes passed over for Council
BY LISA ZAHNER - STAFF WRITER (Week of January 21, 2010)

Richard Kennedy would have been selected to fill the vacant seat on the Vero Beach City Council instead of Ken Daige if his name ever had been put to a vote, according to after-the-fact interviews with the four sitting City Council members.

Mayor Kevin Sawnick, Vice Mayor Sabe Abell, Tom White and Brian Heady each told Vero Beach 32963 in separate interviews that they would have voted for Kennedy if they had been given the opportunity.

But in the latest bizarre mystery involving the City Council, even though Kennedy emerged from the first round of the selection process ranked in a three-way tie at the top of the five candidates along with Daige and Al Benkert, there was no move to proceed to a new round of voting — and Kennedy’s name never came up again.

“That’s kind of where the process went awry,” Abell said. “We should have re-ranked the top three and then maybe made a vote for one or two.”

Abell left last week’s selection-election meeting with the same feelings as most of the people who watched it — more than a little dismayed at the process, and surprised, and a bit disappointed, at the result.

A vote on Benkert took place first. When he failed to garner three votes, the Council voted on Daige. He was approved 3 to 1, and immediately sworn in.

Kennedy was left standing there like that last kid waiting to get picked for a dodgeball team, though we now know he could have been the only one to receive the unanimous support of the seated council if his name had ever come up.

“I don’t think they had any idea what they wanted to do with the process,” Kennedy later told us.

Critics of the city government have repeatedly pointed to its propensity to make a mess of even the simplest of things. The logistics of selecting Daige was only further evidence to support that position.

Though he pinpointed exactly where the process went “awry,” Abell said it was awkward from the beginning, even before the voting began.

“Tom had two people tied and Tammy (Vock) had to work that out and Brian had to rank everyone again because he had done his the opposite way,” Abell said. “I think it was basically unfortunate that we didn’t see what the rankings would be after some of the changes were made.”

Mayor Sawnick was visibly agitated that the whole tallying of the rankings was moving so slowly and at one point, while the cameras and microphones, were still on, Abell muttered: “What can take so long about counting to five?”

Who was supposed to be running the selection process? Was it the mayor or the city’s three-member Canvassing Board consisting of the City Manager, City Attorney and City Clerk? Few are clear on this one.

Prior to the meeting, City Clerk Tammy Vock said she did not know whether or not the Council would want the person selected to be sworn in on the spot. “I’m prepared to do that,” she had said. Vock had said that most anything could happen, from a quick decision to a complete stalemate.

Anticipating that everyone would be nervous at first on live television, Abell had wanted to conduct private interviews of the applicants first, then to vet the top two or three in public.

Proponents of open, transparent government learned what Abell meant by a more “humane” process after watching the City Council bungle each step of the interviews — it would have been more humane if we hadn’t had to watch it.

“I thought we would be able to ask more than one question on the first round and then to bring them back in together for follow-up questions,” Abell said.

After making the best of the opportunity he had to probe the five hopefuls, focusing on asking them what they would do to bring themselves “up to speed” on the issues, Abell turned his rankings in to Vock. Abell rated Ken Daige dead last on his list, so it was natural that he didn’t vote with the “ayes” when it came to an up-down vote.

The top pick of Abell and White, former attorney and commercial realtor Kennedy, who tied with Daige and real estate broker Benkert, didn’t even get a shot at being elected by the Council. White chose Kennedy as his top guy and said he would have voted for him, but White also seconded the motion for Daige.

It was all over before it got to Kennedy.

But if the city still counts to four the traditional way, that’s how many votes he would have received. Mayor Sawnick, who also voted for Benkert and Daige, said there’s a good chance he would have thrown his support behind Kennedy.

“I wasn’t really thinking about it, but maybe I would have voted for him if it would have gone that far, but it didn’t have to so I didn’t,” Sawnick said. “I was glad we had the interviews, it helps you learn a lot of stuff.”

Sawnick said he was impressed by all the applicants and hopes they all run in November.

“I hope 30 people run,” he said. “That’s something I’ve been for — people getting involved, especially young people, in the political process.”

Of the five hopefuls, only Daige answered in the affirmative about running in November, saying he fully intends on staying in politics. On the topic of the rejected applicants running or not running, Abell sounded a little more doubtful, saying “they may find that they have something better to do with their time.”

Heady, who cast the deciding third vote after Sawnick and Councilman White made and seconded the motion for Daige, hesitated a good long while before uttering “yes.” We now know that Heady was bouncing the decision back and forth between his head and his gut.

“I made a matrix and evaluated all the candidates on that matrix,” Heady said. “Ken Daige came up second on my list behind Al Benkert and that’s why I voted for him.”

Heady had promised himself that he would keep an open mind and make an objective decision based on each person’s ability and willingness to answer the tough questions he posed to them.

Heady ranked Benkert first because he had the guts to name the best (Sawnick) and worst (Heady) members of the council. The other four took the political high road and declined to answer.

“I wasn’t happy with the candidates, but Ken Daige for the most part had clearly been engaged in the issues,” Heady said.

Daige performed very well on the questions, showing his vast knowledge and insight into the inner-workings of the city — knowledge only an incumbent or former insider would have. In fact, it was all those questions that kept Daige from noticing the confusion swirling throughout the process.

“I had to stay focused on answering the questions and focused on how my answers would go,” Daige said. “And I had been to the previous meeting where they laid out what the procedure would be. Mayor Sawnick said we were going to do this just like when we pick the mayor so I knew it would be the first person to get three votes.”

Heady said he would have voted for Kennedy based on the fact that he understood the issues more than he expected him to, but even more for his analytical skills. Heady said he wasn’t impressed by Kennedy’s legal background.

“I don’t care about someone’s background,” Heady said. “Having a law degree doesn’t make you more able to see things clearly. What I look for is someone who can make sense out of things.”

The only thing that is fairly certain is that meetings with Councilman Daige will last longer than meetings without him. Daige has attended every council meeting since he was defeated in 2008, so he may have much he’d like to tackle.

“I just don’t know what to expect,” Abell said. “At this point, there are several issues that will come up that I’m sure Ken will have something to say about, and with some issues, the vote doesn’t end the process with him.”

Daige said he will not arrive with any “to do” list as Wilson did because the issues on upcoming council agendas will be sufficient to provide for lively discussion.

“I think we have enough on our plate,” Daige said. “We have a lot to do already. Ten months is not enough.”

Now that Daige is back on the Council, Heady has also begun to think about the changed group dynamic and how it will affect the substance and flow of the meetings. Admittedly, these factors didn’t work into Heady’s 10-point matrix used during last week’s selection.

With the perspective of a few days’ time, Heady said he hadn’t counted on this skewing his matrix toward someone he was more than a little unsure about politically.

“I really was reluctant, there were lots of things,” Heady said. “Ken asks a lot of questions and he often gets into minutia, and you have to remember that he was out of office because Kevin Sawnick beat him in an election when nobody knew the guy. But using my matrix, he ranked highly so I voted for him.”

Sawnick, having defeated Daige in 2008, probably knows his strengths and weaknesses better than anyone, but he gave Daige the benefit of the doubt.

“With everyone, I think over time we always learn stuff,” Sawnick said. “I think everyone over time can become a better council person.”

The fact that Daige went through the scrutiny of a campaign and will have virtually no learning curve also gave him credibility with Sawnick.

“Whether I agree with him or not, Ken has been at every single meeting and he certainly knows what’s going on,” he said. “Although the voter turnout was horrible, he did come in third out of seven or eight people.”

After living in the Washington, D.C. area for 25 years and practicing telecommunications law there, last week’s selection-election wasn’t the oddest thing Kennedy has witnessed in his lifetime.

“I’ve seen a lot worse,” he said.

At first Kennedy thought Daige’s selection was a foregone conclusion and the interviews were merely perfunctory. But upon further reflection, he wasn’t sure if it was an organized effort or simply a highly disorganized effort.

“They kind of jumped the gun on me. They should have voted on all three of us in case something should happen to Ken Daige in the next 10 months so we wouldn’t have to go through this all over again,” Kennedy said. “But I have no hard feelings.”

So, as Abell suggested, will Kennedy find something better to do with his time, or will he mount a run at one of the four Council seats up for grabs this year?

“Am I still considering it? Absolutely,” Kennedy said. “Did it turn me off? Not at all. They’re just people and I don’t know what motivates people on a daily basis.”