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FP&L and Vero: Hard to tell what they are saying in private
BY LISA ZAHNER - STAFF WRITER (Week of July 22, 2010)

A week after a flurry of reports involving what Florida Power & Light may or may not offer -- and may or may not do -- in regard to purchasing the Vero Beach Electric Utility, the situation appears more confused than ever.

That’s largely because FP&L – perhaps realizing that no two members of the current dysfunctional City Council or city officials are in agreement on how to proceed – is being ultra cautious in its public comments about what it is saying to any of them privately, and what, if anything, Vero Beach customers stand to gain from an FP&L deal.

Councilman Brian Heady was among a few of the elected city leaders to meet privately with three executives from the power behemoth on July 14 to preview the presentation made public at Tuesday’s special call meeting.

According to him, FP&L will need to give the city enough to pay off the bonds, to fund any penalty it might owe to the Orlando Utilities Commission and give Vero customers FP&L rates.

“I told (FP&L) that unless they do those things, I don’t want FP&L,” Heady said.

Heady asked lots of questions in his sit-down with the utility’s officials – outside the watchful eye of City Manager Jim Gabbard – and got much more than the summary prepared for the public meeting.

Shortly after, Heady notified the press of his findings.

FP&L and City Hall quickly backed away from Heady’s claims, infusing the talks with uncertainty.

Mayor Kevin Sawnick said he received none of the assurances that Heady said he heard. Sawnick also didn’t detail any pointed questions that he’d asked of FP&L. Sawnick said no new information was offered last week, that his meeting repeated points made in June when he traveled to Juno Beach to FP&L offices.

Heady gone rogue, and public

A memo from City Manager Jim Gabbard written on July 15 indicates Gabbard was unaware that FP&L External Affairs Manager Amy Brunjes and her colleagues were going to meet with Councilman Heady.

“I am sorry that I did not get a chance to say hello while you were here. I had intended to come in at the conclusion of the meetings and when I visited the meeting room you had departed. I learned later that you were in Mr. Heady’s office. I trust the meetings went well.”

After news stories hit local online news sites, there was a scramble. An email sent by FP&L at 9:08 p.m. asked for Gabbard’s help in contacting Heady:

“I have been trying to get in touch with Commissioner Heady since our meeting yesterday, via messages with Rita at City Hall and via email. Is there another number I can reach him? Or if you see him, I would appreciate it if you could give him the message to call me on my cell,” asked Brunjes.

The day after the memo, Heady participated in a press conference at the office of ousted Vero Councilman Charlie Wilson about the headway made on the efforts to get the City of Vero Beach out of the electric business.

Utility activist and CPA Glenn Heran also participated in that press conference. He said as long as the offer from FP&L is greater than zero, that it would be a good offer. Heran also said that the Florida Public Service Commission would require that FP&L strike a fair deal for the city and for current FP&L customers.

“I can’t imagine that they didn’t tell Brian the things that he said they told him,” Heran said. “But I think they couched all of it by saying that these are goals that we aim to achieve, goals that we don’t know we will be able to achieve.”

Heady said he contacted Brunjes on Friday, the day after the press conference, and that she was concerned over the public perception of the comments he made in the press.

“She said she did not want people to misunderstand and to think that FP&L had negotiated a deal with me,” Heady said.

“They did not say what they would be offering the city or for sure what they would be doing and they did not say that they would be giving us FP&L rates,” Sawnick said.

“FP&L said they would be putting out a press release to clear everything up and to say what would be done at the meeting,” Mayor Sawnick said.

There was no press release, only a July 16 letter from FP&L External Affairs Manager Amy Brunjes to Sawnick stating what the meeting would and would not accomplish.

“I want to make it clear what we will not be addressing in our presentation. We will not announce any decision to purchase the City’s electric utility system because we do not know yet. We will not make any determination of what the system is worth, and we will not discuss any numbers or rates because we do not know yet.”

Brunjes, when contacted to clear up the apparent discrepancy, said she did not want to be quoted about what was or was not said in the meetings with Vero elected officials.  Brunjes said Tuesday’s meeting would stand for itself, that it would reflect the preliminary data FP&L had collected.

FP&L Spokesperson Jackie Anderson went a little further in helping clear up the two different interpretations of the preliminary data offered by her colleagues to members of the Vero City Council.

“The information that was provided was based on assumptions, we made assumptions based on the data we received and on public record and we’ve done a preliminary analysis based on these assumptions,” Anderson said. “That’s part of what we’re doing in getting the city to bless the preliminary analysis so we can move to the next step.”

When FP&L came to the table with the city originally, the company said it would determine if there were any major obstacles – legally or financially – to a potential purchase of the system. Anderson said FP&L is still in the process of determining whether or not those obstacles exist.

“We have not gone to the level of confirming those assumptions,” Anderson said. “The people doing the analysis have not yet contacted anyone from OUC or from the Florida Municipal Power Agency.”

The city has a 20-year, $20 billion contract with OUC for power and also holds rights to purchase electricity from the Stanton 1 and 2 coal plants and the St. Lucie Nuclear Plant through a contractual arrangement with the FMPA. Those legal entanglements would need to be settled somehow prior to a sale of part or all of the system.

Councilman Ken Daige said he did not meet with FP&L in the pre-meeting meetings because the sessions were not in the sunshine. He was disappointed that the handouts used in the meeting were not placed into public record and that there was no tape recording of Heady’s or anyone else’s meeting.

“We agreed to a public meeting and to do all of this in public, and that’s why I did not go to the private meeting,” Daige said. “As far as I’m concerned, what we had agreed to had not changed, it had not come back to the council to change it.”