Vero City Council takes on new look New mayor, vice mayor launch era of openness
The new, improved Vero Beach City Council – led by two new faces – is off and running, promising to open up the city’s business to the public, to be accountable to the taxpayers and to wrest control of the city back from the hands of the entrenched bureaucracy. So far, so good.
In the first minutes of their first meeting, the new Council infused debate into the selection of Mayor Jay Kramer and Vice Mayor Pilar Turner, allowing not only councilmembers to ask questions and voice opinions, but also permitting about a dozen members of the public to have a say in who will control the gavel and the tenor of the meetings.
It had never happened before.
Without naming names, the citizens who spoke urged the Council and whoever was tasked with being mayor to exhibit tolerance, to listen to divergent viewpoints and to make sure issues are thoroughly vetted – in the public eye – prior to taking action.
A few of the speakers advised the new councilmembers to remember, as they carry out their duties, to ensure all parties enjoy the right to freedom of speech.
“I feel that civility and competency should be the by-words of this Council,” said Councilwoman Tracy Carroll.
Though arch-enemies Councilmen Craig Fletcher and Brian Heady exchanged a few barbs before everyone took their respective seats and got down to business, the councilmembers showed serious promise of being able to work together to solve the city’s mounting problems.
The afternoon before becoming Mayor, Jay Kramer enjoyed a belated victory party with friends, family and supporters. While musing about the challenges ahead, Kramer watched his son – in full catcher’s gear -- practice baseball with his grandpa in the back yard. For a moment, Kramer contemplated bringing some padding or maybe the mask to Monday’s Council meeting – just in case he was seated somewhere in the crossfire between Heady and Fletcher.
Instead of using protective gear, now Mayor Jay Kramer used his quick wit and diplomacy to move the peoples’ business forward during the first session of the new board.
For example, during discussion about a platform item Kramer campaigned on – publishing the city’s check register online every two weeks so the public can see where their money is going – Heady was for it and Fletcher against. The Board of County Commissioners already does this, but Fletcher wanted to table the item to allow the staff to figure out if it was possible.
Kramer jumped into the fray.
“It’s also a political way of being noncommittal,” Kramer said to Fletcher, and instructed City Clerk Tammy Vock to call the question.
The measure passed 4-1, with Fletcher dissenting.
Several votes on Monday came down 4-1 with Fletcher on the outs with his new Council mates for various reasons, mostly matters of process or timing or because things had been added to the agenda.
But at the end of the meeting, Heady and Fletcher were heading up a team to cook chili for the City of Vero Beach in the Firefighters Chili Cook-off this weekend at Pointe West.
Kramer seems unwilling to indulge much bickering between the other two men on the Council. Instead, it’s clear that he expects them to put doing the business of the city above any personal animosities. Fortunately, Kramer will be getting a great deal of help from Councilwomen Carroll and Turner.
Councilwoman Pilar Turner’s substantial credentials in corporate America and on government boards will soon be put to the test as she is now in charge of overseeing the new Council’s efforts to make sure that every decision that comes before them comes complete with an analysis of the financial implications. As Turner stated on the campaign stump, “We need to know what it’s going to cost, not only today but tomorrow.”
One looming issue that will be a first priority on Turner’s list will be to study all the city’s options for operating or consolidating its water and sewer utilities to ensure low, stable rates. She and Carroll also voiced concerns that the city’s advisory committees should be given a clear mission and should be utilized more effectively to take advantage of the expertise present in that volunteer labor.
As part of this first group of actions, the Council appointed Councilwoman Tracy Carroll to tackle the stalled talks with Florida Power & Light the way she did utility issues during her campaign.
“There has never been a point person on the Council. I think it’s very important to have an elected official as the point person,” said Councilman Heady. “Tracy Carroll is the perfect person to ride herd on the issue.”
Heady added that he would continue to ferret out information that he feels the public and the council need to know. This comment prompted a discussion of the Council’s proper role in dealing with the city staff.
City Attorney Charlie Vitunac said the Council members are free to go anywhere and do anything as “fact finders,” but that specific requests or tasks to be assigned to staffers should go through the City Manager’s office.
Interim City Manager Monte Falls said he plans to draft a letter to FPL introducing them to the new Council and to Mayor Kramer in hopes of sparking a renewed discussion between the two parties.
In addition to being Mayor, Kramer has been tasked with coming up with strategies to increase openness and transparency in the city government.
Councilman Fletcher said he wants to focus on long-range planning as one of his main tasks, plus Councilman Heady suggested Fletcher come back with a plan for the Council to “take back control of the city from the staff,” as Fletcher promised in his campaign literature.
Long-time critic of the city Frank Zorc even seemed hopeful that this group of people can work together to foster a renewal in spirit, energy, action and accountability for the residents and ratepayers of the city and its utilities.
“Thank God for the fact that we have a new early spring for the City of Vero Beach,” Zorc said.
When the council meets next on Nov. 16, the first item on tap will be to decide whether or not to keep Interim City Manager Monte Falls on or to bring in someone new while the council searches for a permanent replacement for the recently retired Jim Gabbard.
The previous Council, anxious to get the search for a successor to Gabbard underway, approved $21,500 to hire the firm Colin Baenzinger to recruit prospects and sift through the applicants. Falls, however, said he has put off signing a contract with the Wellington search firm until he gets an affirmation from the new Council that it still wants to proceed on that course.
“Colin Baenzinger will be here the first meeting in December to meet with the Council and to find out what their priorities are in what they’re looking for in a City Manager,” Falls said. “Then they will develop a candidate profile and go from there.”
Human Resources Director Robert Anderson said it will be up to the new Council to determine how the search is conducted, and whether applications will be received by the city or by the search firm. Regardless, the applications and information regarding the search process will be part of the public record, Anderson said.
In recent weeks, Falls has reportedly indicated to City Hall insiders that he is not opposed to taking the City Manager post permanently, should that be the will of the new Council.