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2010: The year when apathy was torn asunder

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER - STAFF WRITER (Week of January 6, 2011)

Looking back, 2010 was the year when apathy was torn asunder and citizens took back power from small, insulated and unresponsive local governments.

The movement which elected two rogue Vero Beach city councilmen in November 2009 served as the precursor to this wave of political activism. Vero voters closed the deal in 2010 after an excruciating wait while the city plodded along seemingly in shock that gadflies Brian Heady and Charlie Wilson had been elected.

Real life can sometimes parody a movie, and the Vero Beach City Council in early 2010 evoked images of “The Wizard of Oz.” The characters were all there.

Mayor Kevin Sawnick played the starring role of ingenue Dorothy. His mantra was that the city was on the right path whenever a citizen or challenger asked how the council planned to fix all the things that were wrong. City voters in November no longer wanted to be carried around like Toto in Sawnick’s basket, and they did not reelect the young mayor.

Vice Mayor Tom White growled and grumbled his way through 2010 and, after deciding not to run again, suffered the viewing public with lengthy speeches about his resume.

But alas, like the Cowardly Lion, White did not muster the courage to shrink city government, to trim the budget or to get utility rates under control.  It’s rumored that the lion may come back and run for something else -- property appraiser? Sheriff?

Who can forget the Tin Man on the dais, Sabin Abell.  Abell started the year unwilling to move from the mayor’s office, forcing Sawnick to work out of a tiny office behind scores of filing cabinets. Abell’s problem is that he never took to heart that the public was suffering under high electric bills and stood firm by his position that the city electric system was a luxury worth paying 30 percent higher rates.  The voters rewarded Abell by ushering him off to retirement.

Another incumbent that did not get reelected in 2010 was Ken Daige, playing the part of scarecrow for providing a stream of hair-brained, half-baked statements and ideas while back on the dais for a second round.

Daige accused the reformers pushing Vero as wanting to “dismantle the city, brick by brick.” It was partially Daige’s hammering of the staff to get water and sewer rates down that led to the city moving to repeal $13 million of needed scheduled rate increases without any financial analysis, about a month prior to the election.

Daige’s early failure to take a stand on the electric issue -- and his unfortunate position of siding with the status quo – ended his political career election day.

Oz himself left the scene in October with the retirement of City Manager Jim Gabbard. Always behind the curtain, pulling the strings, Gabbard successfully maneuvered and swayed the votes of the previous council members.

Not wishing to change, Gabbard decided it was time to take his substantial toys -- accrued sick and vacation time plus a whopping pension -- and go home. Now his deputies left to man the curtain are trying to keep up the facade, but without Oz himself, it may crumble.

Outside Vero Beach City Hall, there was more uprising and retribution in 2010.

More than 800 victims got some justice of sorts as swindler Ira Hatch had his Ponzi scheme revealed during an eight-week blockbuster summer trial, after which Hatch was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

The Town of Indian River Shores, in response to outrage over a botched proposed utility deal and a clear conflict of interest with its hired guns, GAI Consultants,  quietly fired the consultants and seems to be trying to rein in the issue.

Even in the little Town of Orchid, 200 residents stood up and demanded to be heard at a Town Council meeting after Mayor Richard Dunlop and his cohorts attempted to ram through the annexation of Marsh Island into the Town. This story will have a sequel in 2011 as the effort to annex is still underway.

That being said, the 2010 political twister is over and, though we’re not in Kansas anymore, here’s a review of the year’s biggest news and politics as reported in the pages of Vero Beach 32963 and our sister publication,


-The year started with an analysis by Vero Beach 32963 of both versions of the Orlando Utilities Commission contract which revealed 115 changes made to the contract during the eight-day period between the time the City Council viewed it and it was approved and signed by then-Mayor Tom White. This results in the city’s own analysis by legal staff and an admission that changes did occur, coupled with an explanation by City Attorney Charlie Vitunac that it didn’t matter because “the changes only made the contract better.”

-At about the same time, State Attorney Bruce Colton’s denied “whitewash” in the investigation into potential bid rigging by the City of Vero Beach in not choosing Florida Power & Light to provide electricity.

-In the county, with Commissioners Peter O’Bryan and Joe Flescher up for re-election and both facing challengers and the public growing grumpier about the City of Vero Beach, the County was nearly forced into taking at least a weak stance on utility issues. Later on in the year, the county appointed two liaisons -- O’Bryan on electric issues and now-Chairman Bob Solari on water-sewer issues. The county so far has missed an opportunity to move these issues forward.

-Instead of holding a special election or choosing the person who was runner-up in the November 2009 election to replace ousted City Councilman Charlie Wilson, the City Council interviewed five applicants for the job and chose to recycle former Councilman Ken Daige.

-Vero top staffers begin to float the concept of shrinking back into the city limits to preserve Vero’s electric, water and sewer utilities from being gobbled up or taken over by entities who could do a more efficient job at running them or providing the services. This flawed idea -- which would thwart attempts and streamlining government and keep hundreds of utility workers on the payroll -- went into remission for a few months.


- Information comes to light revealing that City of Vero Beach residents only thought they got out of the oppressive Florida Municipal Power Agency, but that the city is actually committed to the power cooperative through at least 2043.

- Weather, processing delays and miscalculations in the original design of the North County beach replenishment project cause the price tag to rise. Early in the year, cost estimates came in at nearly $1 million more than expected for the “experimental” use of trucked-in sand from sand mines.

- The City of Vero Beach is drastically behind the curve in streamlining its budget . In early 2010,  Vero employed about 22 staffers per 1,000, compared to the more populous Sebastian which had a 5.7 per 1,000 ratio. Vero has an even higher per capita staffing rate than Indian River County, which inclusive of the fire department and Sheriff’s office, still employs only 10.1 employees per 1,000 residents.


- The joint commission appointed to look into possible consolidation of Vero and County water and sewer systems, after nearly five months of meetings, chooses GAI Consultants to do the study. Over the next few weeks, the committee disintegrates over a squabble regarding whether or not the taxpayers should pay tens of thousands of dollars for GAI to sit down and interview 15 elected officials in Vero, the Shores and the County about their vision of the future of utilities.

- Former Vero Beach Councilman Charlie Wilson files for the County Commission District 2 race and offers a Campaign Boot Camp workshop to local candidates who share his views on smaller government and utility reform.

- County Commissioner Gary Wheeler reveals an ongoing feud between himself and Commissioner Joe Flescher. Wheeler leaks police reports on an investigation of theft of an electronic device from the County Administration Building naming Flescher a person of interest.


- As a trial date looms for accused swindler Ira Hatch, Judge Robert Hawley recuses himself in response to a claim by the State Attorney of bias against the prosecution. Senior Judge James Midelis is called out of retirement to handle the case.

-Vero Councilman Brian Heady files a complaint in Federal court against the City of Vero Beach, claiming that his First Amendment rights were violated.

- Information is leaked to the press that Supervisor of Elections Kay Clem in April filed an elections fraud complaint against County Commission Candidate Charlie Wilson, alleging that up to 300 filing petitions Wilson had submitted were falsified and/or forged.


- Jury selection begins in the trial of disbarred beachside attorney Ira Hatch. Hatch is represented pro bono by Viera defense attorney Greg Eisenmenger, who later admits that  Hatch is now family --  through the marriage of Danielle Hatch and Eisenmenger’s son, Christopher.

- Investigative reporting by Vero Beach 32963 reveals that Ira and Marjorie Hatch had quietly divorced in December 2009 in Brevard County. This is news to even the prosecution in the case.


- Defendant Ira Hatch and the State Attorney reach a plea deal while the jury is still deliberating. Hatch pleads guilty to a count of racketeering which carries up to 30 years in prison.

- Vero City Manager Jim Gabbard announces that he will retire on Oct. 1.

- A federal judge threw out three of four complaints Vero Beach City Councilman Brian Heady filed against the City of Vero Beach.


- Convicted swindler Ira Hatch is sentenced to 30 years in prison, minus more than two years already served, of which he must serve 85 percent of the time.

- Details come to light of the Indian River School District’s handlings of employee complaints about sexual harassment and discrimination. As the allegations were against Superintendent Dr. Harry La Cava, the investigation was handled quietly and in-house with La Cava cleared of any wrongdoing.

- No huge surprises in local Republican primaries, with incumbents Joe Flescher and Peter O’Bryan prevailing and School Board members Carol Johnson and Karen Disney-Brombach retaining their seats.


- Eleven candidates declare for Vero Beach City Council with one, Dean Heran, dropping out before the filing deadline. The earliest debates and forums demonstrate that utilities and the city budget will be the major factors of the election

- While most of its residents are still out of state, the Orchid Town Council takes the first steps to annex the 40-acre Marsh Island development into the Town. The move had been pushed by Mayor Richard Dunlop, as the initial deal included a cheap price for some land in Marsh Island on which a Town Hall could be built.


- Invoices and contracts reveal that both the Town of Indian River Shores and the City of Vero Beach have been using the same utility experts -- GAI Consultants -- to broker both sides of a 30-year franchise deal for water and sewer worth $90 million. Town officials deny that a conflict exists.

- Federal Judge K. Michael Moore dismisses Councilman Brian Heady’s lawsuit against the City of Vero Beach. - In a sad conclusion to the Charlie Wilson petition scandal which erupted in the spring, 23-year-old Christopher Wilson plead no contest to a host of charges, including ballot fraud and was sentenced to four years in state prison plus five years probation.


-  In a total “clean sweep” of the Vero Beach City Council, four new members are elected. Tracy Carroll, Craig Fletcher, Pilar Turner and Jay Kramer all ran on open, transparent government and on getting the city out of the electric business. The ouster of incumbents Sabe Abell, Kevin Sawnick and Ken Daige was seen as a referendum on the city’s inability to solve the problem of electric rates roughly 30 percent higher than FP&L.

- Attorney Jeff Pegler edges out North Beach resident Kimberly Keithahn for a spot on the School Board. Incumbents Joe Flescher and Peter O’Bryan handily beat challengers and return to the Board of County Commissioners for another four years.

- A record 200 Orchid residents show up at a Town Council meeting to urge Mayor Richard Dunlop to delay any decision on the annexation of Marsh Island.


- Florida Power and Light executives meet with the new Vero Beach City Council members in back-door sessions. It is revealed that FP&L has no need nor desire to purchase Vero’s big blue power plant.

- At the advice of top city staff and lobbyists from the Florida Municipal Electric Association, Vero Mayor Jay Kramer recycles an old proposal to shrink the city’s utility system back into the city limits and sell off the mainland county, South Beach and Indian River Shores territories only to FP&L or another buyer, possibly the Orlando Utilities Commission.

- At the close of 2010, the first phase of the sand project was finally complete.

- Ten people, including three beachside residents and Vero City Councilman Brian Heady, apply to fill the Supervisor of Elections post.