Vero staff and consultants move to freeze out Council on utility talks
STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of July 14, 2011)
Two new moves in the past week indicate a dramatic ramping up of the effort by the Vero Beach city staff and their pet consultants to control what the City Council sees and hears about the sale of the electric, water and sewer utilities.
The big news on the consulting front came when GAI Consultants sent Vero Beach a new, all-encompassing $3 million proposal for the cost of “experts” to handle the sale of the electric utility to Florida Power & Light.
On top of the $238,900 already committed to GAI, the Orlando firm now says it will cost an estimated $1 million to extricate the city from the Florida Municipal Power Agency and another $1.5 million to GAI engineers to shepherd the sale through and assist during a transition period.
The proposal also contains substantial unknown amounts and language such as “not estimated” and “may be much more” for some items. The final page of the proposal just rounds up the $2.8 million sum to $3 million.
The proposal does not include legal fees for a transactional attorney as Council members are hoping to find an objective legal counsel to do that job.
The second move came when acting City Attorney Wayne Coment on July 8 prohibited council members or anyone considered to be an agent of the city from meeting with or speaking to FP&L or the Indian River County board or staff about anything having to do with the two utility sales.
Coment issued a memo equating unauthorized meetings to a potential violation of the Florida Government in the Sunshine Act.
That means, according to Coment, that if Council Member Tracy Carroll, the appointed liaison to FP&L on the electric sale, wanted to have coffee at Starbuck’s with FP&L’s Amy Brunjes, the meeting would have to be properly noticed, open to the public and minutes would be taken.
According to Coment’s opinion, if council members want information on the sales, they need to get it during a public meeting or from city staff or GAI Consultants.
As the acting city attorney, any Coment opinion is just advisory.
The spirit of the gag order itself was immediately disregarded as its contents were shared with members of the public, the media and with FP&L executives and Indian River County staff.
County and FP&L officials were reportedly in disbelief at the draconian tone of Coment’s memo.
The restriction, Coment said, “serves to help avoid a challenge to any potential or finalized transaction based on any alleged Sunshine violation.”
Whether GAI Consultants $3 million proposal is taken more seriously than Coment’s gag order is yet to be seen.
The Vero Beach City Council will meet at 9 a.m. next Tuesday discuss these matters and “re-do” for public consumption a prior, closed meeting which took place at the Vero Beach Airport on June 14 where more than one council member showed up to observe.
The “cure meeting” was called to redress concerns made by former Mayor Warren Winchester – an opponent of the utility sales – and other citizens about what they saw as a Sunshine violation.