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Lee, retiring, offers Vero help – gratis

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of January 12, 2012)
Photo of Vero Beach Utilities Customer Service Manager John Lee

Vero Beach Utilities Customer Service Manager John Lee will retire March 2, but electric rate payers won't have to re-hire him as a pricey consultant if the city needs his institutional memory to get through the sale of Vero electric to Florida Power and Light.

"If the city needs my help with a possible sale of the electric utility, it would be my pleasure to volunteer my time.  I do not expect, nor would I accept any type of payment for my help," Lee wrote Friday in an e-mail.

"I appreciate his offer and we will more than likely call him since a lot of the information provided to the data room, FPL sale, was prepared by John," said City Manager Jim O'Connor.

The city routinely has called retired employees back and allowed them to double-dip at the public trough.

Lee won’t be leaving his city post empty handed.  The 32-year municipal employee will benefit from a generous pension and close to $70,000 in a payout of his banked sick and vacation time.

However, he might actually be one employee with enough invaluable knowledge of the electric utility to justify paying him as a consultant to work on the transition to FPL after a sale.

Lee has been the singular source of continuity and institutional knowledge on the public and political end of the electric, water and sewer issues, as city managers, utility directors, finance directors and elected officials have come and gone over the years.

Whenever the position of electric utility director has become vacant, Lee has stepped up and served.

Most recently, he filled in for 15 months after R.B. Sloan resigned in Nov. 2009.

Due to ongoing talks with FPL about selling the utility, the city had not filled Sloan's position, though it was officially posted.

When Lee bowed out of his interim electric utility director position in February 2011, he said he hoped his decision would prompt the City Council to put someone on, even on a contract basis, who has expertise in the technical and regulatory aspects of running an electric utility.

That has not happened. So what's the city to do now?

"After giving my official notice, I met with the finance director and the city manager to discuss the best way to handle the situation.  We are evaluating the options," Lee said.
Since O'Connor joined the city in July, the council and staff have had his decades of utility experience to rely upon when questions arise.

Regarding dealings with FPL, the council's hired transactional attorneys from Edwards Wildman Palmer have now taken on the shepherding of agreements with the Orlando Utilities Commission and the Florida Municipal Power Agency – two entities to which Lee has been the point of contact regarding routine matters.

So some of the higher-level duties are being handled, but the day-to-day running of an electric utility will need to be done by someone after Lee's departure.

Over the past two years, Lee's office has become a catch-all of everything from discrimination complaints to a multitude of requests for information from FPL and GAI Consultants as due diligence has proceeded on the possible sale of the utility.

Every time rates need to be increased or bad news needs to be delivered to the City Council or to the public, Lee delivers the message earnestly and with an ever-present upbeat attitude and cheerful countenance. He deals with the media and fields sometimes uncomfortable questions.

A diplomat, Lee quickly and politely disseminates information, while always presenting the data in the best light for the City of Vero Beach and its management.

Despite spending days taking calls from people who dislike Vero Beach electric and who can't pay their bills, Lee has patiently listened and somehow kept his chin up. Lee had said he would stick it out another couple of years, but it seems that is no longer in the cards.

"While I have talked about how long I would stay with the city a number of times, the simple reason that I am retiring now is that I decided it is time to go.  I have lived in Vero Beach for nearly 32 years and I hope to make Vero my home for the rest of my life," Lee said.

Even critics of the city and its utilities have good things to say about Lee and his service to the citizens and ratepayers of Vero Beach.

"John has always been very open, cooperative, and provided me with the information I have requested since I started working with him over four years ago," said Moorings resident Stephen Faherty, one of the main activists who has pushed to get Vero out of the electric business. "He will be missed and should be considered a valuable resource by city officials."

Lee's departure completes a near total replacement of the city's top management – at least the lead staffers involved in setting city policy with regard to the electric utility.

After Sloan left in late 2009, City Manager Jim Gabbard retired in October 2010. Then City Attorney Charles Vitunac retired in lieu of being fired in February 2011 and Finance Director Steve Maillet finally left his post late last summer.

The entire Vero Beach City Council also turned over during the same period.