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Vero utility panel seems no rubber stamp

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of January 19, 2012)

Any suggestions that the newly appointed members of the Vero Beach Utility Commission were selected by a City Council majority to provide no-questions-asked support for sale of the Vero electric system appeared to be firmly put to rest at the group's meeting last week.

The advisory panel got a primer on the electric system, and asked good, tough questions of the city staff, during a workshop prior to the regular meeting.

The commission dug into the critical issues related to sale of the electric utility to Florida Power & Light and also to the future of the water-sewer utility. Members appear engaged and enthusiastic about being a part of a dynamic process which could change the city government on a very basic level.

The old commission consisted mostly of former utility managers, and that's the perspective they brought to their work. The new commission members might need to learn more of the technical nuts and bolts, but so far, they appear to approach their job from a business perspective and from the point of view of the taxpayer.

Chairman Scott Stradley, a local CPA, is leading the panel. The people he has to work with include an unlikely pair of strong personalities who seemed to emerge as leaders – former Councilman Brian Heady and Indian River Tea Party co-founder and leader Toby Hill.

"I would like to recommend that we try to put some structure to this workshop and to our overall discussions," Hill said in the first few minutes of last week's meeting. "There are many issues that need to be addressed."

Hill cautioned against a "shotgun" approach and suggested instead that the committee identify issues it wants to address and attack them one by one.

A staunch supporter of selling the electric utility to FPL, Hill does not appear to want to waste his time on any committee designed to be a rubber stamp to council actions. It's apparent he wants to help the city get things done, not just talk issues to death.

As a self-proclaimed limited-government guy, Hill also bears the responsibility of making sure the taxpayer gets the best deal and that city government shrinks appropriately once the utility is gone.

Heady's approach centers on making sure all sides of the issue are heard – especially the dissenting ones – and all alternatives studied and considered. His suggestion last week that the commission look at some back-up plans in case a sale to FPL falls through or gets bogged down in politics shows Heady still believes in leaving no stone unturned.

To Heady, a discussion that by his own admission may be purely academic – for example, the possible shenanigans surrounding the passage of the Orlando Utilities Commission contract in 2007 – isn't necessarily out of bounds for the Utilities Commission.

Hill, on the other hand, seems more focused on practical ways to tackle the future rather than excavating the recent past. He chastised city staff for not being complete and direct with information presented to the commission.

When Power Resources Manager Jim Stevens presented paperwork on some expensive maintenance needed at the power plant, Hill told him he should simply say why he needs to spend the money as part of maintaining the electric system – and then move on.

More than three hours into last week's meeting, Hill reminded his fellow committee members that he had to grab some lunch and get back to running his business.

A barrier island resident and owner of The Hill Group, Hill was appointed as an alternate member for voting, so he only gets to vote when members are absent, but it gives him a seat on the dais, and the right and responsibility to contribute to the discussion.

Heady, fresh off a two-year term on the council, seems to be seeking his next challenge – and possibly his next nemesis – in Hill.

Every time Heady tried to expound upon an issue, Hill found a way to steer the conversation back to the center, to summarize, to truncate it down to a bullet point.

Hill didn't disagree with what Heady was saying; he just emphasized that Heady's description of what needed to be done was "too wordy."

Heady has been known to rail against anyone whom he feels is trying to shut him down, as was seen on the 2010 City Council with then-Mayor Kevin Sawnick and on the 2011 City Council with Councilwoman Tracy Carroll.

The gauntlet the chair of any committee with Heady on it must run is to stick to the agenda, and not permit the personal squabbles to fester and detract from doing the peoples' business.

Meanwhile, Stradley already has a great deal on his plate, as he put it, "trying to untangle this bowl of spaghetti" that is the city's electric system.

During this first meeting, Stradley mostly tried to facilitate the answering of questions by staff, and to corral Heady, Hill and the others into a consensus, and capture their opinions in the annual report the commission needs to produce later this month. Since the committee didn't do much in 2011 and nearly all the members are new, the report will not so much be a review as a blueprint of goals and objectives.

The commission has decided to take a look at the city's legal agreements with regard to electric, including the OUC contract and the Florida Municipal Power Agency.

The FPL offer, when it's received, and its merits will be up for discussion later this year.

Members will also take a look at the GAI appraisals of the utilities and the GAI optimization plan.

Looking even further into the future, City Manager Jim O'Connor has asked the committee to give him some direction as to potential uses for the power plant site after decommissioning of the plant.

The draft of the commission's annual report is being typed up so the group can meet next week to finalize the document, and get it to the City Council in time for its Feb. 3 meeting.

That is a very quick turnaround on a document for this or any of the city's advisory committees. The fact that the group had no problem meeting twice in one month to finish something important shows that, instead of delaying discussions way past the point where their decision or advice would be moot, the new members want to be a timely and relevant part of the city's business.

Despite the fact most members are new to the job, they did not hesitate to pass judgment on a concept raised by Heady.

Heady suggested that, if a deal with FPL was on the ropes and the council wanted a 5-0 vote on such an important decision, a small "surcharge" of maybe 3 percent on electric bills for a few years would allow FPL to up the sale price a few million.

This new "fair price" could give Councilmen Dick Winger and Jay Kramer the political cover to vote for the deal. The commission flatly rejected the concept of any kind of a surcharge on electric bills.

Hill and others interjected that anything that would impose rates on Vero customers higher than published FPL rates is counter to the goals of a sale.

The Vero Beach Utilities Commission meets again at 11 a.m. Jan. 26 at City Hall in the council chambers to finalize its annual report.