Rebuff of Turner heightens concern over electric sale
If actions speak louder than words, the selection of Jay Kramer over Pilar Turner for vice mayor of Vero Beach last Friday might give pause to those who believed campaign assertions that everyone on the Nov. 5 ballot was in favor of completing the sale of Vero electric to Florida Power and Light.
The unanimous election of Dick Winger as mayor at the first council meeting since the Nov. 5 election was not a surprise. After all, he had been the top vote getter in the election with almost 37 percent, almost 10 points ahead of his nearest rival.
But Winger’s decision to nominate Jay Kramer – an unwavering foe of the Vero electric-FPL deal – to be vice mayor could hardly be read as an encouraging omen by those still hoping the divestiture of Big Blue will remain on track.
Turner, who was not on this year’s ballot, nominated herself for vice mayor but failed to get the support of fellow council members.
She had won election to the council twice on a pro-sale platform and serves as the city’s representative on the Florida Municipal Power Agency board. She has not only voted for every measure necessary to move the sale forward, she has also driven efforts to extricate the city from its FMPA legal and financial entanglements.
Kramer, on the other hand, boasts an equally solid record on the sale of Vero electric to FPL – solidly against. Plus, he filed a formal protest with federal regulators – so far in vain – asking them to nix the $179 million transaction, hardly an act of “good faith” on Kramer’s part.
The election of Kramer over Turner for vice-mayor was considered at least a mild surprise.
“Obviously they don’t see the electrical issue as important,” Turner said Monday of her defeat for the vice-mayoral post. “I’m out there asking for help, I can’t do it alone. I think it’s sending a message.”
Turner said she didn’t nominate herself in a quest for the title of vice-mayor. “I couldn’t care less about the title,” she said.
But she said that a vote to put her in the vice mayor post would have given her some much needed clout as she attempts to help negotiate with the Florida Municipal Power Agency, which now holds the fate of the sale in its hands as Vero Beach pursues an amicable divorce.
Selecting Turner as vice mayor would have been seen as a signal to everyone around the state watching the Vero-FPL sale that the city’s promise to honor the will of the voters and get the deal done is unwavering.
Turner said she had hoped to see a bigger “commitment to do everything we can to move this forward and to make it happen for our ratepayers, (since) every month of delay costs $2 million.”
Winger, however, praised Kramer for his sage counsel and said he was the best analytical mind the city has. Unfortunately for voters who still yearn to receive an FPL power bill sometime in the near future, adopting Kramer’s analyses would lead the city in an opposite direction from the deal on the table to sell the entire electric utility and its 34,000 customers for the current offer of $179 million.
Kramer brings to the vice mayor post a history of open defiance to what the overwhelming majority of voters asked for in the March referendum on the sale.
Kramer’s May 30 letter to FERC, identifying himself as a member of the city council stated, “Mr. Kramer believes the transaction was done without regard to competitive practices and is prepared to demonstrate how the public has been harmed by this process.”
From April 2011 when FPL issued a letter of intent to purchase Vero electric, Kramer has protested the exclusivity of the negotiations with FPL, insisting that some other phantom buyer out there would give Vero a better deal if the city’s hands weren’t tied.
Former mayor Warren Winchester reinforced this fantasy during his short weeks on the campaign trail, stating that interested buyers had contacted him about Vero electric.
Winchester would not name these potential buyers, but a multi-billion-dollar energy company comparable to FPL beating down the door of someone out of public office for a decade to broker a deal stretches credulity.
The other diversion Kramer has tried to push on the city is the so-called partial sale. He says he believes that Vero could sell off the 20,000 customers outside the city and operate an efficient utility and offer competitive rates with just the 14,000 people in the city proper.
Yet, FPL officials have said repeatedly that they have absolutely no interest in buying only part of the system. A partial sale would also leave most of the government buildings located in the city on the costly Vero electric system, negating some of the savings that city, council and school board taxpayers could see from paying low FPL rates for offices and schools.
Meanwhile, Turner – the victim of Friday’s political freeze-out – still serves as the city’s representative on the FMPA board, but her presence there is no longer backed by a strong three-vote majority on the council. Any influence Turner might have had to curb the excess in the FMPA budget, or to battle the waste and inefficiency embedded in FMPA operations and passed down to Vero customers in high utility rates, has now been damaged.
The change the “new guard” might seek could be quite familiar, as it may closely resemble the “old guard” of Sabe Abell, Debra Fromang, Ken Daige and Bill Fish – all of whom showed up to see Winger and newcomer Amelia Graves sworn in on Friday.
They are, in fact, the bulk of the group of city leaders who got Vero into the increasingly expensive Orlando Utilities Commission power contract that accounts for much of today’s high electric rates.
They are the ones who at the time, almost to a man, admitted to not even having read the contract. They are the ones who swear the $20 million the city is now on the hook for was not an exit penalty, but protection for the city.
Fish, who was unseated in 2009 and got 6 percent of the ballots cast when angry voters ushered Brian Heady and Charlie Wilson into office, rose to the podium on Friday and boldly asked for a re-do of the past three years.
Put everything back the way it was, Fish demanded. Back the way it was before Turner, councilman Craig Fletcher and now defeated councilwoman Tracy Carroll started down the path to sell Vero electric. Specifically, Fish said he wanted all the old finance and utility commission members – skeptics of the FPL sale – reinstalled.
The city will hold its next regular meeting on Tuesday. That might provide the next clue as to what the team of Winger and Kramer might have in mind for the sale and for electric ratepayers.