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Vero Beach City Council race:
Someone old, someone new, some incumbents, Brian too

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of September 12, 2013)

The six candidates running for two Vero Beach City Council seats in November span an age range of 50 years, with political and business resumes that range from extensive to virtually nonexistent.

Both incumbents are seeking re-election, two candidates are running for public office for the first time, one former council member hopes to return for a third term after being out of office for a generation, and another is hoping his 15th time on the local ballot will produce a rare win.

No matter what background or generation the candidates come from, or what they hope to achieve in office, the tasks they will face after the Nov. 5 election are the same. Council members will quickly be asked to vote on complex issues that will determine the future of Vero Beach.

Marching orders handed down by voters in no less than four city elections and two referendums to sell the electric utility need to be molded into a workable vision of what Vero Beach will look like after Vero’s 34,000 customers get their first electric bill from Florida Power and Light.

There’s no side-stepping the tough decisions that will need to be made about how to pay for municipal employee salaries and skyrocketing health premiums, or how to dig out of $35 million in unfunded pension costs.

Idealistic and buoyant campaign slogans about “keeping Vero Vero” will have to translate into realistic policies and budgets, and decisions on whether to raise taxes or cut services and amenities.

Incumbents Dick Winger and Tracy Carroll hope voters send them back for another two years, while newcomers Amelia Graves and Joseph Guffanti want a shot at running the city. Brian Heady and Warren Winchester would like to climb back in the saddle again.

Councilman Dick Winger is an affable, accomplished conversationalist with knowledge of a broad range of topics from bee keeping to commodities markets – not the least of which is theoretical economics, in which he holds a degree. Fitting the stereotype of the economist, Winger is tough to pin down on many issues.

During the 2011 campaign, Winger waffled on how he would vote on the sale of Vero electric to Florida Power and Light, calling himself the "fair price" candidate. Two years later, though critical of the price that’s been offered, of the speed at which the sale has progressed, and the size of the legal bills, Winger presumably won’t risk alienating two-thirds of the Vero electorate who voted “yes” in the March referendum by taking a firm anti-sale stance this close to an election.

With regard to the city budget, Winger, seeing that spending would be a big issue this November, conducted his own efficiency analysis of the office space and personnel at city hall. When it came down to saving taxpayer dollars, however, Winger failed to vote for any meaningful reduction in the bloated city payroll or expenditures.

It’s been a tough second term for Vice Mayor Tracy Carroll, but even as she’s weathered a failed recall attempt and emerged bruised yet victorious from a battle with the city’s own staff and Code Enforcement Board, seeing the sale of Vero electric to FPL through is one major issue causing Carroll to persevere.

“As a ‘victim of voluntarism,’ I again have volunteered to  serve the City of Vero Beach as the champion of the sale of the utility, representing our families, businesses and ratepayers struggling with high bills and an aging and expensive to maintain power plant,” Carroll said Friday after taking the candidates’ oath.

Despite coming under fire for what critics describe as arrogance, Carroll expressed pride in both her popular appeal in 2010 and 2011 and in what she’s accomplished since elected.

“Receiving the most votes of all candidates during the past two elections, I have not wavered from my campaign promises, and will continue to work toward the sale of our electric system to FPL.”

With regard to the Twin Pairs project, Carroll said that, in cooperation with the Metropolitan Planning Council, she’s been part of “spearheading the redesign of SR60 through our historic downtown, to increase public safety and commerce.”

And on matters of the pocketbook, “I will continue to demand competency and efficiency from city staff and council and when re-elected will not waiver in my commitments to lower electric rates with FPL, and to represent the business communities and families of our beautiful city in every action as a councilwoman,” she said.

Most Vero voters already know Brian Heady and what they’ll get if they vote him back on the council. In Heady’s two-year term after his surprise electoral victory in 2009, he prided himself on throwing open the doors and windows of Vero Beach City Hall and letting the sunshine in.

This approach does not go over well with everyone, so Heady has cultivated his share of enemies over the years. Fortunately for Heady, he doesn’t much care.

With regard to the city budget, Heady said his general standard is “cut out the foolishness.” What constitutes foolishness? Heady said he knows it when he sees it, and so do the people who pay the bills. One example is the proposal to reconfigure the Twin Pairs. “Pure foolishness,” he called the plan. Another is pushing off pension debt.

Heady sat on the 2009-10 council responsible for bringing FPL in to open talks about selling the electric utility. Though he’s expressed much consternation about the process by which the council and its attorneys have arrived at the current state of the sale, Heady said he’s put aside any plans to attempt to rip it up and call for a do-over.

“Did they handle it the way I would have wanted? That ship has sailed,” Heady said.

Heady repeatedly describes the sale to FPL as the biggest economic development boost Vero could give not only itself, but the county as a whole, with savings expected to top $20 million per year once the switch is flipped to FPL and customers begin paying Florida’s lowest electric rates.

“Anyone who thinks that we don’t need to get the rates down for people is mistaken and the only way we’re going to get the rates down is to sell to FPL,” Heady said.

Vero residents who watch or attend city council meetings have probably seen the blustery, sound-byte version of Joseph “Buzzy” Guffanti, but he hopes to tell the rest of the story on the campaign trail.

The Guffanti voters will see this fall is expected to be just as outspoken, but maybe slightly more polished – or cleaned-up at least. Guffanti is famous for showing up at city hall fresh from painting a house, sometimes in a well-worn T-shirt emblazoned with the name and logo of a labor union.

“I picked that up at a thrift shop,” he said.

When asked his opinion on public-sector unions like the ones city leaders negotiate with, Guffanti said, “We have a covenant, whether it’s with the unions or the city employees. They should not be asked to retreat from their present status. You can ask them to help the city, but I wouldn’t force them.”

In his 35 years living in Vero, Guffanti has never run for office. Why is he running now? He said the current council is “lacking in the trust area” and frankly needs a healthy dose of reality because the city’s in terrible shape. He criticized what he called the staff’s “flamboyant financing” and the city’s penchant for borrowing from the future to balance the books.

“I almost feel that it’s necessary for me to try to give people a choice. I can bring to the table integrity, honesty, openness and common sense, which seems to be lacking,” Guffanti said.

Since her election three years ago, Vice Mayor Carroll has spearheaded efforts to get what she calls “the youth of our community” involved in city government. Ironically, one of those young people is seeking to unseat Carroll from the council.

Armed with a history degree from the University of Florida, minimal work experience and a passport stamped in Thailand, Nicaragua and Cambodia, 30-year-old Amelia Graves asserts that she’s got what it takes to represent Vero.

“Being born and raised in Vero Beach, this community has given so much to me and is a large part of who I am as an adult. It is my turn to step up to the plate and give back by serving on City Council,” she said.

Graves works as a part-time research assistant for her mother, attorney Julia Graves, who has made headlines recently defending Kaitlyn Hunt on sex charges. Between college graduation in 2007 and 2010, Graves held three short-term jobs with non-government organizations overseas. She taught English, trained volunteers and worked with malnourished children.

Though sometimes worlds away from sitting on the dais at Vero Beach City Hall, Graves said these tasks have prepared her for leadership.

Graves has spoken out in favor of reconfiguring the Twin Pairs, a controversial project which, according to public record could cost taxpayers more than $1 million.

“My issue is safety, I cross Road 60 on my bicycle or on foot, and my younger brother attends the FLC, so the Twin Pairs are part our daily travel moving north and south,” she said. “When older people cross with walkers or wheelchairs, or students not paying attention, I am worried one day someone will be gravely hurt or killed. I don't believe you can place a dollar value on human life.

Just two days before Winchester submitted his qualifying papers to city hall, he wrote to Vero Beach 32963 outlining the very sound reason why he would not seek office in November.

“Unfortunately I went to my oncologist this a.m. and got the bad news that my cancer is acting up again. I’ve had to immediately go back on the chemo plan which is a wonder drug called ‘revli mid’ manufactured by Celgene and dexamethasone. I get the revli mid once a day for 21 days and the dexometh each Thursday. Then I am off a week and start it all over again,” Winchester wrote. “Sadly, at least for me, I have to throw (in) the towel.”

Then the 81-year-old Winchester changed his mind and sent a campaign statement centered around killing the sale of Vero electric to FPL.

“The truth is that we have made a decision to sell our full electric assets to FPL. Most people will not understand why I object. It is simple, there has been no independent judgment of its value. I have tried to look carefully at what the ‘sell’ component of the council is telling us.

“I think they have taken a minute spot in time and said ‘sell.’ I do not think they have understood that selling is really the end of an era, and the end of Vero Beach being an independent, low tax city,” Winchester wrote.

Winchester does not acknowledge that FPL has long been considered the “natural buyer” of the electric utility due to its neighboring service territory which includes the north barrier island, Sebastian and western Indian River County and the fact that FPL offers the lowest rates in Florida.

“The citizens of Vero Beach have the option: sell at fire sale prices, or buckle down and ask those who represent you to open the process to all interested parties.

“If you doubt how my opponents will finance their election, you need merely look to at where they get their money. FPL puppets are not in the best interest of Vero Beach,” he wrote.

Will Winchester be able to do more than warm a seat on the council long enough to cast a third vote to rip up the FPL deal, pay the millions in default penalties in the current agreement and start over?

That would seem to be  a big question.