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Vero hires a big-time attorney to plan vote on Utility Authority

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of November 27, 2014)

The City of Vero Beach has hired yet another attorney, in this case one of Florida’s leading election experts, to deal with the mounting legal woes resulting from the past mismanagement of Vero electric.

Lead utility attorney Robert Scheffel “Schef” Wright announced Monday that Tallahassee-based Ronald Labasky, a partner with the Brewton Plante law firm, has been added to Vero electric’s payroll to assist City Clerk Tammy Vock in planning a referendum of Vero’s utility customers, as prescribed in 2008 by state law.

Wright called Labasky the “foremost authority on election law.” Labasky for the past 26 years has represented the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections.

Vero was supposed to hold this election right after the 2008 law passed, but instead low-balled its customer count to avoid complying. The law, which originated as the Mayfield Bill, required any municipal-owned electric utility with between 30,000 and 35,000 customers to hold a referendum asking named customers whether or not they wanted a representative Utility Authority to govern the business of the utility.

The city, under then-City Manager Jim Gabbard, managed to squeeze its customer count down to less than 30,000 that year. The problem is the city’s audit report and other official paperwork still listed the number of customers as in the ballpark of 33,000.

This alleged phonying up of the customer count is one of several complaints outlined in the Town of Indian River Shores lawsuit against the City of Vero Beach. So as part of its effort to defend Vero electric, Vero officials are now wasting time planning a referendum.

The reason Vero has hired a high-priced election attorney, Wright said, was so the city won’t get sued for how it conducts this referendum.

Indian River County Supervisor of Elections Leslie Swan can’t conduct the election because it wouldn’t be just for registered voters. It would allow every named utility customer to vote. That means business owners, tenants, aliens – anyone who pays a Vero electric bill in his or her own name.

The type of authority customers would be voting on would be “a collaborative effort between the parties involved,” City Manager Jim O’Connor told the Vero Utilities Commission on Monday, adding that he and attorneys “plan to meet with the County and the Shores” to hammer out how the Utility Authority would be comprised and what its powers would be.