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Dick Winger substitutes his opinion for city code

Photo: Dick Winger

The most troublesome aspect of the Vero Beach City Council's 4-1 vote last week affirming approval of plans for a new restaurant to be built on Ocean Drive wasn't the project's potential impact on an already-challenging parking shortage in the Central Beach business district.

It was the man who voted "No" – and the disturbing remarks he made throughout the quasi-judicial hearing last Wednesday at City Hall.

Dick Winger, the Council's most vocal critic of the project, somehow managed to include in his sometimes-bizarre questions and often-rambling arguments references to the Ten Commandments, slavery, women's suffrage, a two-hour motel, illegal immigrants and lifeboats on the Titanic.

At times, his contributions to the conversation provided the lengthy session with some much-needed entertainment.

There were other times, though, when Winger's words were cause for serious concern – because they expressed a dangerous, wrongheaded sentiment.

On multiple occasions during the meeting, which should've been a slam-dunk approval of a site plan that both City Attorney Wayne Coment and Planning Director Tim McGarry said met all requirements of the city code, Winger openly challenged the wisdom of obeying laws he disagrees with.

At one point, in fact, Winger cited past flaws in the U.S. Constitution to bolster his rejection of the city's ordinances pertaining to the site plan for the proposed restaurant.

"I only know of 10 laws – the Ten Commandments – that are really right," Winger said in response to McGarry, who told him the council couldn't justify denying an already-approved project that adhered to the city code.

"I'll give you the Constitution of the United States, for what it's worth," he continued, holding up a copy of the founding document. "This allowed slavery until January 1865. It didn't allow women to vote until 1920. And you had to own land (to vote).

"You're saying to me that we have a code; I'm saying the code is no good," he added. "And if you're saying, therefore, we have to act on a bad code, I don't believe that. I really don't."

So McGarry repeated his assertion that council members would be wrong to reject the Planning and Zoning Board-approved site plan, solely because they don't agree with parts of code, believe the code is outdated and intend to explore amending it.

Winger still wasn't satisfied.

"Why?" he asked sharply.

"Because," McGarry replied, "you can't hold them [up] retroactively like that."

Again, Winger asked, "Why?"

"You're talking about raising the bar when you feel like it," McGarry said, appearing to be at least slightly irritated by Winger's failure to understand the legal limits of the council's authority. "It does not work that way, sir."

McGarry, who conceded that the code probably needs to be re-examined and updated, later added: "You can't hold them hostage because we have a problem with our ordinance."

Winger, however, seems to believe the council should be empowered to do exactly that – disregard laws currently on the books until new ones are enacted, then enforce the new laws retroactively.

That worried Bruce Barkett, the local attorney representing the Miami-area investment firm that plans to build the restaurant on Ocean Drive, north of Beachland Boulevard, across the street from Bobby's Restaurant & Lounge.

"That's scary to me," he told Winger, "because we're a nation of laws, and the rule of law controls."

Barkett then recited the law pertaining to the hearing, which was scheduled after Bobby's owner, Bobby McCarthy, formally appealed the P&Z Board's March 17 approval of the site plan submitted by Sony Investment Real Estate Inc.

"Just because you don't like the law?" Barkett asked Winger. "I sympathize with you, but you were elected to do something higher than that ... You were elected to follow the law. And if you disobey the code  –  if you disobey that oath that you took – what have we become?

"Are we just going to be ruled by the eight people who spoke against this project?" he added. "That scares me."

It got even scarier.

Winger told Barkett there is a "higher law in this world" and returned to his "three examples of the American Constitution that were flawed and later changed." He then said that acting in what he believed was the city's best interest took priority over the city's ordinances.

"I was elected by the people of this town to do what's right for the town," Winger said. "When it came to short-term rentals, or it came to standing up and getting the diesel plant sold – when it came to many other issues –  I was willing to do the right thing. And, so, I'm willing to do the right thing here.

"I believe the laws must be respected, but I do not believe the laws are always correct, and I do not believe two wrongs make a right," he added. "Making the parking situation worse on Ocean Drive is not the right solution. ... I refuse to vote for something that will make the parking worse.

"I'm sorry, that's just how it is."

And that's how it was.

The law didn't matter. Nor did the oath he took when he was sworn in as a councilman –  a vow to "support, honor, protect and defend the Constitution and government of the United States and the state of Florida."

The city's P&Z Board, acting on the city planning director's recommendation, approved the project. Both found the site plan to be fully compliant with the city code. Four members of the City Council followed the law and voted to allow the restaurant to be built.

One didn't – the one who said the shared-parking matrix used by the planning department to determine the number of spaces neighboring businesses need at different times of day "looks like a two-hour motel."

The one who asked McGarry if he knew how many lifeboats were on the Titanic before arguing that the site plan didn't provide enough parking for the restaurant's customers.

The one who compared his willingness to put the community's concerns above the law to judges who "take all of the evidence into account" and "make rulings that are somewhat different with the Constitution" when dealing with illegal immigrants.

Winger, though, wasn't the only council member to embrace the possibility of adding new conditions to the already-approved site plan. Mayor Laura Moss initially supported Winger's request that the restaurant be required to offer free valet parking to diners.

But that suggestion quickly fizzled when Vice Mayor Harry Howle warned that imposing on a business owner an "onerous obligation" not required of other business owners "could lead to pitfalls."

Not included as a potential requirement in the current code, Coment said, such a condition also would be difficult to enforce.

"When all is said and done, we're just asking you to play by the rules," Barkett said. "We did."
Winger didn't.