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Utility dispute could bring former Vero City Manager back as witness

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of August 12, 2021)
Photo of former Vero Beach City Manager Jim O’Connor.

If a pending breach of contract lawsuit between the Town of Indian River Shores and the City of Vero Beach goes to trial, a key witness could wind up being former Vero City Manager Jim O’Connor.

O’Connor, who has been retired the past two years, negotiated the 2012 deal, and the Shores contends Vero has not lived up to all that O’Connor promised.

The Shores recently sent the city answers to interrogatories posed by Vero about the litigation and some familiar names came up in the 24-page document provided by the Shores’ outside attorney, Paul Berg, in response to a public records request.

The first question from Vero to the Shores asks which people the Shores thinks have information or knowledge relevant to the allegations, pleadings or facts of the case.

On the Shores’ side, former town manager Richard Jefferson, former town attorney Chester Clem and former Vice Mayor Jerry Weick show up on the list. From Vero’s side, Utilities Director Rob Bolton, City Manager Monte Falls and former city attorney Wayne Coment are listed.

But the next section is probably the most interesting. It asks who the Shores thinks said or wrote anything that constitutes an admission or a “declaration against interest,” and O’Connor is listed.

The crux of the lawsuit is that, to prevent the Shores from accepting a proposal from Indian River County to provide water, sewer and irrigation water services in 2016 via a new franchise agreement when the town’s 30-year franchise agreement with Vero expired, Vero Beach promised to match the county’s rates in a replacement franchise agreement signed in 2012 – four years before the previous agreement expired. But when the county decreased its reuse irrigation water rates, Vero refused to reduce the Shores’ customers’ reuse irrigation water rates.

Vero now says that the type of “pressurized” reuse irrigation water service town customers receive is not comparable to any reuse irrigation water service the county provides, so the city is not bound to match the rate. The rate difference is substantial – 67 cents per 1,000 gallons versus 21 cents per 1,000 gallons of reuse irrigation water.

The Shores says that in the months leading up to the signing of the franchise agreement in October 2012, O’Connor made numerous statements about “the substance and intent of the 2012 franchise agreement as well as the method and cost of providing reuse water to the Town of Indian River Shores.”

Other questions ask about what the town thinks its damages are and the Shores quantified that by stating: “The town’s damages are equal to the difference between the 67 cents per 1,000 gallons charged and the 21 cents per 1,000 gallons that should be charged, i.e. 46 cents per 1,000 gallons multiplied by the thousands of gallons used. The amount has not been calculated yet, and it increases daily.”

The last 16 pages of the response document include meeting minutes from 2012, correspondence from Vero to the Shores and the Indian River County rate structures at the time the 2012 agreement was signed, and in 2019 when the reuse irrigation rates were reduced.