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Who will Council choose as next Vero Beach mayor?

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER | NEWS ANALYSIS (Week of November 16, 2023)

When the Vero Beach Canvassing Board makes last week’s election results official, and Taylor Dingle and John Cotugno get sworn-in to begin their two-year terms, the next thing likely to happen is a potentially ugly scramble between Cotugno and John Carroll for the mayor’s gavel.

A better choice might be to go in a totally different direction.

The City of Vero Beach has a massive pile of important business on its plate over the next 12 months. Taxes are up, spending is up, utility rates are way up.

Plans for the riverfront development are still sketchy, and running behind schedule. Choosing the right developer for that property, and determining how much of the city’s proceeds from the Florida Power & Light sale of Vero Electric to invest to make the development a commercial success, is a huge responsibility.

The cost of moving the wastewater treatment plant keeps mushrooming, and no one has submitted the first bid to build it. The next mayor needs to hold Water-Sewer Director Rob Bolton’s feet to the fire to ensure that every aspect of that project is transparent, and that the city ends up with a facility designed to last for generations.

As city officials vacillate on big decisions, they spent the better part of the past year talking about shrinking the Twin Pairs and “revitalizing” the downtown, opening themselves up to the endless pit of consultant fees, and pricey studies that end up going nowhere.

Vero should have long since learned the lesson about its consultants – at the end of the day, typically only the consultants are better off.

The Town of Indian River Shores must be dealt with, in some way, by April 1 when Shores officials must decide whether to cut ties with Vero Beach Utilities. With a quarter billion dollar (or more?) capital project on the horizon for the water-sewer utility on a 30-year mortgage, Vero can’t really afford to lose the Shores’ thousands of customers in 2027.

What the city needs most of all right now is a cool-headed fiscal conservative who can see the big picture. If former mayor Pilar Turner could miraculously come back and take the middle seat to navigate the city through it all, that would be ideal.

Current Mayor John Cotugno is no Pilar Turner. Like countless elected city officials before him, he seems to have been co-opted by the city staff. He also failed to show leadership this past budget season, voting to hike property taxes.

Councilman Carroll is dedicated, knowledgeable and precise, but approaches problems like an engineer, often gets buried “in the weeds” of big issues and sometimes lacks patience and diplomacy. Despite his enthusiasm and work ethic, Dingle is too green to be mayor this time around. And Councilwoman Linda Moore disqualified herself when the downtown bar owner inexplicably (well, kind of inexplicably) flip-flopped and went all in on shrinking the Twin Pairs.

That leaves the only council member who voted against raising taxes this summer, and against the 2023-24 city budget, as a possibility for Vero’s next mayor.

Councilwoman Tracey Zudans has the right kind of experience and temperament to keep the city on track. Unlike her husband Val, who served as mayor five years ago, Tracey Zudans possesses the diplomacy required to build consensus.  And she likely understands the importance of keeping Indian River Shores on the Vero Beach utility system for the long-term.

Zudans more than held her own on a board of seven strong personalities when the Indian River County Hospital District trudged through the weighty process of determining the future of Vero’s only hospital and one of the county’s top employers. Decisions made by that board were at least as important and financially complex as the negotiations and options the City of Vero Beach will face over the next year.

If there’s even a small chance that Vero Beach will broker a good financial deal for the city (for once) and make wise choices, adept leadership is a must.  Perhaps a Zudans is, after all, the right choice for a Vero Beach mayor.