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District 5 race: Entertaining, not inspiring

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS, (Week of August 9, 2012)
Photo Brian Heady, Commissioner Bob Solari and Nick Thomas.

The District 5 County Commission race has turned out to be, if not the most inspiring, at least one of the more entertaining in recent years, with a colorful cast of candidates, big new ideas, astonishing hypocrisy and a questionable last minute appeal by one candidate to another to drop out.

The race pits incumbent Commissioner Bob Solari, who is seeking a second four-year term, against perennial candidate Brian Heady and political newcomer Nick Thomas. Since all three are Republicans, the at-large race will be decided by the August 14 primary in which all registered county voters – regardless of party affiliation or district of residence – can cast a ballot.

The color starts with Solari. Though he has been an effective commissioner on fiscal matters, helping to hold down tax rates and keep the county in the black, he has become a figure of fun for his slavish adherence to the idea of liberty.

He has declared himself the candidate of liberty and carried his fixation so far as to tell a group of middle-school students they were heading down the perilous path to totalitarianism when they appeared before the Commission to advocate for a fertilizer ordinance to protect the Indian River Lagoon from poisonous runoff that is killing sea grass, fish and dolphins.

Solari’s habit of whipping out obscure, marginally-relevant 18th century political treatises and reading long passages during commission discussions has drawn mocking comments from his fellow commissioners and bewildered head-shakes from members of the public.

He has led the charge on the commission to block a fertilizer regulation in part, he says, because it would be an infringement on individual liberty. But he has never explained why an ordinance regulating pollution he himself admits is destroying the lagoon is a greater infringement on liberty than other common-sense regulations enacted for the good of the community such as speed limits, youth-smoking bans and catch-limits for fisherman.

When asked, he simply says all government ordinances are "corrosive to the human spirit."

Given Solari’s stalwart refusal to protect the lagoon from nitrogen and potassium runoff that feeds destructive algae blooms, it struck some observers as hypocritical when he began campaigning as an environmentalist, saying one of his top priorities for a second term is “saving the Indian River Lagoon.”

As evidence of his environmentalism and concern for the lagoon, he has put forward an idea to reverse the flow of canals leading into the estuary, channeling polluted fresh water into inland reservoirs where it can be cleaned up and stored.

This plan would be costly, take years to accomplish and be dependent on uncertain funding from the county, state and federal governments.

“I think Bob has been a shameful steward of the lagoon and there is no reason to believe that the situation would change in another term,” says Solari’s opponent Nick Thomas.  “That’s one of the main reasons he needs to return to private life and let me get on with the work of reviving the lagoon.”

Thomas, a lawyer and mediator, says he was motivated to run for the District 5 seat by “a public outcry for someone responsible to replace Bob Solari.”

His top issues are “reviving the lagoon, raising the morale of public employees and promoting job growth without resorting to wasteful job grants.”

He says the biggest surprise in his first run for office “has been how much I have enjoyed the process and how nice people have been.”

Another, less-pleasant surprise has been the difficulty of raising money. He said in June he hoped to raise at least $30,000 but had only collected $6,700 by July 20, the end of the most recent reporting period.

“Money is harder to raise than I anticipated, but that is balanced by heavy coverage in local media and the abundance of forums,” says Thomas.

As of July 20, Heady had raised $4,021 and Solari had taken in $54,303.

Thomas brings his own big idea for lagoon restoration to the race, proposing to open a large culvert at Bethel Creek, where the barrier is narrow, to refresh the lagoon with clean ocean water.

In an innovative move, he spends an hour each evening campaigning on A1A at Bethel Creek House where the lagoon/ocean connection he compares to a heart stent would be constructed.

“Response to the idea has been almost universally positive from the public,” Thomas says. “Scientists have been a little more guarded, though none of them have raised significant opposition.”

Thomas has been a refreshing candidate in more ways than one with his willingness to speak freely and say what he thinks, not common with politicians, but his loquaciousness has also made him seem a bit off the wall and unsophisticated at times.

He made a clumsy move last week when he sent Heady a last minute e-mail plea to drop out of the race and give him, Thomas, a clear shot at unseating Solari.

He had previously made this request publically at candidate forums, so it wasn’t a secret appeal, but he added a promise of support for a future Vero Beach city council run by Heady and made the mistake of pledging $100 to that effort, making it seem that he was offering Heady money to leave the commission race.

In an e-mail, Heady called Thomas’s monetary pledge “repulsive,” and said he has no intention of dropping out.

Heady is a retired businessman who works part-time for the Indian River County Veterans Council, driving veterans to the Veterans Affairs Hospital in West Palm Beach. He recently served a two-year term on the Vero Beach City council, narrowly losing a bid for re-election last fall. He says he was motived to run for the District 5 seat by a desire “to stop the continued waste of tax dollars.”

He says he will approach the job of commissioner much as he did the job of councilmember if he is elected.

“I promise to tell the truth and offer reasoned arguments on the issues and use commonsense. I will look at issues independently, and research them and try to determine what is in the best interest of the majority, or what the majority of people want. I am not going to be Robin Hood and give away taxpayer dollars to corporate entities.”

Heady criticizes Solari for making small spending cuts for show while squandering millions on wasteful or inappropriate projects.

“The incumbent, who claims to be a fiscal conservative, cut the travel allowance of other commissioners who are not millionaires like he is by $2,000, but then gives away large sums,” Heady says.

He points to Solari’s support of a $2.5 million expenditure for field expansion at the Vero Beach Sports Village in 2011 as an example of misguided spending. The county owns the Sports Village but it was leased and operated by Minor League Baseball at the time of the expenditure.

“When the Sports Village came to the County Commission with their hand out last year because their business model wasn’t working out, Bob Solari supported giving them the money,” Heady says. “That is not what taxpayer money is for. If taxpayers want to support a private business, they can buy stock.”

“If you take 20 minutes and look into it, you can see that Bob has led the charge to give away millions to various entities, all the while touting the small amounts he saves here and there,” Thomas agrees.

As an example of poor stewardship, he cites Solari’s support for spending $12 million to buy the Sexton Ranch development rights when he was a member of the Indian River County Land Acquisition Advisory Committee in 2007.

In that deal, the county spent a quarter of its $50-million conservation land fund not to buy land but to prevent a single square mile of the county from development.

“That purchase got us absolutely nothing,” says Thomas. “At worst, the land would have been cut up into ranchettes with one house per five acres.

This is Heady’s second match-up with Solari for the District 5 seat. In 2008, Solari prevailed in the Republican primary and then faced Heady in the general election, beating him by a wide margin.

Heady says there is more interest in the race this time around, and that he has been surprised at the level of support he has received.

“The number of people who come up to me every day and thank me for running is really astounding. My wife won’t go to the grocery store with me anymore because it takes an hour to get out of one isle with all the people stopping to talk.”

There is no public polling to gauge the level of support for candidates a week before the primary, but Heady thinks he is doing well.

“I have a couple of people who are supposedly good at these things who have told me they think I am winning this time,” he says.  “They expect to get about 30,000 votes in a primary election and the last time I ran countywide, 16,000 voted for me.”

That was in the 2008 general election. Solari got 43,000 votes in the November face-off but he only received 7,267 votes in the preceding primary.

Heady and Solari both support the sale of Vero Beach’s electric utility to Florida Power and Light. Thomas is opposed.

District 5 includes the Barrier Island south of SR 510 and the mainland east of U.S. 1 south of 45th Street, encompassing the city of Indian River Shores, much of the city of Vero Beach and unincorporated areas south of Vero.

Candidates for the County Commission have to live in the district they run in but are elected at large by all county voters.