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Vero candidates split on need for electric referendum

STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of September 20, 2012)

The six credible candidates running for three Vero Beach City Council seats in the November general election are split down the middle on whether voters should be given the final say on whether to sell the city’s electric utility to Florida Power & Light.

At issue is whether City Council members should make the decision to sell the utility without voter input, or whether residents of Vero Beach should be given a chance to ratify or disapprove the sale in a referendum that presumably would be held next March.

At press time, the City Council was still deciding whether to order a referendum.  If the council rejects putting the issue before voters, Councilman Dick Winger said it will be one of the first orders of business brought before the new Council after the Nov. 6 election.

“I’m guessing it will be a major campaign theme,” said Winger.

Winger, who said he favors the $179 million sale of the utility, said he strongly believes the sale needs the voters’ blessing.

Councilman Jay Kramer, one of those seeking re-election and the lone current council member opposed to selling the utility, wants a referendum. “The utility belongs to the people and the people ought to be able to make a decision on it,” he said.

Kramer’s hoping for some company on the council if he is re-elected.

Candidate Nick Thomas, who said he would only run for office if he believed he’d have a chance of derailing the sale of the utility, also favors a referendum.

And Brian Heady, who served on the Council for two years before his defeat last November, said: “I think we have to have it.

“I don’t see the community ever accepting the sale without having an opportunity to weigh in on it,” Heady said.  “It is certainly the biggest decision that anyone in the city is ever going to make.”

But Mayor Pilar Turner, who is seeking re-election, said unless she is persuaded otherwise by legal counsel, there is no reason to have a referendum.

She cited the referendum last fall when voters by a 2-to-1 margin approved the lease of the property under the power plant to FPL as part of a sale. “We’ve had a referendum. You almost wonder if this is like petulant children who don’t get what they want and so they want a do-over.”

Vice Mayor Craig Fletcher, also seeking re-election, echoes Turner.

The city, Fletcher said, does not legally need to bring the matter to the voters. “I wouldn’t support a new referendum.”

That position is also supported by one of the challengers, Dan Stump, past president of the Indian River County Taxpayers Association.

 “I’m leaning against a referendum,” said Stump. “We have studied this and studied this and studied this.”

But Winger worries a legal challenge could be brewing if there is no referendum. “I know there are people who plan to challenge it,” he said.

A new referendum, said Winger, “takes out all of the doubt: Do you approve of the sale or do you not?”

He said a number of people have told him they are concerned about what will become of the city without the utility.

“Who does the city belong to? Does it belong to five city councilmen or does it belong to city residents? I’m elected to do what they want and I want to know what they want,” he said.

Thomas also argues that a potential referendum is not a do-over. He thinks that the November referendum which won by 999 votes when 3,149 city voters cast ballots was vague.

Thomas said the public should be informed of the potential future budget shortfalls before they vote.