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Lagoon crisis, home rule top 2013 headlines

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of December 26, 2013)

Looking back on the big political stories of 2013, three topics stand out from the headlines – the Indian River Lagoon crisis, the fight for home rule over short-term rentals and other issues, and the downfall of Vero Beach Council Member Tracy Carroll.

When the ball drops on 2013 next week, the close of the year leaves governments along Florida’s the East Coast all dressed up with nowhere to go when it comes to the Indian River Lagoon.

The lagoon emerged as a frenzied cause celebre, with even the most fiscally conservative or normally eco-hostile Republican officials falling all over themselves to “save” the lagoon.

The fervor prompted workshops, coalitions and even hearings in Washington, DC. Every possible government agency, plus established and Johnny-come-lately 501(c)3 organizations alike, adopted the mission of rescuing the estuary while seeking to replenish their own recession-starved coffers at the same time.

Proposals for millions, even billions of dollars’ worth of studies, programs and public works projects soon followed.

Officials and staffers must now slog through the sometimes contradictory science and the multitude of data and proposals to devise long-term, common-sense solutions to the lagoon crisis. Then they will need to figure out how to pay for whatever they decide to do.

In 2014, the true test will be to see whether – as the lagoon issue moves from a T-shirt slogan and a protest cause to the tedious sausage-making of governing – the voting public will get fickle and move on to the next big thing.

The issue of home rule was at the root of several controversies in 2013, including the Seven/50 regional planning effort, which is at last count down to Four/50 and swiftly headed into the irrelevant zone, at least as far as Indian River County is concerned.

Leaders rejected the plan as an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy, not to mention a potential black hole of taxpayer dollars. The county, cities and towns opted to plan for their own needs and growth without any assistance from South Florida.

Voters will likely forget about Seven/50 by election day, or at least that’s what County Commission Chair Peter O’Bryan is counting on. A loyal water-bearer of the Indian River Neighborhood Association, O’Bryan stood pretty much alone in supporting Seven/50 and has been politically ostracized for it.

Should O’Bryan get a Republican primary challenger who attacks him from the political right, Seven/50 might reappear in this summer’s debates.

Another home-rule issue that caused major heartburn on the barrier island was the City of Vero Beach’s seeming inability to stop homeowners from renting out their properties by the night or by the week.

While a lawsuit ramps up in circuit court pitting the Vero Beach City Council against its own Code Enforcement Board and former vice-mayor, an effort is now underway in Tallahassee to wrest back control of short-term rental regulation from the state and return it to counties, cities and towns.

Members of the Florida House and Senate who supported the 2011 law stripping municipalities of this home rule for the sake of property rights and increased tourism are feeling pressured to support their constituents back home and repeal the law.

Former Vice-Mayor Carroll’s seat on the Vero Beach dais was ground zero this summer in the short-term rental controversy, as Carroll and her husband John appealed a $50 citation for renting out their Central Beach home.

Carroll’s hearing before the Code Enforcement Board provoked the ire of city staff and called into question the judgment and allegiances of members of the board.

The scandal couldn’t have come at a worse time – on the heels of Carroll’s chastisement of a humanist group, which her critics claimed violated constitutional rights to freedom of speech. Gadfly Linda Hillman targeted Carroll and then-Mayor Craig Fletcher in a recall effort. Hillman failed to get the required number of petitions, but the hoopla dealt a blow to Carroll from which she would not recover.

After garnering the most votes in two consecutive city elections, Carroll lost her seat to newcomer Amelia Graves. Carroll’s critics seemed not to care that Graves had no real job experience to qualify her for office, or that she was a loyal fan of President Obama – not the most popular politician in these parts. They apparently just wanted to seek retribution against Carroll, and Graves was the lucky beneficiary.

Short-term rentals and code enforcement linger as hot, unresolved topics in Vero. As the year comes to a close, Mayor Dick Winger wants to do away with the board entirely and hire an attorney to act as a special magistrate. The city council will take up the quandary of what to do about code enforcement in January.

The “new” city council, led by Winger and Vice Mayor Jay Kramer, seems to have all kinds of tricks up its sleeve, including the resurgence of the idea of a possible partial sale of the Vero electric system (see editorial, page 38).

As 2013 comes to a close, Vero’s 34,000 ratepayers are looking at their fifth winter of paying some of the highest electric rates in Florida and the $179 million deal to sell the utility seems barely held together with duct tape.

As Vero Beach 32963 predicted prior to November’s election, without Carroll on the council to make a solid, three-vote majority in favor of getting Vero out of the electric business, the sale to Florida Power and Light promises to be a serious nail-biter in 2014.

Looking ahead, many of the challenges Vero Beach and the greater Indian River County area face in 2014 and beyond stem from the fact that the economy is beginning to rebound.

Government spending choices during the depths of the recession were tough, but reality smacking special interest groups in the face sure did help when elected officials had to just say no to raises, grants or expensive programs. Already the city council and county commission have seen political supporters haunting the lobbies and bellying up to the podiums for payback in the form of labor contract concessions, new spending and heightened regulation.

The new Vero Beach City Council dabbled in the role of Santa Claus over the past six weeks, handing out salary increases and money for beautification.

The city raised taxes slightly and the county saw its first material tax hike in five years, meaning there’s a little more slush in the slush funds to be doled out to friends, campaign contributors and pet projects.

The same fiscal discipline that was thrust upon local governments when the real estate market crashed must still be employed as the economy makes it possible for elected officials to loosen the purse strings.