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Vero electric activists, FPL both working for a 'Yes' vote

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER, (Week of March 7, 2013)
Photo: Glenn Heran leads a volunteer meeting of Citizens for a Brighter Future.

A core group of volunteers hoping next Tuesday’s referendum will result in a big “Yes” vote on the Vero electric sale are not popping any champagne corks yet, instead vowing to not let up on their efforts until polls close March 12th.

Their political committee, Citizens for a Brighter Future which was founded in 2011 to help pass that year’s referendum allowing Vero Beach to lease the power plant property, was revived earlier this year to lead the campaign for affirmation of the $179 million deal signed by Mayor Craig Fletcher two weeks ago.

With a little more than $1,000 left over from the last referendum and about $7,000 in new local contributions, activist and CPA Glenn Heran was able to launch a campaign and send some mailers to the city’s more than 10,000 registered voters.

Then about a month ago, he did something he’d never done in the more than five years that he’s been working on the crusade to get Vero out of the electric business.  With the naysayers appealing to residents’ fears that the sale would be the end of Vero as we know it, he asked FPL for a contribution.

“Our community has worked so hard to get us to this historic point and with the entire deal resting on this vote. I will not let their efforts be put at risk,” Heran said. “The opposition is trying to use shameful tactics, attempting to frighten voters. My organization needs to get the correct information out to voters and to do that required the assistance of FPL.”

FPL made a contribution, which helped Citizens for a Brighter Future  print hundreds of signs, do another round of direct mail to voters and conduct some telephone polling.

The polling reached roughly 700 voters, and also was used to recruit volunteers and to identify people willing to place signs in their yards. More than a dozen volunteers met at attorney Dan Stump’s house on Camelia Lane on Saturday to strategize how they’ll fan out around the city over the next few days. Workers will be walking precincts, delivering and erecting signs or making phone calls.

“None of the volunteers is being paid one dime by Citizens for a Brighter Future,” Heran said. “I reimbursed myself $12 for some stamps I bought and I feel guilty about doing that.”

It seemed like they’d ordered too many signs at the beginning, “more than we knew what to do with,” Heran said.

But the extra stock has come in handy, as Vero Beach code enforcement officers have been busy scooping up scores of “Vote Yes” signs. Code enforcement calls Heran to come and pick up the signs at the city storage yard, but by the time his volunteers get there, the signs mysteriously have already been thrown away.

City workers rebelling by trashing his signs is not surprising, Heran said, and he pretty much waves it off as a desperate measure. As president of the Taxpayers Association of Indian River County, he’s an outspoken advocate of smaller government.

The sale, Heran said, will be a great opportunity “to shrink the bloated city staff” of more than 400 people to serve a population of about 15,000. Some of those people are in charge of code enforcement – the sign police.

When Vero tried to sell its electric utility by referendum in 1976, city employees formed their own political action committee and one former power plant director even sued to stop the sale. Heran said his volunteers are happily replacing the signs as fast as city workers can take them down.

Despite the backlash from city employees and a stalwart group determined to cling to the status quo, Heran said what has driven him and colleague Stephen Faherty the past four years is the conviction they are on the right side of the issue.

In 2008 Heran developed a spreadsheet model that showed the community as a whole would be better off after a sale to FPL. Vero ratepayers pay 38 percent more for the same electric than FPL customers. Based upon that gap, Heran calculates that Indian River County will get a $23 million to $25 million boost each and every year once the switch is flipped and residents get their first FPL bills.

Barrier island resident Toby Hill is one of the people who has helped raise money to support Citizens for a Brighter Future.

“Having watched the last, I don’t know, three, four elections, they have been all about this sale of the power plant to FPL,” Hill said. “Only candidates who indicated they favor sale of the plant to FPL have won election.

“We have had one referendum where the voters overwhelmingly voted in favor of the sale of the plant,” Hill said. “I know we have another referendum coming up, but it has been quite obvious, I believe, that the public at large is in favor of this.”

Mayor Fletcher and other local elected officials have called the sale the largest economic development project the county could ever undertake. Still, the dogged opponents of the sale fear what they see as a great many unknowns.

City Manager Jim O’Connor has stated publicly that the concrete answers some skeptics demand are impossible to provide, because the city will have to work out its budget priorities one step at a time after Vero sheds its electric utility. O’Connor chalked up most of the opposition to the sale up to a major fear of change. Heran discounts these fears and calls for voters to have courage.

“When the pioneers went west, they didn’t know exactly what was going to be out there, but they went west all the same,” Heran said. “We know the trail exists. We don’t know how bumpy it is or if there is a turn, but we have to go down that road.”