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Tom Cadden: Long-time leader steps down from Shores Council

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of November 27, 2014)
Photo of former Indian River Shores Mayor Tom Cadden

Former Indian River Shores Mayor Tom Cadden tendered his resignation from the Town Council last week, leaving behind nearly 14 years of service to the Town, either on the council or as the utility point person during his two-year hiatus from elected office.

Cadden’s decision to step down was not for political, but for personal reasons. His wife of nearly 60 years, Joan, suffered a stroke earlier this month and, though she is recuperating well, Cadden said he felt it was time to focus his time and energy on Joan’s recovery, and on their four grown children, four grandchildren and one great-grandson gathering for support and for the holidays.

Thumbing through some files of old documents and faded press clippings, the 81-year-old Cadden looked back on two big fights – both big wins – during his years of public service, and also spoke of one battle yet unresolved.

The big wins were the preservation of the Lost Tree Islands in the lagoon from development a decade ago, and the defeat of attempts to impose a charter form of government on Indian River County in 2008.

The unresolved battle is the effort to get Shores residents low electric rates like the ones Cadden himself pays at his Sea Colony home in the north part of the town, which is served by Florida Power & Light.

The final chapter of the electric saga has yet to be written, with mediation in the Shores circuit court lawsuit scheduled for Dec. 17, and a jury trial likely next year on allegations of unreasonable rates and mismanagement of Vero electric, but all that will now transpire without Cadden’s public presence.

The Atlanta native brought a great deal to whatever table he occupied, from the council dais to heated negotiations over utilities to the county’s Beaches and Shores Preservation Committee to the Florida League of Cities where he served in the leadership.

After graduating from Georgia Tech, where he served in the U.S. Air Force ROTC, Cadden flew Strategic Air Command missions across the globe as a combat-ready pilot for nearly four years. After the Air Force, he rose to Senior Vice President of Chicago-based Stone Container Corp., a $2.2 billion company, and later was CEO of a smaller paper packaging company before retiring to Indian River Shores in 1999.

Even at age 81, despite his aches and pains, Cadden is a force to be reckoned with. He commands respect, and gets it. Cadden could sit through an entire meeting observing, barely making a comment or expressing an opinion, but when he did feel his input was required, what he said was usually worth writing down.

Being the focus of Cadden’s attentions and efforts could be a very good thing if he was in your corner, or a harrowing thing if you were on the opposite side of an issue.

“Tom always has a lot of positive energy,” said County Administrator Joe Baird, who has been on the receiving end of that energy more than a few times. “I hope I have the energy he has when I’m his age. He’s also always very forward-thinking. He’s always given me great advice with his industry experience, especially on economic development, and on the efforts to keep Piper (Aircraft) here.”

Baird recalled most fondly Cadden’s role in the protracted and often tortured effort to broker a deal to preserve the Lost Tree Islands in the lagoon just west of the Shores and prevent them from being developed. In 2002, Vero, the County, the Shores, and the State of Florida joined forces to buy the islands from developers.

“There were a lot of personalities and Tom was instrumental; he helped us keep that deal together,” Baird said. “Mayor Cadden is one of those people who, if things were falling apart, he would still stand next to you.”

Slow to take direct credit for his accomplishments, Cadden said, “The one thing I’m really proud of is I kind-of led the charge to put the islands in the lagoon in conservation,” Cadden said. “We got it done, we got the money out of Tallahassee.”

Commissioner Wesley Davis doesn’t technically represent the Shores geographically as his district sits in the northwest corner of the county, but he came to know Cadden while working on an issue that brought like-minded people from all over Indian River County together.

“He was my go-to person in Indian River Shores in the Charter debate. As you know his position was the same as mine. That’s when we got to know each other the best, when we both had our backs up against the wall,” Davis said.

From 2006 to 2008, during a time of rapid growth now called the real estate “bubble,” the community was splintered over whether or not the county should have to take major zoning and land-use issues to the ballot box, or whether the five members of the Board of County Commissioners could be trusted to make those decisions.

The Indian River Neighborhood Association and former Commissioner Gary Wheeler headed up the pro-charter faction, while Davis stood in their line of fire.

“I did fight charter government and I had a roomful of people tell us that we were beat and it was going to pass,” Cadden recalled.

When asked to describe Cadden in a few words, Davis instead borrowed words of a colleague of the era of the charter government controversy. Davis said he took a phone call from former Florida House Rep. Charlie Sembler one day while meeting with Cadden.

“Charlie Sembler asked me who I had there and I told him I had Tom Cadden in the living room,” Davis said. “He told me, ‘“You tell him that he’s not a good American, he’s a great American.”

“Tom’s been a friend and an ally for me, my heart goes out to him and his family and I wish him the best,” Davis said.

Historically, if candidates for county or state office wanted to win key supporters in Indian River Shores, they’d have to pass muster with Cadden.

But Cadden not only had the ability to deliver tens of thousands in campaign checks that he collected personally from living rooms and businesses throughout the 32963 zip code. He generously bestowed his sage advice and, by example, his no-nonsense leadership style on up-and-coming politicians who aspired to leadership positions in Indian River County.

Davis, who was selected last Tuesday to chair the Board of County Commissioners in the coming year, said he hopes some of Cadden has rubbed off on him.

“I try to emulate that style of leadership,” Davis said. “There’s no way I can out-polish anybody because I’m not that kind of person, but I can be straightforward and I’ve learned that directly from Tom Cadden.”