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Vero City Council election: A battle for third?

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of October 16, 2014)

With the fall election less than three weeks away, the battle among seven candidates for three available seats on Vero Beach City Council is shaping up as a two-way, or possibly three-way, battle for third place. But whatever the outcome, it is not likely to drastically alter the “Keep Vero Vero” policies of the present 3-2 majority on the council.

Mayor Dick Winger, Vice-Mayor Jay Kramer and Councilwoman Amelia Graves have provided the 3-2 majority on a number of issues for the past year, and of that troika, only Kramer is up for re-election this time. Although his about-face on the sale of the city’s electric system – he used to be for it until he became its most vocal opponent on the council – has earned him some enemies, he is expected to ride the power of incumbency to get back in.

Randy Old, the newcomer who raised a ton of money, waged a professional campaign, showed a good grasp of the issues and collected an impressive array of endorsements, has been tapped by most pundits to finish as the top vote-getter this time around. Old simply hasn’t made a wrong move in the campaign. He has been endorsed by, among others, the Indian River Neighborhood Association, which also endorsed Winger and Graves last year, but he has promised to be his own man.

Old is likely to capture the “open” seat created by the retirement of former Mayor Craig Fletcher. Whether Old aligns himself with the Winger-Kramer-Graves bloc or does prove to be an independent voice, the “Keep Vero Vero” crowd is likely to continue making the rules, whether it is by a 3-2 or a 4-1 majority.

That makes the “race for third,” a possibly lone opposing voice on the council, all the more important – somebody has to provide the healthy checks and balances.

If Kramer and Old lay claim to two of the three available seats, the rest of the field is duking it out for the third spot.

This consists of incumbent Councilwoman Pilar Turner who is running for re-election; maverick perennial candidate and former councilman Brain Heady; and Jack Shupe, the third candidate on the slate of the Indian River Neighborhood Association, which is trying to build him up to knock off Turner.

Also in the race, but failing to get much traction, are newcomer Harry Howle, and former Councilman Charlie Wilson, who has waged a noisy campaign to get directly into the mayor’s seat. The last time he made it onto the council, he lasted only a month before a judge threw him out because he had not met the residency requirement.

Turner would seem to have the same advantages of incumbency as Kramer, but her stance as a staunch fiscal conservative and as the most fervent pro-electric sale advocate has earned the enmity of some, especially among the city employee labor unions.

Heady, the perennial candidate who does not accept contributions, has good name recognition and can boast his own bloc of supporters who seemingly always turn out to vote for him.

Heady would relish the role of being lone contrarian on the council, but if he’s elected, it remains to be seen whether the others will just ignore him or whether he can actually be effective. 

Sadly, the Nov. 4 election could return the Vero Beach Council to about the same shape it was in back in 2007 and 2008 when the White Hat Gang of Tom White, Sabe Abell and Ken Daige was in control, backed up by Debra Fromang and Bill Fish.

That was the council that led the city staff and pricey consultants from Boston to cook up a 20-year, $2 billion wholesale power deal with the Orlando Utilities Commission, which has become the albatross around the city’s neck.

Until 2009 when Heady and Wilson were elected, no one questioned what was going on or took then City Manager Jim Gabbard or City Attorney Charlie Vitunac to task. There have been great improvements at the top of the city’s management with Jim O’Connor coming on board in July 2011, but even O’Connor admits that his sole purpose is to carry out the directions of the voting majority on the city council, his bosses.

Playing the role of professional contrarian is a lonely and often thankless job. It’s not easy to get pummeled in the blogosphere by wanna-be journalists and be demonized by your opponents in public.

Turner is steady and methodical, the antithesis of Heady and Wilson. She has learned how to choose her battles and take her lumps when her conscience and her guiding principles put her on the unpopular side of a vote or a debate.