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If it ain’t broke ... Vero wastes time on City Council terms


For the past 98 years, Vero Beach City Council members have been elected to two-year terms, giving voters the opportunity to get rid of them in fairly short order if (as all too often happens) they fail to perform. 

Now, two years before the city’s centennial, there’s an effort underway to change council terms to three years. That’s already a rollback from initial proposals to change them to four-year terms – like those served by Indian River County commissioners.  But the idea of longer terms, whether three years or four, is a bad, bad idea.

Anyone who has followed some of the clueless and borderline reckless people who have served on Vero’s City Council knows that two years is a long time to suffer the consequences of the  poor decisions voters occasionally make.

At the same time, if council members actually do a good job, represent their constituents well, or curry favor with enough special interests, they can – and often do – serve four, six or eight years, and sometimes longer.  Vero has no term limits.

The main argument made by proponents of longer terms is that it takes the first year or so for a new City Council member to learn his or her job, which only leaves a year for effective action. That is a scary thought.

First of all, the ideal City Council candidate would have served on one of Vero’s volunteer advisory committees. Through this experience, the candidate would have grown accustomed to reading and digesting large agenda packets, to deliberating important issues, to dealing with the city staff and to the proper order that meetings and motions and votes and public comment should take. They would have had at least a couple of briefings on Florida’s public records and open meetings laws.

Second, a successful City Council candidate should have a decent amount of real-world professional experience. If – as has been known to occur – the voters are duped into electing someone without the required intelligence, analytical ability and life skills to muddle through as a City Council member, two years of that person can seem like an eternity.

And third, Vero Beach City Hall is not the halls of Congress or even the labyrinth that is the state capital complex in Tallahassee. Vero is a city of 13 square miles and roughly 15,000 people. The city staff is more than patient and willing to spend as much time as necessary educating council members on issues and background and general city operations and finances.

Though it was nearly impossible to make heads or tails out of Vero’s accounting system a decade ago – because the city was still using arcane bookkeeping methods established in the 1960s, and printing reports that looked like they were produced in the pre-computer era – Finance Director Cindy Lawson has remedied all of that.

Lawson came on in 2011, and she has since demystified and streamlined the city’s financial reporting. Now, everything is online and user-friendly, so any person familiar with basic private-sector financial reports, or even an average layman, can easily access, read and understand the city budget and quarterly budget-to-actual analyses the staff produces.

All the City Council meetings and committee meetings are videotaped, archived and available to watch from any smart phone or computer. So there is no excuse for not being up to speed on major issues the day a City Council member takes the oath of office.

Another reason it should not take a year to get up to speed: The City Council used to be heavily involved in contentious personnel and labor disputes with police officers, Teamsters and other groups, but Vero now has a tough, seasoned labor attorney in Jason Odom of the Gould Cooksey Fennell law firm who shepherds the negotiation of union contracts and handles personnel issues to keep the city out of court whenever possible. And he manages to explain things to the City Council without sounding much like a lawyer.

City Manager Jim O’Connor has nearly 40 years of municipal management experience under his belt, plus decades of utility experience as several of the city’s he’s managed had their own water, sewer or electric utilities. And O’Connor is one of the best sources of no-nonsense answers and information in the State of Florida when it comes to how to run a city.

Being a City Council member on the cusp of Vero’s 100th birthday is probably easier than it has been in the city’s history.

Agenda packets are loaded onto electronic tablets, making it simpler to prepare for meetings and make informed decisions. Communication is effortless and timely due to technology. Public records needed for research are readily available online, or if the council member cannot find them, City Clerk Tammy Bursick is quick and ready to provide elected officials whatever need – just as she does for the public and for the media.

Why is the City Council wasting its time, not to mention City Attorney Wayne Coment’s time, researching this boondoggle and drawing up a draft ordinance to establish three-year terms that would go to the Council for a first reading at its Aug. 8 meeting with a public hearing to follow on Sept. 5?

This is an idea whose time has not come. Forget holding a referendum on this demented idea.