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One week left to qualify for Vero council election

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER | NEWS ANALYSIS (Week of August 27, 2020)

With three council positions on the November ballot, including an open seat made possible by Vice Mayor Laura Moss’ move up to the Indian River Board of County Commissioners, there’s a chance to bring strong leadership and fiscal discipline back to the city’s government.

Anyone interested in doing that has one more week to qualify.

The current makeup of the council simply does not work effectively to guide city policy. As a body, the council often is reactionary and short-sighted. There’s no clear leadership to be found on the dais.

As the council has drifted and become weaker, the city staff has begun to take a greater role. Issues drag on through long-winded meetings and are studied to death by consultants. Action is started, then stopped, postponed or even abandoned. The culture of maintaining the status quo has returned to City Hall.

Vero is sitting on a pot of $21 million in proceeds from the sale of the electric utility and, if that money is not managed properly, city residents will have zero to show for it a few years down the road. Millions will be shaved off here and there as the windfall is whittled away to pay for pet projects and recurring operating expenses.

Sure, that money belongs to the city. But the $21 million represents money sunk into the city’s electric utility by all of its 34,000 former customers, inside the city, in the unincorporated county and in the Town of Indian River Shores. So it’s everyone’s business how the Vero Beach City Council decides to spend it.

The next council will not only shepherd the languishing riverfront redevelopment plan into something voters can approve next year, but will also need to make sure the new sewer plant gets built at the airport as expeditiously as possible, and the old sewer plant gets moved off the river – two critical and costly projects with zero margin for error.

The qualifying period to get on the ballot as a city council candidate opened last Thursday and closes noon Sept. 4. Mayor Tony Young and Councilman Robbie Brackett had yet to file paperwork as of press time on Monday. Both men are well-connected longtime residents with strong name recognition and intense community involvement, so, presuming they run, they would be very tough to unseat. The battle will most likely be for the third and open seat being vacated by Moss.

Central Beach resident and retired tech executive John Cotugno, who placed fourth last year in the contest for two seats, has already pre-qualified, according to City Clerk Tammy Bursick. Former councilman Brian Heady, who served one term from 2009 to 2011 and placed sixth in 2019, submitted his candidate packet on Monday. “Can’t see me not running,” said Heady, who has run more than a dozen times for city office.

Vero Beach Chamber CEO and retired auto industry executive Robert McCabe came closest to getting elected last year, losing to Councilman Rey Neville by only 68 votes. McCabe also ran in the previous election cycle, coming in fourth.

McCabe said on Monday that he was seriously considering entering the contest. “There are still a lot of issues that concern me, and some new ones that have come up.” McCabe said he’ll make up his mind in the next week.

Former Mayor Harry Howle is also considering a run. When Councilman Joe Graves announced he’d resign over a political dustup earlier this year, Howle said he would be willing to serve again if city residents and the city council members want him to run. Howle ran initially to make sure the Vero electric sale was completed and that happened while he was mayor.

Last election, the police and fire unions supported Cotugno, but the first responders’ help wasn’t quite enough to put him in the win column. All the candidates will likely be seeking the endorsement of Moss, who is both vocal about her opinions and highly visible and accessible at community events. As of Monday, Moss did not return a message asking who, if anyone, she will be supporting.

What the council needs right now is someone with a solid background in finance and project management who can lead the group to make wise decisions and gently remind city staff who is in charge of the city.