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Six apply for open seat on Vero Beach City Council

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of April 1, 2021)

Six men are seeking to serve out the seven months remaining in former Vero councilman Joe Graves’ term, and they reflect Vero’s past, its present and its future.

Two ex-city officials – one-term councilman Brian Heady and three-term councilman and former mayor Dick Winger – both want to mount a comeback, to infuse the four sitting council members with their strong views and experience in government and their pre-retirement careers.

Winger, who while on council frequently boasted about his varied corporate experiences, submitted a five-page resume listing 18 different jobs, plus military experience, and an objective of “Participatory Retirement, Stay Active.”

Heady didn’t turn in a resume but noted that he’s very interested in utilities issues and that his “most important educational experience was two years on city council.” In fact, those years made such an impression that Heady wrote a book about his adventures in and with city government.

Heady and Winger are well-known quantities to the council members, but their upcoming interviews could clarify how they might vote on commercial development on the riverfront utility sites.

John Cotugno, a two-time candidate for city council who came in fourth in a three-seat race in November, wants a chance to show how his qualifications in international business translate to setting policy for Vero’s future.

Cotugno has served on the Utilities Commission and would come in with a good working knowledge of the plans to move the sewer plant off the river. He would also be accustomed to operating under the Sunshine Laws and up to speed on the pending utility breach of contract lawsuit filed against Vero by the Town of Indian River Shore.

Cotugno is representative of young retirees who have lots of choices of new locales to live after successful careers and end up settling in Vero Beach.

In flipping through the applicant resumes, we noticed one applicant has a very familiar name, Peter Benedict II. But this is the son who returned to Vero after a career in education, not the father who ran St. Edward’s School for a quarter century and passed away in 2020.

Benedict now co-owns a landscaping business and lives on the island riverfront just south of the Alma Lee Loy Bridge, so he looks at the city’s sewer plant – and the potential of the riverfront utility sites – every day.

With his institutional and leadership experience, plus his strong family roots in Vero, Benedict would be an interesting choice to fill Graves’ seat.

City council is a nonpartisan position, but it traditionally draws people who are active in party politics. The Vero Beach Young Republicans group has grown more active and applicant Taylor Dingle’s leadership as founder and president is one big reason.

Dingle, who is in his mid-20s, would represent the generation that will live with the consequences of Vero’s decisions on the Three Corners longer than the average retiree. He works as a clerk and comptroller with the St. Lucie County Clerk of the Court, so he would bring solid local government experience to the job if selected to replace Graves.

The most unknown of the six is retired law enforcement officer Chris Drake, who owns a local firm serving the needs of corporations in the defense community, the U.S. Department of Defense and various other government agencies.

Drake has a school-age child, so he would look at the city’s recreation programs and the recreational amenities planned on the Three Corners site through the eyes of a parent.

The council will meet on Tuesday to interview candidates, take public comment and hopefully select the person to fill Graves’ shoes. Graves, a first-term councilman voted into office in 2019, resigned on March 10 because he no longer met the residency requirement for elected office as he bought a house outside the city limits and is moving his family there.