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Vero City Council race reminiscent of 2009

STORY BY LISA ZAHNER (Week of September 9, 2021)

Talk about names from the past. Three candidates who were on the ballot for Vero Beach City Council in 2009 – Charlie Wilson, Brian Heady and Ken Daige – are trying again 12 years later.

In 2009, Wilson and Heady won – victories that turned out to be short-lived for Wilson, and one-of-a-kind for perennial candidate Heady – on a wave of voter unhappiness about soaring electric rates.

In one of their first official actions, the council took a vote to invite Florida Power & Light to a meeting to begin the conversation about FPL purchasing the city’s electric utility. The conventional wisdom said the sale couldn’t be done. But that dream finally became a reality a decade later and former Vero power customers now enjoy the lowest rates in the state.

Daige, who had served on the council but was turned out in the 2009 election, fought the electric sale and still hasn’t made peace with the reality more than two years after the closing.

He is among a group of hangers-on who still whine about the electric sale on a regular basis. They complain about FPL’s service and about how FPL trims the trees. Mostly they moan about how much they miss skimming nearly $6 million per year off utility bills into Vero’s general fund.

A vote for Daige would be a vote for a person who didn’t want to sell Vero electric.

Heady and Wilson opened the door to the FPL sale and they deserve credit for that. But what would a vote for them mean this November? The only guarantee is that things would get interesting.

Heady served two years on the council, and while there he worked hard and was always accessible to the public. He understood the issues and voted his conscience, even if it meant playing the contrarian. He insisted on full transparency at all times. That’s the Heady you got when Good Brian showed up.

When Bad Brian showed up, he did things like sue the city in federal court while a seated member of the City Council in 2010. All of this was to point out some injustice and root out corruption. There were so many injustices and so much corruption that Heady documented it all in a book, “Liars, Cheats, and Thieves,” self-published under the pen name Kris O’Brian. Heady is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.

A vote for Wilson might rival one for Heady in terms of drama and legal intrigue.

Wilson served one month on the City Council before he was removed by a judge after a voter filed suit claiming Wilson did not meet the residency requirement. The widely followed and entertaining case read like the board game Clue.  It involved a Realtor lock box, mysterious visits to Wilson’s home, Wilson’s refrigerator, shower curtain and toothbrush, plus a spying Chihuahua.

After Wilson’s ouster, the qualifying requirements to run for office were changed and candidates now need to live in the city for a solid 12 months prior to their election.

Wilson did not shrink into the background, but remained involved, advising, promoting and fundraising for city council candidates who were committed to make the Vero electric sale to FPL a reality. He spearheaded Operation Clean Sweep in 2010, which finished the job he and Heady started in 2009, wiping the balance of the anti-sale incumbents off the Vero Beach City Council.

This time around Wilson aims to prevent and fight crime by making sure the Vero Beach Police Department has the city’s full support. Among his goals, Wilson said he wants to reach consensus on a plan “to remove the old power plant and make it useful to the public”

“Opponents of the electric sale lamented that taxes would soar, but they were wrong. Vero Beach does not need new taxes of any kind. I will oppose any new taxes, period,” Wilson said.

In addition to these voices from the past – and incumbent Rey Neville, the vice mayor, who is seeking re-election  – three other candidates are seeking seats on the City Council dais.

John Cotugno has nothing on Heady, Daige or Wilson in terms of the times he’s sought public office, but he has likely learned a great deal running for City Council the past three years in a row. Cotugno won the island vote in 2020, but Honey Minuse outperformed him on the mainland and won the seat.

Cotugno is a professional, he had a successful career in marketing in the high-tech sector and worked extensively overseas. He has paid his dues serving on multiple city advisory committees, including the Three Corners Steering Committee and the Utilities Commission. He’s current on the city’s big issues and he’s committed to keeping taxes low.

For better or for worse, Tracey Zudans is probably best known as the spouse of controversial former mayor and local eye surgeon Val Zudans – unless voters are followers of her work on the Indian River Hospital District Board.

Zudans’ frequent dissenting opinions became a signature of her tenure on the hospital board, consistently voicing an anti-taxation, small-government point of view. At the same time, she was an energetic board member, well organized in her presentations and generous with her time – the position is one of the few unpaid elected offices in the county.

Last but not least is Taylor Dingle. When Dingle declared his candidacy, his only negative seemed to be his lack of life experience. Then on Aug. 27, the mainland resident and founder of Vero’s Young Republicans club posted a Facebook video seeming to take issue with the barrier island majority on the City Council.

Councilman Bob McCabe and Councilman Dick Winger, who is not seeking to remain on the council, live on the barrier island, as does Neville, who is seeking re-election. Tracey Zudans and John Cotugno live in Central Beach.

But Mayor Robbie Brackett and Councilwoman Minuse, who are not up for re-election this year, are both longtime mainland residents.

“The majority of the current council and other candidates in this race are beachside residents and that’s great but we must not forget, we are not the island of Vero Beach,” Dingle said.  “We are the city of Vero Beach and there must be a representation for said demographic, now more than ever after the economic impact caused by this pandemic.”

How that appeal plays remains to be seen.