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Vero Council trying to get referendum off November ballot

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of September 1, 2022)

The Vero Beach City Council voted unanimously last week to ask a circuit judge to remove from the November ballot a citizen-authored referendum that would restrict plans to expand the municipal marina and limit the size of future improvements to other park-like properties protected in the city charter.

The council will challenge the referendum’s language, which City Attorney John Turner said violated state law because it is “unclear and ambiguous” and “doesn’t fairly advise and inform the voters of the consequences if it is approved and adopted.”

Turner said the lawsuit could be filed by the end of this week, and he’ll request that the judge order an expedited hearing so a ruling can be made before the Nov. 8 election.

If a ruling isn’t issued before voters begin casting ballots – and if the city wins the case – Turner said a judge has the authority to void the result.

The referendum cannot be reworded or withdrawn because it already has been submitted to the Supervisor of Elections Office.

“Our only option is to ask a judge to remove it,” Turner said.

The council decided to fight the referendum at a special-call meeting last week, after listening to a parade of citizens who attacked the initiative’s wording, warned of its implications and questioned the motives of those who proposed it.

Many of those who spoke said they opposed the referendum because, if passed, the council would be required to go to the voters to make all but the smallest improvements to city parks and other charter-protected properties.

“The consequences of changing the ability to manage your affairs by virtue of imposing a referendum process are enormous,” former mayor Tony Young said, adding that it “shows a lack of faith in the process that we’ve established as a community.”

In fact, the meeting brought together a group of other former city officials and civic-minded citizens who, as former City Council candidate Tracey Zudans said, “don’t always agree” – yet they were united in opposing the referendum.

And they wanted to know: How did a neighborhood effort to stop or limit the city’s marina-expansion plans become a take-no-prisoners movement to require referendums every time the council wants to noticeably improve a city park?

Leaders of the Vero Beach Preservation Alliance, which gathered the necessary signatures and authored the referendum, did not attend the meeting.

Instead, they sent an emissary, Vero Beach resident Anne McCormick, who said scheduling conflicts prevented alliance board members from being there. She then read a statement explaining the purpose of the referendum.

Last weekend, the alliance’s attorney, Lynne Larkin – a controversial former Vero City Council member who no longer lives in Vero – emailed a follow-up statement criticizing the council’s decision to go to court. She also claimed the alliance members weren’t initially invited to the special-call meeting.

“We were appalled that an ‘informational meeting’ of the City Council was turned into a ‘Let’s sue the VBPA vote,’” Larking wrote. “We were blindsided and dismayed to be so badly treated, especially owing to the fact that, initially, we weren’t invited to the meeting and were turned down for an opportunity to present our facts.

“It clearly looked to us like a set-up to allow the opposition to have two free hours to take cheap and misinformed shots at a citizen-supported initiative,” she added. “And that’s what it turned out to be.”

City Manager Monte Falls denied her allegation, saying the alliance was told its members were invited to the meeting and would be allowed to go beyond the standard 3-minute limit placed on speakers who address the council.

The two-part referendum asks Vero Beach voters to amend the city charter to:

• Add the land containing the marina’s dry-storage facility and former Waddell Insurance building to the charter’s list of protected properties.

• Restrict “any future structures” added to the charter’s protected properties to no more than 500 square feet, and limit the expansion of existing structures to no more than 20 percent of their current footprint and volume, unless approved by city voters in a referendum.

The term “structures, under the city’s code, can apply to improvement that include restrooms, pavilions, playground equipment, parking lots, sidewalks and walls. The 500-square-foot restriction would limit the size of those additions to slightly more than three parking spaces.

Currently, the addition of such amenities to city parks may be approved by a majority vote of the City Council. If the referendum passes, however, improvements that exceed the aforementioned size restrictions would need to be approved by city voters.

The charter amendment would cover not only the marina’s boat-barn areas, but also would apply to more than two dozen city parks and other waterfront properties, including the Three Corners parcels.

Vero Beach leaders are hoping to develop that 33-acre property – on which the defunct municipal power plant and current wastewater-treatment facility now sit – into a dining, retail, social and recreational hub on the mainland’s waterfront.

Mayor Robbie Brackett has expressed concerns that the alliance’s referendum, if approved, could derail the Three Corners project.

In addition to Young and Zudans, the list of others who spoke in opposition to the referendum included: former mayor Harry Howle, Indian River Neighborhood Association chairman Mike Johannsen, Youth Sailing Foundation executive director Stu Keiller, former city council candidate Linda Hillman and real estate attorney Barry Segal.

Segal said the referendum’s wording doesn’t meet the requirement under state law that ballot questions be written in “clear and unambiguous” language.

“I could sit and pull this apart for about 30 minutes,” he said, “and come up with about 30 different interpretations.”

Council members Rey Neville and John Cotugno expressed disappointment that the alliance didn’t send representatives to the meeting.

Cotugno wondered aloud if the stop-the-marina effort was “hijacked by some people who want to keep Vero Vero,” saying the council members will “look like the bad guys” because they’re taking the referendum to court.

“I hate this, but it’s something that needs to be done,” Brackett said. “We need clarification, because I’m not going to be here after November. If I had to work with this – not knowing what it meant – it would be a nightmare.”

Brackett won the Republican primary for the Florida House’s District 34 seat last week and is a prohibitive favor to defeat Sebastian Democrat Karen Greb in November.