Longtime mayor of Chicago used to brag that his town is “the city that works.” During his tenure that was true, although his methods weren’t necessarily something to brag about. Locally, while our attention is focused on what happens in Vero Beach and in the county, Sebastian seems to quietly go about its business and do it successfully.
It all begins with a city council that has its act together. Newly elected mayor, Richard H. Gillmor has a background in sales and is a great salesman for his city. “The city council was such a mess that when I was first elected in 2008, I was named mayor. Working with the other council members we have accomplished a lot since then because we may have our differences, but we are all working for the citizens of Sebastian.”
One issue that concerns everyone is the state of our Indian River Lagoon. “Several years ago we hired an environmental specialist,” says Gillmor, “and in the last 18 months we have tested all our outfalls to track sources of pollution. We have done a great job getting storm water off the streets, but it still ends up in the Lagoon. While pollutants are higher in the wet season, our outfalls test normal otherwise.”
The Indian River Lagoon Council was formed last year as a regional effort to save our precious Lagoon and the only county not participating is our own (because the county commission felt it was adding another layer of government). But that didn’t stop the individual municipalities – Vero Beach, Fellsmere and Sebastian – from joining the Council. “We are proud that the Lagoon Council decided to be headquartered here in Sebastian. Right now it is a challenge to have so many agencies and taxing districts, all doing testing and not sharing data. We put in a public records request yesterday to the Sebastian River Improvement District for the last seven years of testing data that we plan to share with other Council members. We all know the problems, but we need to quantify them and if everyone does the same, we will then have a much better grasp on what needs to be done.”
Meanwhile, Sebastian is doing something about probably the worst source of pollution. “Three years ago we started putting money aside for people to hookup to our sewer system. The law says if you have access you must hook up. We can understand why people might not want to spend $15-$20,000, but some of the most critical septic systems are by the Lagoon. So we set aside $100,000 every year to fund $5,000 grants to help people defray the cost of hooking up. We’ve already spent $85-$100,000 on this. The only requirement for the grant is to have a residence on septic. We would like the county to match that amount since they have the franchise and it is to their advantage.”
Of course, All Aboard Florida is another issue of concern up and down the Treasure Coast. The county is spending millions to fight it, while Sebastian is preparing for it. “Last fall we were the only municipality on the Treasure Coast to apply for a DOT grant covering the cost of installing quiet zones. I live a mile and a half from the tracks and can hear every whistle. I can’t imagine what 32 trains will be like.”
An issue that resonates with residents in Vero Beach and unincorporated Indian River County is short term rentals. “It’s not much of an issue here. We don’t have beachfront property and all the bed & breakfasts are on U.S. 1 or east of it in commercial areas. So anyone buying a home in those areas assumes some risk.
Sebastian City Council has also taken control of public input at its meetings. “We allow each person five minutes and they don’t have to sign up in advance to speak. If the speaker needs more time, we take a vote of council members and if they agree, the speaker continues. We also moved public input around so it doesn’t interfere with our business agenda. If a large group of people represent an issue and line up to say basically the same thing, we move public comment toward the end. Every meeting agenda includes a detailed explanation of our public comment policy and we stick to it.”
Another member of the Sebastian City Council has served six consecutive terms. Andrea Coy has a reputation for saying what’s on her mind and apparently the voters like that. “This is a non-partisan office and we hold people accountable for even mentioning their party. I don’t have to pander or act beholding to any party, only to the citizens of Sebastian.”
She feels the reason city council has been so effective in recent years is its diversity of opinion. “We have a woman, an African-American, a Democrat, a Republican and no party affiliation. Our interests are diverse. For instance, I specialize in senior citizen issues, Richard focuses on the Lagoon, Bob McPartland is oriented toward families. But we consult with each other and don’t pretend to be experts on everything. There’s no kumbaya either. We have plenty of arguments and discussion so we end up satisfied with our decisions. The citizens of Sebastian are our only concern.”
As to whether All Aboard Florida is in our future, Coy says, “Sebastian will do what it has to in order to prepare. The county can spend millions of taxpayer money fighting a lost cause. If they don’t sell the bonds, Fortress Investment Group has the money to make it happen. I can think of a lot of things that could be done for the community with that money.”
Sebastian has quietly become the largest municipality in Indian River County although Vero Beach gets much more media attention. Possibly that lower profile has helped its elected officials get down to the citizens’ business and avoid being a target of critics with narrow agendas.