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Vitunac is first on Vero Council’s hit list

(Week of February 3, 2011)

With a mandate from voters to clean house of public servants who fail to meet basic standards, the Vero Beach City Council this week zeroed in on its first target: City Attorney Charlie Vitunac.

At this week’s meeting, a proposal by Vice Mayor Pilar Tuner to terminate Vitunac made him number one on the new Council’s hit list.

Those searching to find one particular actionable event leading to the effort to oust Vitunac from his $133,000-a-year sinecure must not have been paying attention these past few years.

Simply put, members of the new Vero Beach City Council lack confidence in the city’s top legal counsel.

This move is something that was part of the new City Council’s mission from the get go – to turn Vero Beach around and clean house of a heavy-handed staff that controlled the city.

Vice Mayor Turner has been criticized for being out to get Vitunac. But as she said last week, “It’s time.”

It has nothing to do with Vitunac’s delay in responding to Councilman Brian Heady’s diatribe over changes made to the Orlando Utilities Contract. For years, Vitunac has been giving the city advice that appears to have been tainted by political agendas -- both his own and those of then City Manager Jim Gabbard.

Vitunac, 63, has been in public legal circles since 1975, first with Palm Beach County, then the last three decades with the city of  Vero Beach and Indian River County.       

Vitunac served as Vero Beach City Attorney from May 11, 1981 to July 19, 1985, during the period of time when the power agreement with the Florida Municipal Power Agency was being hammered out. During those four years, his compensation increased from $35,000 to $51,304.

By 1985, records show, he left the city for a better opportunity – to become County Attorney. The termination documents on file with the city do not include a rating of Vitunac’s performance and do not indicate whether or not the city would consider re-hiring him. 

Vitunac’s tenure in the county over the next 15 years includes contracts the South Barrier Island residents know well – and continue to pay for. They include the franchise agreement signed in 1987 with the city that allowed Vero utilities to charge county residents an additional 10 percent more on their electric bills – known as the out-of-city surcharge.

The city also has blamed the county for tacking a 6 percent franchise fee onto utility bills, which costs county residents an additional $3 million every year.  Vitunac signed off on that.

“The only good deal the City of Vero Beach ever got was on the (1987) water and sewer franchise agreement with the county, and that’s because he (Vitunac) was at the county and signed it on behalf of their side,” said former Vero Councilman Charlie Wilson, never been much of a supporter of Vitunac.

Vitunac’s tenure at the County turned rocky by early 2000 when, records show, he was asked to resign. The Board of County Commissioners at the time was led by Chairwoman Fran Adams, who accepted Vitunac’s resignation.

The minutes from the meeting of Feb. 1, 2000 read:

“County Attorney Vitunac stated that he had enjoyed most of his 15 years as Indian River’s County Attorney, but in the last two weeks there has been an issue of whether he had the support of at least a majority of the Board of County Commissioners. Without that support, he could not continue working here and he thought the Board would agree. He offered his resignation, effective immediately, under certain terms and conditions.”

The County paid Vitunac $75,000 to buy out the remainder of his contract, which amounted to 200 days pay plus unused sick and vacation time, and made a payment to the Florida Retirement System of just more than $57,000. The county fought giving Vitunac unemployment benefits on top of his severance package.

Vitunac was accepted back into the fold in Vero Beach as Assistant City Attorney. He listed then-Police Chief Jim Gabbard, his former brother-in-law, as a reference. Vitunac’s probationary review showed that he intended the city job to only be temporary, but Vitunac was promoted from Assistant City Attorney to City Attorney in 2002 after a tragedy in the family of City Attorney Julie Schutta led to her resignation.

Vitunac was in his post throughout the FMPA exit process and the subsequent  negotiation of the current electric contract with the Orlando Utility Commission.

Throughout his tenure with Vero, when anything of legal heft or complexity arose, the city enlisted the help of outside attorneys and consultants, with the tab for these services mounting into the millions of dollars.

Vitunac has no contract with the City of Vero Beach, but he would exit with a sizable pension and tens of thousands of dollars in accrued sick and vacation time.

As a Charter Officer of the City of Vero Beach, Vitunac has the right to a Public Hearing of any City Council proposal to fire him.

At least one critic of the city thinks he’ll exercise that right.

“I think he will absolutely ask for a public hearing and it would show how desperate he is to defend himself. I think he knows full well that he’s not wanted there,” said utility activist and CPA Glenn Heran.

A Public Hearing would need to be held within 10 days of a Council vote.

Vero has two other attorneys on staff, Assistant City Attorney Wayne Coment and Assistant City Attorney Peggy Lyon, who handle the bulk of the day-to-day legal work of the city.