Vitunac: Indispensible or uninvolved?
Does Vero Beach City Attorney Charlie Vitunac know too much to fire him, or was he absent from most of the city’s major decisions over the past few years?
Astoundingly, both arguments were used in his defense last week when the City Council voted 3-2 to terminate Vitunac.
Vitunac’s two defenders, Mayor Jay Kramer and Councilman Craig Fletcher, asserted that Vitunac had too much information, with Fletcher calling it “tribal knowledge.” They wanted him to stay.
But when questioned about specific deals and contracts that were either botched, kept from the City Council, or both, Vitunac pleaded ignorance. He said he was neither notified nor consulted on the matters.
Vitunac proceeded to blame most of the questionable items -- many having to do with the electric contract -- on former Electric Utilities Director R.B. Sloan and others, including his former brother-in-law, City Manager Jim Gabbard. Vitunac asserted that Sloan did not show anyone the altered contract before then-Mayor Tom White was asked to sign.
“If he (Sloan) had, the past three years of terror wouldn’t have happened,” Vitunac said.
This was the path Vitunac was fervently going down when Councilwoman Tracy Carroll called for a vote.
She would later say that she was frustrated with the total rehash of a very old and tired discussion as Vitunac sought to justify how a $90 million contract with Florida Power and Light to transmit power from Orlando to Vero was signed by Gabbard and not the mayor, when Gabbard’s independent approval authority was capped at $50,000.
There was no need to attempt to diminish his own responsibility for the Orlando Utilities Commission contract with allegations that Sloan knew about all the revisions but kept them to himself. This has already been shown by public record to be false.
Sloan said weeks ago that he didn’t wish to get involved, but that the city’s email correspondence would clearly show who was copied on the changes to the contract.
Vitunac also denied any responsibility for overseeing the activities of Boston consultants and lawyers who ran up $3 million in bills, removed original documents from City Hall, made unauthorized changes to the OUC contract and made unrealistic promises -- that the new contract would afford electric customers rates equal to or lower than FP&L.
Since the single biggest issue the city faced the past two years was not, according to Vitunac, under his purview, one wonders what he has been working on.
“I can’t be wandering around the building into everybody’s offices,” he said.
Councilman Brian Heady said he walked into the meeting last week ready to vote to save Vitunac’s job.
At one point, after hearing a list of excuses as to why nothing that was being questioned was covered under his job description, Heady made his displeasure known.
“Your attitude in this response doesn’t seem to be the attitude of an attorney working for me,” Heady said.
As of press time, Vitunac had not formally requested the public hearing to which he is entitled, but scuttlebutt around City Hall was that he will. He has 10 days to do so. In the meantime, he is on paid leave of more than $500 per day plus benefits.
And because Mayor Jay Kramer fears that the Council may have made a procedural mistake in the vote, he may call for a do-over on Thursday. If that is the case, Vitunac could continue collecting leave for an additional 10 days until he decides whether he wants a hearing.
Vitunac, 63, earns $133,000 per year plus health, life and pension benefits for a total of about $150,000 annually. He has worked for the City of Vero Beach since 2000, after being forced to resign as County Attorney for Indian River County. Prior to serving as County Attorney, Vitunac previously held the Vero City Attorney position, leaving for a better opportunity, according to public records.
Vitunac, who cleared out his office over the weekend, is already collecting a pension from Indian River County and, though he would exit with no contractual “golden parachute” from the City of Vero Beach, he will collect a second pension plus tens of thousands of dollars in accrued sick and vacation time.
His pensions paid by the taxpayers of the City of Vero Beach and Indian River County will total about $75,000.
Should Vitunac seek a public hearing, it does not appear that it will change anything. Vice Mayor Pilar Turner was the one who moved to dismiss him, and she’s not likely to reverse herself. Councilwoman Tracy Carroll won’t, and as for Heady?
“I will not change my mind,” he said.
If Vitunac requests a hearing within the 10-day window provided by the charter, the special session would need to be held no less than 20 days from the vote and no more than 30 days from the vote.