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The Vitunac saga
Was he using the city legal staff to research his case?

(Week of March 3, 2011), Photo of Charles Vitunac

A peek into email records shows that tenuously employed Vero Beach City Attorney Charles Vitunac was not doing much city business the day before the City Council voted to fire him, but that he was using his legal staff to bolster his own case against the city.

Despite it being the day before the Feb. 1 City Council meeting with a packed agenda, Vitunac was not fielding questions or even being copied on correspondence among staffers regarding items up for vote or discussion.

No emails were exchanged with Interim City Manager Monte Falls, City Clerk Tammy Vock or to Assistant City Attorneys Wayne Coment and Peggy Lyon about the fact that an item on the next day’s agenda was not properly advertised and not in the correct legal form.

Most of his inbox was junk, notices of seminars and daily briefing emails from the Florida Municipal Electric Association and the Florida League of Cities.

What is troubling is not only the lack of inter-office correspondence coming Vitunac’s way regarding official business -- other top city staffers receive hundreds of emails per day -- but a series of emails between Vitunac and now-Acting City Attorney Wayne Coment pertaining to Vitunac’s personal legal and employment situation.

On Jan. 31 at 4:13 p.m., Coment posted a question on a municipal attorney list serve. Coment said he uses this to get varied opinions on sticky matters of interpretation of law or policy. Attorneys on the list serve, he said, hail from all over the country and even outside the United States.

The question of the day from Comment was about City of Vero Beach policy on the lump-sum payout of sick time to terminated employees. It was sent under the subject header, “Penalty for contesting firing.”

“Ok employment’s one for you. Personnel rules provide employees get certain benefits upon terminating employment voluntarily or retiring, i.e, paid for certain percentage of unused sick time and all unused vacation time. However, if the same employee is terminated involuntarily, they are not entitled to most of the unused sick time. Any thoughts on legality?” signed Wayne R. Coment, Assistant City Attorney.

So why was a city policy in place for decades being questioned by the city’s legal team the day before a vote to fire Vitunac?

“We were trying to figure out was there an entitlement to the sick leave,” Coment said.

When asked if the inquiry was directly related to the fact that his boss’ job was on the chopping block in less than 24 hours, Coment didn’t hedge.

“Absolutely it had to do with him,” Coment said. “We saw it coming, we knew it would be a question.”

Vitunac would be entitled to about $35,000 more in banked sick time payout if he’s allowed to retire rather than if he’s terminated.

“Somebody had to ask a question or we wouldn’t have checked on that. It gives you a head start,” Coment said. “Something would have prompted me to make that request.”

When asked who directed him to ask the question, Coment was also pretty up front.

“At the time, we were taking direction from Mr. Vitunac, very possibly it was a question he asked,” Coment said.

During the lunch break from the City Council meeting, Vitunac received docket filing notices from complainant Dr. Stephen Faherty and Tallahassee attorney Robert Sheffel Wright that a Florida Public Service Commission complaint against the City of Vero Beach Electric had been reactivated.

Vitunac did not inform the City Council of this during the lengthy afternoon session before the vote to fire him.

The council would not be briefed on the matter until two weeks later.