VERO BEACH – Whether or not Vero Beach’s contract with the Orlando Utilities Commission was ever reviewed by the City Council that approved it is a question that has dogged the city for the past couple of years.
But it wasn’t until this month that statements from City Attorney Charles Vitunac may have cleared up the issue. The city’s legal chief now concedes that none of the 2008 council members read the actual contract, but only viewed a PowerPoint presentation offered by a consultant.
“Sue Hersey came on April 7 (2008) and met with each of the council members. They really didn’t sit there and read the contract,” Vitunac said during a City Council meeting. “It was on the table, but she put a PowerPoint on the wall.”
Vitunac has long-defended the fact that all documents related to the bidding as well as the contracts for the $2 billion deal were kept secret from the public for two years.
He has also defended the method in which the contract negotiations were handled – and what the City Council and the public saw prior to inking he deal.
But then, Vitunac was one of four people who chose OUC over Florida Power and Light as the city’s power provider.
Councilman Brian Heady has argued that, if in fact, council members read the document and relied upon the information contained therein to vote on it a week later after about 125 changes had been made, that the city has no valid contract with OUC, but rather a counter-offer.
Now, with Vitunac himself admitting that council members never read it, but instead accepted the contract based solely on a PowerPoint presentation given by Hersey, there was no document – changed or otherwise – that they relied upon, making Heady’s argument moot.
Why wasn’t this information made public long ago? When several of those remaining members were still running for re-election, this topic was still taboo.
Former City Manager Jim Gabbard said just before the November 2009 election that officials had gone over the contract in his office and had been given the opportunity to further review it at City Hall.
Two members said they had read the contract and one, Ken Daige, did not go on the record either admitting he’d read it or not.
Then-Mayor Tom White said he was in the loop on all the details of the deal, being on the contract negotiating team – an assertion that was later contradicted by Boston Consultant Sue Hersey.
Former Councilwoman Debra Fromang initially said during a meeting of the Indian River Taxpayers Association that she hadn’t read the contract.
Later, she reversed this, saying she was “reminded” by former City Manager Jim Gabbard that she had, in fact, been shown the contract and had read it and also gone over it with Electric Utilities Director R.B. Sloan.
Former Councilman Bill Fish and Sabe Abell didn’t read it and admitted so publicly and to the media.
When asked about aspects like the $50 million exit penalty, Fish said those things were “a surprise” to him.
Abell said he trusted the staff and thought the details were confidential, similar to the Baltimore Orioles negotiations.
But there is still the nagging issue of more than 100 changes made to the contract and the fact that the City Council was not told about them.
Then-Mayor Tom White signed a blank signature page, which was attached to an amended contract. Though no longer a legal issue if the council never read the contract, it’s an issue of trust or disclosure between council and staff.
Vitunac had a new explanation for this.
He now says that the reason why the council was not informed of the changes was because former Utilities Director R.B. Sloan was the only person who had been emailed the changes from the Boston attorneys, and he didn’t print out a copy or show the changes to anyone.
Yet Councilman Brian Heady and our sister publication, Vero Beach 32963, had requested all of the documents and the various versions of the contract – which were retrieved from Vitunac’s computer – so he at least had been copied on all the changes.
In 2010, Councilman Brian Heady had submitted a public records request for all of the emails documenting the evolution of the OUC contract between April 7, 2008, and April 15, 2008.
“When I asked for all the emails, Charlie said to me, ‘Do you want all 400 pages?’ and I said, Let me look at your computer’ so he wouldn’t have to print them out,” Heady said. “Well, he just printed them all out and gave me the attachments.”
Sloan – who is now working at another utility in Danville, Va. – was reluctant to respond at first.
“I don’t really care to get pulled into the politics of what’s going on down there,” he told Vero Beach 32963. But after being told that we’d already seen the 400 pages of emails that had been copied to him, to consultant Sue Hersey, to Vitunac, some to Gabbard and to officials from OUC, Sloan did respond.
“The emails will tell you who saw the changes,” he said. “There were a number of changes made and nobody disputes that. None of the changes made were anywhere near substantial. All the big items had been discussed.”
Vitunac had also told council members for many months that there had been no changes made to the OUC contract.
Former City Manager Jim Gabbard even told an investigator from State Attorney Bruce Colton’s office that no changes had been made to the OUC contract.
Vitunac’s position then evolved as new evidence came out in the media.
The first hedge was that there were no material changes. Then he said the changes were material but that they only made the contract better. Then Vitunac finally charged his staff with identifying the changes and went over them – 19 pages of changes – in a public meeting.
Heady said he’s still befuddled as to the staff’s failure to clue the council in on these so-called minor changes to a 20-year, $2 billion contract.
“I just don’t get it,” Heady said after replaying the meeting on his home DVD player and thinking about Vitunac’s statements. “It’s unfortunate that no one would have told the council that the contract changed.”