VERO BEACH — If the Vero Beach City Council chooses to pay its tenuously employed City Attorney Charlie Vitunac the $88,000 severance pay he’s demanding in exchange for a resignation, it will also have to find the money in the budget.Despite statements by Vitunac’s attorney Buck Vocelle that the City of Vero Beach will have much trouble finding another City Attorney to employ should they deny Vitunac a severance package, chances are slim that a majority of council members will decide to pay Vitunac the $88,000. But if they do, the two options are cutting other expenses or tapping into the city’s precious General Fund reserves. Last summer during budget hearings, then-City Manager Jim Gabbard and various department heads, including Police Chief Don Dappen, said they had cut the budget “to the bone” and there was nowhere else to cut. Employees citywide have also been on a furlough program to keep from evaporating the city’s reserves.In response to a public records request, Finance Director Steve Maillet stated that the money would “be charged to the attorney’s office salary budget.”
“To offset the cost, the Council could: Delay hiring a replacement (to save on salary and benefit expenses), increase the department budget by increasing the General Fund unappropriated surplus (reduce fund balance), Decrease other parts of the attorney’s office budget, or some combination of these.”The $88,000 represents eight months’ pay for Vitunac, who has been earning an annual salary of about $133,000. Vocelle explained that he arrived at the eight-month figure because that is what the city paid former City Manager Rex Taylor to secure his resignation in 2005.Vocelle, in two letters on Tuesday to Mayor Jay Kramer cited that there is a precedent for the city paying severance because it was done for Taylor in 2005 and former City Manager David Mekarsky in 2003. The difference is that Mekarsky had an employment contract and the severance package effectively bought the city out of that contract. There have been conflicting reports as to whether Taylor had a contract, but he left with no City of Vero Beach pension or huge amount of banked leave time.When asked to explain why he was basing what he called “precedent” on an apples-to-oranges type comparison, attorney Vocelle did not respond to an inquiry sent via email on Wednesday.Even without the severance, Vitunac would be receiving about $6,300 per month in pensions from his service with Vero and the County, plus $57,000 in accrued sick and vacation time he’s banked in his 11 years with the city.If granted, the $88,000 severance would represent a little more than $5 per man, woman and child residing in the City of Vero Beach. Because the taxpayers and city ratepayers would be impacted financially by the City Council paying a severance that it is not required to pay, Councilman Brian Heady, who requested the city have a special call meeting to approve a properly formatted Resolution for Termination to clear up Vitunac’s objections, said he will insist upon allowing public comment at Thursday’s meeting.”We cannot represent the public if we don’t listen to them,” Heady said. “There will be no meeting if there is no public comment.”Mayor Jay Kramer, an advocate of unfettered public input into council matters, said he’s got some reservations about allowing citizens to weigh in on the decision.”I don’t want people to get up there and get out of line and tick off Buck Vocelle and make things worse,” Kramer said. “People could say things that could end up costing us a lot more money.”Kramer, who voted last week to keep Vitunac in his job, said he would be amenable to members of the public speaking after Vocelle’s presentation, but not before. Kramer said he expected the matter would not be settled on Thursday, as he’s advocating that the city hire outside counsel to examine the severance proposal and to negotiate with Vocelle.”I don’t want to try to get into an argument with Buck Vocelle because I know I’ll lose,” Kramer said. “We were advised we couldn’t use the legal department staff because any of them could be called as witnesses.”Councilman Heady reeled at the mention of retaining legal help in the matter.”We have no need for outside counsel and there is no need to spend the taxpayer money to solve this question,” Heady said, pointing to the fact that the council has a properly formatted Resolution ready to vote on.Vocelle in communications with City Hall said the process by which the City Council voted to terminate Vitunac was “fatally flawed.” If that allegation is true, the question remains why Vitunac, who was still acting as City Attorney in the lead-up to the meeting and during the City Council meeting itself, did not advise counsel members that the action item upon which they voted was not of legal sufficiency.”That could be something we could use to our advantage, to fight this and possibly get out of it,” Kramer said.The Vero Beach City Council meets at 4 p.m. Thursday in the Council Chambers at City Hall. The meeting will be televised on Channel 13.Click here for a related article about the Charlie Vitunac termination saga.