Vero Beach Council members decide on legal referee, reconsider Vitunac

VERO BEACH — The Vero Beach City Council has decided to consult with an outside law firm to review the process by which the council has tried to remove City Attorney Charlie Vitunac.

Little else was decided at the special council meeting Thursday as the agenda was advertised for discussion rather than action. The council will pick up matters at 6 p.m. Tuesday when it reconvenes and considers another resolution for Vitunac’s termination.

Though the council members spent much of the 90-minute meeting bickering with each other, four of them agreed that they need to hire an outside attorney to advise them, as the city’s two remaining attorneys have bowed out of dealing with the Vitunac issue.

Councilman Brian Heady was the lone dissenter, following a long speech citing the legal merits of the city’s case against Vitunac.

Assistant City Attorneys Wayne Coment and Peggy Lyon said they could both be called to testify if the situation devolved into a lawsuit and that would put them in the untenable position of being both witness and counsel on the case.

“We always try to err on the side of not creating any more problems than we already have,” Coment said.

The two attorneys being considered are Helen Scott and Richard Brown. The city has already been in touch with Scott, who has worked on similar matters for the city before. Staffers are still trying to reach Brown to see if he would also be interested.

The City Council directed Interim City Manager Monte Falls to retain either Scott or Brown to review the situation and give them a recommendation about where they stand — hopefully prior to Tuesday’s meeting.

The City Council voted 3-2 on Feb. 1 to terminate Vitunac for cause. On Tuesday, Vitunac’s attorney, Buck Vocelle notified city officials that Vitunac was seeking a severance package in exchange for his resignation.

A memo from Vocelle stated that the process by which the City Council terminated Vituac was “fatally flawed.”

Vocelle asserts that Vitunac was never terminated and is still the city’s attorney.

Nevertheless, Assistant City Attorney Wayne Coment was appointed Acting City Attorney. Coment advised the City Council that the cure for Vitunac’s claims would be to approve a properly formatted, publicly noticed Resolution.

The council intends to do so on Tuesday.

At least two council members — Councilman Heady and Councilwoman Pilar Turner — said they were aggravated that the resolution was not advertised and included on Thursday’s agenda.

Heady had requested Mayor Jay Kramer call the meeting specifically for that purpose to make the resolution “right” by correcting what was viewed to be improper procedure.

Despite warnings from Coment that the city should not  tip it’s legal hand and limit discussion, Heady proceeded with an open discussion of the issues at hand.

“I’m of the opinion that if you just tell the truth all the time you really don’t need to worry about what you say,” Heady said.

He alleged that, if the City Council didn’t pass a proper resolution, it was because Vitunac, still in his role as City Attorney, failed to advise them of what they needed to do to make everything legal.

Kramer said he changed the intent of the meeting from a consideration of the resolution to simply a discussion of the resolution because of what now seems to be erroneous information from an undisclosed staff member.

Several times during the meeting, council members accused the staff of “undermining the council” – in particularly as it pertained to how the preliminary resolution on the Feb. 1 agenda was arranged and advertised.

Turner and Heady both stated that no Charter Officer – City Attorney, Clerk or Manager – or staff member pointed out any improprieties in the Feb. 1 agenda, which has become the basis for Vitunac’s request for an 8-month severance package.

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