Vero staff draws ire from council over pain clinic surprise

VERO BEACH — Prior to voting to schedule a second public hearing of a 180-day moratorium on new pain clinics for June 1, members of the Vero Beach City Council chastised top staffers for not telling them — and for not even being aware — that a new pain clinic was opening in the city.

Last week, a pain clinic prepared to open and hung sign advertising services at 1146 21st St., Suite B, just east of U.S. 1. Councilman Tom White said he was very upset to hear about this in the media, as pain clinics have been popping up all over the state and administering highly-addictive narcotics.

“Do not let me read something in the paper that I know nothing about,” White said to Community Development Director Tim McGarry and to City Manager Jim Gabbard.

“I didn’t know there was a pain clinic going in and I don’t think Tim knew,” said Gabbard. “We aggressively went after this.”

“My problem is that I was not informed,” White said.

“I apologize, but it was in the system already,” McGarry responded. “I didn’t know that there was one in the pipeline until my staff told me.”

Councilman Ken Daige — before and after the break in the meeting — urged the council to take immediate and emergency action to prevent any other pain clinics from slipping through before the city’s ordinance could take effect on June 1.

Daige insisted that the council had the right to do this under the premise that pain clinics have “an adverse effect on our citizenry.”

Weeks ago, Daige proposed an emergency moratorium, which City Attorney Charles Vitunac advised against, saying that it wouldn’t stand up in court.

“We wish we had a country where you could just put your hand out and say something is illegal and stop it, but you can’t,” Vitunac said.

Vitunac again advised council not to do anything on an emergency basis.

“If you do it, it will be under the recommendation that it’s not legal,” Vitunac said. “It may sound good, but if you really want to protect the people you will do it legally.”

Councilman Brian Heady requested that McGarry find the file for the pain clinic and bring documents back to the council, including dates and names of personnel involved in approving the requests.

The council took a 10-minute break, during which McGarry looked for the documents.

“The information could not be found at this present time,” Mayor Kevin Sawnick informed the council and the public after the break.

McGarry said the change of use request was approved two months ago and the fee was paid a couple of weeks ago. Heady made a public records request for all the documents regarding the new pain clinic.

“The enemy is switching their tactics,” said Vitunac, reiterating a statement made by Dr. Harold Cordner from the public podium that pain clinic proprietors have gotten creative and are now opening up “urgent care centers” to try to stay under the radar.

Vitunac said he would meet with Dr. Cordner, a beachside resident and leader on this issue, to see if the city’s pending ordinance could be improved.

He said there might also be some resources to be gleaned from staffers in Tallahassee who have spent years researching the problem.

“This is truly a statewide issue, this is not a Vero Beach issue,” Vitunac said.

Daige made a motion that all the licenses and permits that have been issued to the business at 1146 21st St. be revoked. Heady seconded the motion for discussion.

“The intent that Mr. Daige is trying to convey is clear – that we want to stop any further anything by anyone,” Heady said.

The council approved a moratorium for 30 days from accepting any new applications related to pain clinics.

“This gives us a safety net to take care of this,” Daige said.

Gabbard said he has met with Police Chief Don Dappen about the problem of pain clinics and that the police department would be exercising all possible options in investigating pain clinic operations.

“We’re going to be on top of it and I will deal with it,” Gabbard said.

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