UPDATE: Vero Beach Council votes to fire City Attorney Vitunac

VERO BEACH — Three members of the Vero Beach City Council voted Tuesday that the public needs better legal representation than City Attorney Charles Vitunac has provided the city in recent years.

“Personnel matters are simply the most difficult,” said Vice Mayor Pilar Turner, adding that, while not an easy or pleasant thing to do, “It’s time to demand better counsel for our citizens.”  

Turner, who put the issue on the agenda, made the motion, seconded by Councilman Brian Heady, who called for Vitunac’s termination in 2010 but lacked three votes to do it. Councilwoman Tracy Carroll voted with Turner and Heady after a long, heated debate.

Mayor Jay Kramer and Councilman Craig Fletcher opposed, citing that Vitunac’s historical knowledge of the city’s legal entanglements outweigh some of the problems that have come to light regarding questionable contracts, sometimes untimely advice and lack of legal oversight.

Fletcher said it was “very poor timing” to cut Vitunac loose when the city is in the middle of so many complex legal issues. Kramer said he wanted to keep Vitunac for his knowledge of Vero’s contracts with the Florida Municipal Power Association.

That argument did not wash with the three who voted for the termination, because when called to task on matters where policies were not followed, Vitunac claimed ignorance of what other staff members and outside consultants and legal counsel were doing.

“I can’t be wandering around the building into everybody’s offices,” he said, trying to explain why major contractual agreements were not run by him prior to committing the city to millions, even billions of dollars over many decades.

Council members cited several examples where, in their opinion, Vitunac did not treat the City Council, or the public for that matter, as his clients to be informed and protected.

They especially took issue with the way the city’s 20-year, $2 billion contract with Orlando Utilities Commission was handled. Vitunac claimed he was kept in the dark about changes made to the contract and was only informed in November 2009 when reports began to surface in the news. Vitunac said the root of the problem was that former Utility Director R.B. Sloan didn’t show anyone the altered versions of the contract.

“If he (Sloan) had, the past three years of terror wouldn’t have happened,” Vitunac said.

Public records show that this is not the case, that multiple city officials, including Vitunac, and its hired Boston consultant team were copied on a flurry of changes passed back and forth.

Councilman Heady admitted that he’d walked into the room Tuesday thinking that he would vote no on termination, said he changed his mind because of Vitunac’s attitude of seeming disregard for his responsibilities to the city and its elected officials.

“Your attitude in this response doesn’t seem to be the attitude of an attorney working for me,” Heady said.

Vitunac, after the vote, informed the council that he would not be in attendance for the workshop scheduled after the regular council meeting. He then left the dais.

Assistant City Attorney Wayne Coment took his seat for the remainder of the meeting and the subsequent workshop.

Vitunac, 63, earns an annual benefits package of $150,000 and has worked for the City of Vero Beach since 2000, after being forced to resign from the County Attorney’s post at Indian River County.

Vitunac has no contract with the City of Vero Beach, but would exit with a sizable pension and tens of thousands of dollars in accrued sick and vacation time if terminated.

As a Charter Officer of the City of Vero Beach, Vitunac has the right to a Public Hearing. When asked if he would exercise that right, he shrugged and proceeded to the second floor of City Hall.

He has 10 days to respond to the Vero Beach City Council in writing.

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