Vero Beach City Attorney Vitunac requests hearing, probes possible Sunshine violation

VERO BEACH — After two votes to fire him and a request for $88,000 severance which has fallen on deaf ears with the Vero Beach City Council, tenuously employed City Attorney Charles Vitunac has requested a public hearing and council members’ telephone records.

Vitunac, through his attorney Louis B. “Buck” Vocelle, sent a letter Thursday to the city exercising his right under the city charter to a public hearing of his termination.

Vitunac has proposed a settlement allowing him to resign instead of being involuntarily terminated and paying him eight months of his salary, in exchange for going away quietly.

City Council members, who voted 5-0 on Feb. 15 to terminate Vitunac, have expressed no interest in spending what amounts to $5 for every man, woman and child in the City of Vero Beach on a severance package that is not in the city budget.

Vocelle included in his letter Thursday a public records request for the emails and telephone records of three council members – Councilwoman Tracy Carroll, Vice Mayor Pilar Turner and Councilman Brian Heady – and gave as a reason the suspicion of a possible violation of the Florida Sunshine Act.

Vocelle’s letter pinpoints a question posed by Councilwoman Carroll to Vice Mayor Turner during a Feb. 10 special call meeting scheduled to address the issue of Vitunac’s claims and possible problems with the Feb. 1 resolution.

Carroll questioned Turner about a meeting she had with Vitunac prior to the Feb. 1 vote and asked whether or not Vitunac offered Turner any advice about how to go about putting a legal and proper Preliminary Resolution to Terminate on the city council agenda.

During that same meeting, it was made clear by Councilman Brian Heady that he felt Vitunac neglected his duties as City Attorney by not giving the City Council proper advice on what Vitunac’s attorney later called a “fatally flawed” action.

Vocelle is claiming it would not be possible for Carroll to have knowledge of the meeting without some communication with Turner, which would not be allowed under the Florida Sunshine Act.

“Because Mr. Vitunac did not discuss with councilwoman Carroll his January meeting with councilwoman Turner, and because no one other than Mr. Vitunac and Ms. Turner were present at the meeting, please provide all communications between councilwomen Carroll and Turner, including writings, memorandums, electronic documents, emails, voice recordings and cell phone records as set forth above which would indicate how and when Ms. Turner communicated the substance of said meeting to Ms. Carroll.”

In the lead-up to the Feb. 1 vote both Vice Mayor Turner and Vitunac discussed the private meeting with various members of the media. At least two accounts of their statements were published in news stories previewing the Feb. 1 City Council vote to fire Vitunac.

On Jan. 27, published a story under the headline “Vero Beach Council to discuss removing City Attorney Vitunac” in which it was reported that Vice Mayor Turner had notified Vitunac she was placing the resolution to terminate him on the Feb. 1 agenda.

“I didn’t want him to be blindsided,” Turner was quoted as saying.

The morning of the Feb. 1 meeting, the local daily paper published an article citing statements from Vitunac confirming that Vice Mayor Turner had called him to her office and notified him that she intended to ask for his removal.

Vocelle is asking for not only city email and records of calls into the city and city-provided cell phones, but also any private telephones that City Council members Turner, Carroll and Heady might use to “conduct city business” from Jan. 1 through Feb. 14.

It is unclear why Heady was included in the request, except that he was the third vote on Feb. 1 to fire Vitunac.

As Vocelle’s letter was received after close of business on Thursday, it is unknown if processing the request would delay the schedule for Vitunac’s public hearing.

The Vero Beach City Charter states that a public hearing of the termination of a charter officer shall take place no less than 20 days but no more than 30 days after a vote by the council to remove that charter officer.

The earliest that hearing could take place on a business day would be Monday, March 7.

The Feb. 15 vote came two weeks after the first 3-2 vote to fire Vitunac on Feb. 1. Vitunac claimed the Preliminary Resolution to Terminate was “fatally flawed” and, after meeting with local attorney Helen Scott for advice the City Council voted on a completely new resolution, which was properly advertised and signed off on by city staff for legal sufficiency.

Also on Feb. 15 the council declared null and void the Feb. 1 measure, a move which Acting City Attorney Wayne Coment had said would be a “cure” for Vitunac’s claims.

At the time, Interim City Manager Monte Falls said the Feb. 15 votes were recommended “in an abundance of caution.”

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