Public hearing in limbo as Vero Councilman Heady butts heads with legal counsel

VERO BEACH — Vero Beach City Attorney has signed papers activating his pension and the city’s outside counsel Helen Scott has advised that Charles Vitunac still had the right to quit, but Councilman Brian Heady wants to go forward with Tuesday’s public hearing.

Heady delivered a two-page typed letter Thursday to Mayor Jay Kramer, via the City Clerk, urging Kramer not to cancel the scheduled 9 a.m. meeting.

“The public hearing in question was scheduled at the request of Mr. Vocelle’s client Charles P. Vitunac for the purpose of having an opportunity to publicly hear issues relating to a preliminary resolution that effects the termination of the former City Attorney,” Heady states.

The difference between termination and voluntary separation from the city means, for Vitunac, about $35,000.

City policy allows employees who resign or retire to get paid for more banked sick time than employees who are terminated.

If the retirement holds up, Vitunac will walk away with about $92,000 in banked time. The figure he would get if terminated is about $57,000.

Regardless, Vitunac will also collect his city pension, which added to his pension from serving as Indian River County Attorney for 15 years adds up to about $75,000 per year.

The controversy over the public hearing began to emerge on Wednesday and prompted the city to ask attorney Helen Scott for an opinion on the matter.

Scott cited one court case on a related issue, where the courts had forced the Mirimar City Commission to give a retired mayor pension benefits, though the City Commission had disbanded the pension plan as financially unsound, because the mayor had relied upon the fact that he would be receiving a pension.

“I found nothing else in the sources I researched that answered your question in the affirmative,” Scott wrote.

Scott said that, in her opinion, based upon a review of the city’s pension plan and policies, that “It grants Mr. Vitunac the right to retire at any time provided he is vested and is otherwise eligible for retirement.”

“You have asked whether the City Council’s pending action to terminate Mr. Vitunac would trump Mr. Vitunac’s ability to retire before the City Council can take final action on the Resolution. It is my opinion that it would not,” Scott wrote.

Heady disagrees and said the city should pass the final resolution to terminate Vitunac to eliminate any possibility that he could change his mind.

Vitunac has not submitted a letter of resignation under his own signature, only the form to schedule his “retirement” for March 11 and to activate his pension.

“One could argue in legal terms the passing of the resolution in the first instance was and is constructive termination,” Heady wrote. “That is to say the City Attorney has already been terminated and we are awaiting any defeince from Mr. Vitunac which could sway votes and reverse the prior decision.”

So for Heady, according to the letter, the public hearing is akin to an appeal of the termination. He said on Thursday that he feels this is supported by the fact that Vitunac cleaned out his office and turned in his keys, his key card and his city credit card on Sunday, Feb. 6 after the first vote to terminate him, that his attorney later said was “fatally flawed.

“Vitunac’s attorney, Louis B. ‘Buck’ Vocelle, has maintained throughout the whole ordeal, now in its sixth week, that Vitunac is still the City Attorney.

Heady and Councilman Craig Fletcher, who switched his vote and joined the majority on the second vote to fire Vitunac, have said publicly that Vitunac “abandoned his post.”

Only Mayor Kramer can call or cancel a special meeting of the City Council. A decision on whether or not to cancel Tuesday’s meeting is expected today or Monday at the latest.

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