By Dan Moffett
South Palm Beach Town Manager Bob Vitas returned from a vacation in Europe thinking he would resolve the last details of his new contract at the Oct. 24 council meeting.
Instead it turned out to be his last council meeting.
In a swift and surprising move, the Town Council unanimously voted to fire Vitas without explanation or stated cause. The vote for a resolution of “no confidence” was 4-0, with Councilwoman Lucille Flagello absent.
The council gave Vitas 15 minutes to clean out his desk, and he left the building without comment, escorted by Police Chief Carl Webb.
“What just happened?” a resident in the audience asked.
“He was the best town manager we’ve ever had,” said one longtime town employee.
Another employee left the room in tears. A police officer shook his head and muttered a vulgarity. Vitas recently negotiated a new contract for the department that won glowing reviews from officers — and for that matter, council members.
“It’s been very difficult. We will move forward,” Mayor Bonnie Fischer said. “Bob did a lot of fine things for our town. But we decided to move on, and we wish him well. This is business. It’s nothing personal.”
Vitas said later that he thought he had the council’s support until the day before the meeting, when he called Fischer and detected a change in tone. Then he received an email from Councilwoman Stella Gaddy Jordan that said she intended to introduce the no-confidence motion.
“That came out of the blue,” Vitas said. “There are no grounds, no basis for this.”
Jordan declined to comment on the record but said she has received congratulations from residents for “doing what needed to be done.”
Vitas conceded that relations with the council, Jordan in particular, have grown more contentious during the past year. Hired in October 2015, the former Key West manager earned enthusiastic praise from the council during his first year in South Palm Beach before things began to sour in 2017.
Vitas said most of the problems have been about money. During budget talks, he told the council he believed he was entitled to consideration for a merit raise, auto allowance and cost-of-living adjustment to his $103,000-a-year salary. Led by Jordan’s opposition, the council balked and ignored his requests.
Vitas, 60, said he believes the council violated the town charter and his contract by not giving him a performance evaluation, despite his repeated requests for one.
“There’s no doubt they’re in violation,” Vitas said.
In recent weeks, the council’s complaints fell on smaller issues. Councilwoman Elvadianne Culbertson criticized Vitas for preventing her from making editorial changes to a story in the town’s newsletter.
Interim Town Attorney Glen Torcivia said the contract Vitas signed two years ago allows for no severance pay and no allowance for termination without notice. He leaves with nothing.
“I believe that my efforts over the past two years have resulted in a local government that today is fiscally responsible, transparent, accountable and efficient in delivery of our services to the public,” Vitas said in a written statement to the town, prepared before the meeting — a statement that also said, “The Town Council has been supportive and complimentary of my efforts.”
Fischer said the town will begin the search immediately for a new manager. Until it finds one, Clerk Maylee De Jesus and Webb will oversee the town’s day-to-day business. It will be the third search in the past three years.
In late 2014, the town hired Jim Pascale of Princeton, N.J., as manager. Six months later he resigned after disputes with the council. The town then went five months without an administrator until hiring Vitas.
In September, the council accepted the resignation of Town Attorney Brad Biggs, who had held the job for 11 years. Biggs was forced out of the position after months of testy relations with the council, including several public clashes with Jordan.
Also, Town Accountant Beatrice Galeano resigned late last year after 14 years of service. Co-workers said problems dealing with the council contributed to her exit.Ú