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2010 in review: Port Richey endured a year notable for its noise

Noise code debate: Managers of Rum River in Port Richey bought Radio Shack sound level meters to keep from violating the city’s noise ordinance, which prohibits “amplified sound” outdoors. However, bars weren’t the only noise generators in 2010.

BRENDAN FITTERER | Times

Noise code debate: Managers of Rum River in Port Richey bought Radio Shack sound level meters to keep from violating the city’s noise ordinance, which prohibits “amplified sound” outdoors. However, bars weren’t the only noise generators in 2010.

PORT RICHEY — On a Friday in September, as diners at the Crab Shack ate fried fish and listened to classic rock, a police officer walked past them to lay down the law.

The crime? The tiki-hutted eatery on the Cotee River's coast was playing music outside — a violation of the city's noise code. The ticket would cost $65. Over the next few days, the officer returned to write three more.

"You can't have a stereo outside," Crab Shack owner Perry Palumbo said. "It's like having a city that says no dancing. Have you seen that movie?"

Calling the law unfair and overreaching, protesters packed City Hall for what council members said was their biggest turnout in years. The owner of Catches said the sound ban had driven away $10,000 in business. A local attorney floated the possibility of a lawsuit. And a booking agent who arranges for live music at restaurants called the law insane, adding, "Are they going to tell them they can't use blenders to make margaritas?"

Two weeks later, the council pushed for a compromise to let businesses turn their speakers back on. But the city's year of noisy disagreements — fiery speeches, a few lawsuits, even the police chief's suggestion of swinging "a 2 by 4" at a council member — was far from over.

The year began with a rocky start when James Ruland, a Port Richey police officer, was arrested by U.S. marshals for selling more than 1,000 oxycodone painkillers while on duty in February. Drug Enforcement Administration agents had coordinated the sting at his home in Spring Hill, where Ruland, a detective and internal-affairs investigator, was recorded unloading the pills. Ruland was sentenced in October to three years in prison.

As the case wound its way through federal court, the city police faced another scandal, this time over allegations the department engaged in a culture of "cronyism and corruption." Former police Chief Bill Sager and former public works director Herbert "Rocky" Schmidt filed suit against city leaders in April, claiming they were chastised, intimidated and ultimately fired after their bosses accused them of subversion.

Sager's boss, Chief Dave Brown, was the one who mentioned swinging a "2 by 4" at former council member Phil Abts. Brown and city utilities director Pat Stewart's voiced frustrations at Abts' records requests were caught on tape, included in a request by the St. Petersburg Times and published in March. Brown later apologized.

Abts left the council in April after choosing not to run for re-election. Longtime City Clerk Shirley Dresch left the city in April, too, for retirement. She was replaced by City Clerk Tammy Schuck. Abts and former council member Perry Bean were replaced by council newcomer Terry Rowe and returning council member Nancy Britton.

New council members take aim at manager

Within months, the two newest members had become the council's biggest critics of City Manager Ellen Posivach, whose salary, travel and expenses they repeatedly called into question. They said Posivach's six-figure compensation, sporadic work hours and city-sponsored conference trips were too taxing on the city's tight budget.

Their anger boiled over in November, when during a heated council meeting they called for Posivach's termination. That motion failed without the support of Mayor Richard Rober, Vice Mayor Steven O'Neill and member Bill Colombo.

"I've honestly lost trust," Britton said. "It'd be like a girlfriend telling you she had an affair. What do you do, pat her on the back and tell her everything will be okay?"

Rober faced his own line of questioning from the buyers of his former utility company, Gator Water and Wastewater Management Inc., when they accused Rober of skimming $500,000 of company funds into a personal account hidden from the IRS. Representatives from Florida Utility Group Holdings, which sued Rober, say that amounts to tax fraud.

In a deposition, Rober acknowledged not paying taxes on company money, but his attorney said the suit's claims were "speculative and unrealized." That lawsuit remains open.

Rober's utility experience was called on extensively this summer as the city debated changing its water and wastewater rates for the first time since 2002. That bump added onto what members called residents' financial "triple whammy," which included increases in property taxes and a revived electricity franchise fee.

The council, which at first resisted any increase, ultimately argued that its water system needed as much help as it could get. The millions invested in wells five years ago weren't meeting expectation; the city remained dependent on regional supplier Tampa Bay Water; and the unchanged water rate meant the city lost money with every gallon.

But for all the setbacks, the city did gain ground in one literal way — by buying a tract of waterfront land to be used for its long-stalled dredging project. The council said the $195,000 property just east of the U.S. 19 bridge could hold muck raked from the floors of the city's canals.

Members said in April that the purchase was crucial to seeing the dredge completed. Officials continue to work toward permitting the project.

"We analyze things to the point of paralysis," former council member Dale Massad said in April. "If history has taught us anything in this dredge it's that if you hesitate, you lose."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 869-6244 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

2010 in review: Port Richey endured a year notable for its noise 12/31/10 [Last modified: Friday, December 31, 2010 6:14pm]

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