NEW PORT RICHEY — Fire Chief Alex Onishenko drove by the old Harbinger House on March 6 and saw an unusual number of construction vehicles outside the empty building that once housed troubled boys.
Onishenko called a code enforcement officer, and inside they found all kinds of activity underway: electrical work, fire sprinkler installation, old walls being rebuilt, new ones going up. All without the required building permits.
City officials knew there was a new tenant. Advanced Research Institute, a Trinity-based company that conducts clinical trials for pharmaceuticals, had told the city of its plans and the high-paying jobs it would bring to New Port Richey in a coveted "target industry." It signed a lease Jan. 23 on the property at 6716 Congress St., which had private rooms that could accommodate patients requiring overnight stays. ARI hoped to have clinical trials under way by mid February.
But they hit a wall on the zoning. The site is zoned for residential use. City attorneys said ARI would be operating a clinical laboratory that needs office zoning.
ARI's chief operating officer, Adam J. Randall, sent an email Jan. 30 to City Council member Rob Marlowe, expressing frustration over hitting "a bit of a snag with the zoning!"
"Councilwoman Judy DeBella Thomas works for us as well and she is even very surprised that there is any resistance due to the amount of positive impact we will have on the City, though she cannot get involved as we all feel it would be a conflict of interest," Randall's email said.
But in the dustup after March 6, when city officials red-tagged the site and fined the contractor $513 for working without building permits, DeBella Thomas weighed in after all — raising questions about a possible conflict of interest in her dual roles as council member and ARI employee.
"I think I would be remiss as a council member if I didn't provide input encouraging a business like this in the city," DeBella Thomas told the Tampa Bay Times. "But it's not my business. I am nothing other than an employee of the company. In this situation we are in right now, there is no financial gain for me."
• • •
The same day officials cited the contractor, City Manager John Schneiger sent an email about the incident to all City Council members, including DeBella Thomas, who works as ARI's marketing and enrollment liaison. Her job is to call pharmaceutical companies and offer ARI's services conducting clinical trials.
In the flurry of correspondence that followed, ARI attorney Barbara Wilhite sent a March 12 email to Schneiger — copied to all council members — explaining there had been "miscommunication by the engineering firm engaged to obtain the necessary permits." (City officials note the contractor only had a demolition permit.)
As to the larger zoning issue, Wilhite wrote that the "cleanest and most simple way to expedite a resolution" would be for the city to amend its comprehensive plan and zoning code to allow a medical research facility in the existing zoning on the Harbinger House site.
Two hours later DeBella Thomas sent an email telling Schneiger she was reviewing communications on the matter. "I do believe it is important that we work together on this to come up with an amenable solution, as this is a target industry for us to have at this site," she wrote.
The next day, Schneiger emailed the city's development director, Lisa Fierce: "Just talked with Judy. She is wanting the CEO to meet with me." Then he added: "It's like we are on different planets at this point."
Schneiger told the Times he was referring to the fact that city officials wanted ARI to file a rezoning request, while the company continued to press for a change in the code that would expand the list of allowed uses on the site to include a medical research facility.
Schneiger said changing the code to accommodate specific companies is a bad idea.
"Where do you draw the line when you start making exceptions? I don't think it would be in the best interest of the city. That was something I didn't feel comfortable doing," Schneiger told the Times.
Schneiger said ARI officials have since pledged to apply for the zoning change.
"All efforts are being made to appropriately identify and move forward with any requirements," ARI chief executive officer Susan Randall wrote in an email to the Times.
• • •
DeBella Thomas sent another email March 12 that raised eyebrows at City Hall.
This email, sent from her ARI account, went to people who had attended a grand opening of a different medical facility a few weeks earlier. DeBella Thomas spoke of the importance of networking within the medical community, then went on to describe the work of ARI and its need for volunteers for the clinical trials.
Attached was a flier for a clinical trial on a diabetes medication. It listed ARI's address at 6716 Congress St. — the still-empty building where contractors had been red-tagged the week before.
The email signature said:
Judy DeBella Thomas, Councilwoman
Marketing & Enrollment Liaison
Advanced Research Institute, Inc.
The email bounced around City Hall before Schneiger forwarded it to the city's attorneys.
"Please see flyer and last e-mail where council-woman Debella Thomas is using her position on Council as part of her work product with ARI," Schneiger wrote to the attorneys.
"My thing was just to make them aware of it," Schneiger told the Times. "I really did it to protect her. I think she has good intentions, but I think she's in a difficult position being on council and working for this company."
It's not the first time DeBella Thomas has faced questions of a conflict of interest. When she was first elected in 2008, she was working as executive director of Greater New Port Richey Main Street, an organization that receives city funding to promote downtown. As director she applied for an alcohol permit for Main Street Blast; as council member she voted to approve it.
DeBella Thomas pointed out then that she didn't personally benefit from the permit. But the issue became more complicated in the fall of 2010, when the council was deadlocked 2-2 on continuing funding to Main Street. She chose to resign from Main Street so she would no longer have to recuse herself from the vote. She cast the deciding vote preserving Main Street funding.
In June 2011 she found a new job with ARI. When she was hired there, DeBella Thomas told the Times, CEO Randall asked her to include her councilwoman title on her ARI emails.
"She just told me it's just a matter of respecting the office and the position," DeBella Thomas said.
Randall told the Times: "We thought it was appropriate to include Ms. Thomas' title since she is a sitting councilwoman."
Assistant City Attorney Jim Lang said his office has viewed the March 12 email, but he declined to comment on the situation, citing attorney-client privilege. DeBella Thomas said Friday she received word from Schneiger that the city attorney found the councilwoman tag on the email a "non-issue."
What about listing the Congress Street address on the flier for a medical trial now accepting patients?
"That's where the clinical trial will eventually be, so that's why it was on there," DeBella Thomas said.
• • •
All wrangling aside, it appears all the players involved want to see ARI come to the city.
Schneiger and other city officials emphasize the company just needs to go through the proper process. But the promise of such a facility hasn't been lost on them.
ARI executive assistant Deana Faria sent an email in January to Fierce, the city development director, citing the support of U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis' office for the project. In the weeks that followed, as the project remained mired in zoning disputes, a couple of officials with the Pasco Economic Development Council sent emails to the city hoping to nudge the project along.
"I know you guys will come to the right conclusion," John Hagen, the president and CEO of Pasco EDC, wrote in a Feb. 7 email to Schneiger. "There are a lot of communities that would kill for a company like this."