Tuesday, February 20, 2018
News Roundup

City managers grab headlines in Port Richey, New Port Richey

The city manager positions in Port Richey and New Port Richey garnered the spotlight this year as one city dealt with scandal while the other struggled to find a permanent top administrator.

In Port Richey, the City Council voted in September to suspend City Manager Tom O'Neill for 30 days after prosecutors charged him with driving under the influence during the summer. He also agreed to seek treatment for substance abuse.

A State Attorney's Office report stated O'Neill had a blood alcohol level of 0.367 — more than four times the level at which Florida law presumes a driver impaired — after he was taken to the hospital July 13 when a New Port Richey police officer found him asleep behind the wheel of his sport utility vehicle.

Police did not follow through with a DUI investigation, but prosecutors took up the case after a dashboard camera video of the incident surfaced showing O'Neill with his arms draped over paramedics' shoulders as he was helped to the back of his SUV. He was unable to perform sobriety tests at the scene, according to the police report.

During a council meeting following the charge, O'Neill kept his job, receiving support from a majority of the board, with the exception of council member Terry Rowe, who called for him to be fired.

O'Neill and Rowe also clashed on the most significant legislation the council passed this year. O'Neill pushed for most of the year to raise the city's water rates in order to repair an aging infrastructure and cover the cost of water being purchased from New Port Richey after Port Richey officials discovered salt water intrusion in the city's wells, causing a brown water outbreak.

Rowe opposed the rate increases and warned there would be backlash from the public. As the year came to an end, many customers expressed outraged that their bills skyrocketed hundreds of dollars in some cases. In response, during its final meeting of the year, the council voted to reduce customer's bill on a one-time basis.

In New Port Richey, just finding a permanent city manager has proved difficult. The position has been open for more than a year while Library Director Susan Dillinger serves on an interim basis.

The City Council opened up searches for a city manager twice, but the board was unhappy with the applicant pool both times. The council is likely to try again in January and has discussed getting a consultant's help.

Meanwhile, Dillinger has made some major policy decisions. In September, she fired the city's finance director, Doug Haag, and human resources director, Lindy Thomas, but refused to divulge why.

Following the firings, Dillinger convinced the council to allow her to combine the two positions and create an economic development manager job. She eventually hired former New Port Richey Mayor and Pasco County Commissioner Peter Altman as finance/human resources director and Mario Iezzoni as economic development manager from the University of South Florida, where he was a business analyst for the school's Small Business Development Center and an adjunct professor.

New Port Richey's animal control program made news in 2013, mostly because of ongoing problems.

Early in the year, the city entered an agreement with SPCA Suncoast to house the program on the nonprofit's Congress Street site. But the SPCA booted the city in March, saying parvovirus had spread from the kennels on loan to the city into its main facility, killing several dogs.

The City Council signed off on a plan to temporarily move the animals to rented kennels in Land O'Lakes. That move caused numerous volunteers to pull out of the program because of the distance, and some former volunteers publicly accused volunteer director Sharon McReynolds of mishandling animals — accusations she denied and the city declared unfounded. The council finally decided to shut down the program and turn over animal control duties to Pasco County.

The year ended with the two sides working to finalize the agreement, and the city scrambling to find homes for its remaining cats and dogs.

 
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