BROOKSVILLE — When County Commission Chairman Jim Adkins opened Tuesday's meeting, he said Commissioner Jeff Stabins would be absent because he had some "issues.''
Adkins specifically was referring to an e-mail that Stabins had sent that morning explaining his absence, but he just as well could have been commenting on the veteran commissioner's increasingly erratic behavior in recent months.
Stabins, known to friends and colleagues as a jokester, seems to have taken his antics to a new level, which is causing concern about his health and mental well-being.
"Jeff has always been a card, always had an odd sense of humor,'' said Commissioner John Druzbick, who has known Stabins for 20 years and worked on his first campaign when he ran for the state House. "But Jeff is not Jeff any more. There is obviously something wrong.''
Commissioner Dave Russell said he has been worried about Stabins' state of mind in recent months, and the e-mail sent to the board Tuesday "went well beyond the eccentricities we've all become accustomed to.''
Russell said that the job wears on commissioners.
"It is tough on all of us, mentally stressful,'' he said. "It may have taken its toll on Jeff.''
But Stabins insisted to the St. Petersburg Times on Thursday that he is fine, other than dealing with severe pain from intestinal blockage in recent weeks and from exhaustion.
While he has announced he won't seek re-election next year, Stabins said he has no intention of quitting his job as commissioner. He will, however, miss Tuesday's budget workshop because he is still in New York with family and he could not get a cheap fare to fly home until Wednesday.
Stabins added that the personal speculation about his well-being doesn't bother him.
Asked about public comments and private speculation that he might be drinking or taking drugs, Stabins replied, "People like to talk. They talk about me when I'm there. They talk about me when I'm not there. That's the nature of politics.''
Stabins has a history of difficulty with alcohol. In 1985, he admitted in New York to driving while impaired by alcohol. In 1996, when he was a state representative, Stabins was charged with DUI and convicted of reckless driving.
He also has made it a habit to take on high-profile county and community leaders, including former Sheriff Richard Nugent, Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai and Chief Judge Daniel Merritt.
His latest target is County Administrator David Hamilton, whom he gave a positive review recently in his annual evaluation only to then write him a scathing eight-page letter accusing him of cronyism and calling his managerial style "cavalier, conniving and cold-hearted.''
Stabins has had county staff prepare a DVD, including a Star Wars-style introduction. It shows the contentious 2007 budget hearings and the commission's interview with Hamilton when he sought employment in early 2008. Stabins said he wanted to show how Hamilton had not kept his promises.
He serenaded fellow Commissioner Rose Rocco at her last meeting and recently has been popping up in government and business offices in eccentric garb.
But it was his e-mail at 5 a.m. Tuesday to Adkins, Hamilton, community relations coordinator Brenda Frazier and County Attorney Garth Coller, copied to a Times reporter, that has focused attention and concerns.
The e-mail hinted that Stabins may be dead or at least gravely ill, and continued his attack on Hamilton.
Russell asked to have the e-mail included in the official record as a courtesy to Stabins, who requested that Adkins read it out loud. Adkins declined the request.
When members of the audience learned the contents of the e-mail, they began to whisper about whether Stabins had harmed himself. Some surmised that with his history that he was drinking or taking drugs.
Russell said his initial reaction was "honestly, concern for his health, safety and welfare,'' he said. "There are things that have concerned me about Jeff.''
In a telephone interview from his parents' home in New York on Thursday, he said he had spent a sleepless Monday night when he knew he wouldn't make the meeting.
He said he wrote the e-mail as a script for Adkins to read. "Some of it is certainly tongue in cheek but a lot of it represents how I think he may feel about things going on in the county right now.''
Adkins had read the e-mail just as the meeting was starting and said he decided not to read it out loud.
"I hope he's doing okay. It's kind of strange,'' Adkins said. "It's like what he started with Joe Stapf.''
He was referring to a posting that Stabins put on his blog, Rustystale, which is supposedly written by one of Stabins' dogs. In it, he described a fictional County Commission meeting in which a county utilities director by the name of Joe Stapf is fired.
Hernando's environmental services director, Joe Stapf, had not been fired. But the blog posting generated numerous calls to county officials. That, Adkins said, wastes valuable time, adding that the e-mail is doing the same thing.
"Telling jokes is all right,'' he said. "But it does get a little tiresome.''
Commissioner Wayne Dukes said the e-mail had him "concerned on several fronts.''
While his initial question was whether Stabins was all right, he also questioned the appropriateness of the tone.
"It's nice to bring some humor sometimes into a serious matter,'' Dukes said. But in a professional setting "if it was supposed to be humorous, it was in bad taste. I guess I'm just a little bit more serious than that.''
Stabins' latest foray into unusual behavior came just weeks after he announced that he would not be running for a third term on the commission. He said he was tired of "tilting at windmills'' because he wasn't able to accomplish what he felt he needed to on the board.
"I can't convince the board to do the right things and that includes removing David Hamilton,'' he said.
Druzbick said he has asked Stabins if he is all right and offered to help but Stabins has insisted that everything is fine.
Stabins, he added, recently has shut out many of his friends.
"Jeff has never been a quitter. If he takes a stance on something, he will try to see it through. This give-up is also a part of what is so concerning,'' Druzbick said.
Stabins said that if he had it to do over again he would likely send the e-mail despite "whatever minor damage'' it may have caused, including casting a shadow on his credibility.
"I'm so frustrated right now with my inability to effect positive change on that board that if I lost all credibility, I don't think I would give a damn,'' he said.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.