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Former Port Richey manager sues city, Legg for defamation

PORT RICHEY — Nearly two years ago, state Rep. John Legg publicly blasted the idea of Port Richey paying a controversial severance package to outgoing City Manager Ellen Posivach.

Now she is suing him for it, saying Legg damaged her reputation with his statements.

Posivach had been under fire at the time, with Port Richey City Council members accusing her of working too much from her Tarpon Springs home and taking expensive trips on the city's dime. (She had faced similar criticisms when she served as city manager of Tarpon Springs, a post she resigned in 2008 under pressure from city commissioners who accused her of abusing her compensatory time.)

The pressure mounted in Port Richey until the council fired Posivach in February 2011, saying she had made two high-dollar equipment purchases without the board's consent.

But prior to her firing, Posivach and the city had already started talking about parting ways, with Posivach seeking to receive a nearly $90,000 payout. The amount came from a mix of benefits — $33,856 in severance pay, $42,397 in vacation and sick time and $14,303 in compensatory time — spelled out in her contract. (City officials later declined to give Posivach a penny.)

After hearing media accounts of those initial talks, Legg weighed in with his take:

"It is my opinion that agreeing to give a severance package worth nearly $90,000 to a city employee who you have been quoted as saying works from City Hall 'two or three days a week,' and who has neither tendered a resignation nor been terminated is irresponsible," Legg wrote then-Mayor Richard Rober on Jan. 27, 2011.

Later statements Legg made to the media decrying the contract, as well as a public records request his staff made to investigate the matter, amounted to misuse of state employees' time and libel damaging to Posivach's reputation, according to a lawsuit filed last month by Tarpon Springs attorney John Shahan.

The lawsuit is against Legg as well as the city of Port Richey and three City Council members.

"The statements made by the defendant, John Legg, were false and were made with actual express malice, and were motivated by his interest in serving political purposes benefitting his political career," Shahan wrote.

On Wednesday, Legg, who won a state Senate seat during the August primaries, scoffed at the lawsuit, saying he had no regrets over getting involved in an issue affecting his Port Richey constituents. Posivach referred questions to Shahan, who did not return phone calls seeking comment.

"I kind of wear it as a badge of honor," Legg said of the lawsuit. "It's obviously a frivolous lawsuit that unfortunately is going to cost the taxpayers money. I would write a letter any day of the week against golden parachutes that allow ineffective bureaucrats to be bailed out."

Posivach's lawsuit also accuses Port Richey of breach of contract, as city officials decided not to pay her any severance, upon the advice of their labor attorney. The suit accuses council members Terry Rowe and Nancy Britton, and former council member Phil Abts, of defamation.

After the flap over Posivach's work habits, the City Council began looking into charges she had violated the city's charter by making the two expensive emergency equipment purchases without consulting the council. During that time, members of the City Council through the media published "false defamatory allegations of unethical and financial impropriety against" Posivach, the lawsuit states.

In Rowe's case, the lawsuit says, he falsely accused Posivach of "hiding audit information" when in fact she had provided that information to the council during a meeting.

Rowe and Britton declined Tuesday to comment on the lawsuit, citing the advice of City Attorney Joseph Poblick. Poblick said he does not comment on pending litigation.

Former Port Richey manager sues city, Legg for defamation 09/26/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 26, 2012 9:44pm]
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