BROOKSVILLE — Hernando County Commissioner Jeff Stabins says that within two weeks of inviting a tenant into his Spring Hill home in early March, he realized he had made a serious mistake.
Michael Garoffolo began exhibiting unstable behavior, Stabins said. So the commissioner tried to cut a deal to end their verbal agreement: I'll give you your rent money back if you'll leave.
The tenant's response, according to Stabins, was chilling.
"He told me, 'I receive mail here. This is my house. I like it here. I'm going to live here forever,' '' Stabins said last week. "Two weeks in, I realized that I had screwed up huge and I was going to have to make the best of it until I could get him out.
"I knew he had conned me.''
Stabins said his six-plus months of "trial and tribulation'' ended last week when Garoffolo gathered up his belongings and left after failing in court to get a restraining order that would have kept Stabins out of his own home.
Stabins and Garoffolo each say the other owes him money, but that's not the only disconnect in their stories.
Garoffolo said he was concerned for his safety and that it was Stabins who was unstable. He said that he had helped Stabins, cleaning up his house and yard, watching his dogs, befriending and doing work for his neighbors, all the while enduring Stabins' threats and unreasonable rules.
He finally decided to leave Tuesday when "a good friend'' of Stabins helped him move out and provided a cash "settlement,'' which neither Stabins nor Garoffolo would describe. Garoffolo declined to name the friend or say where he is staying now.
As soon as Stabins learned that Garoffolo had left, he had his locks changed and breathed a sigh of relief. But along the way, he said, stress took its toll.
He said that his ongoing conflicts with Garoffolo changed his personality, which he said explains in part the sometimes bizarre behavior the public has witnessed in recent months. He worried he had been mirroring Garoffolo's bipolar behavior. He felt ill and uncomfortable in his own home. That's one reason he has spent so much of the last few months in New York, he said.
A day after Garoffolo left, Stabins said, he had his best night of sleep in a long time. He said he felt free again — that he could focus on his job and his personal life.
"I'm just going to go on being Jeff Stabins. I am myself in New York, and there are no issues. I'm assuming with him out of my house, I'll be fine there, too,'' he said.
"It's up to me now to forge my own future.''
• • •
Long known as a card and a character, Stabins' unusual behavior escalated earlier this year, and his colleagues and the public took notice.
Over a period of months, various incidents played out, both during and away from County Commission meetings.
When County Administrator David Hamilton's choice of a manager for the Hernando Beach channel dredge upset Stabins, he sent a stinging letter, accusing Hamilton of being "cavalier, conniving and cold-hearted.''
He followed up by trying to create a DVD, outlining the "reign of David Hamilton,'' complete with music from Star Wars. His interaction with the county staff while making the DVD resulted in complaints that he had used vulgar and inappropriate language.
He has since mended fences with Hamilton.
Stabins attempted to start a new show called Memory Lane on the government broadcasting channel, but it was canceled before the first episode aired. He missed a commission workshop in April but sent along an e-mail he wanted Chairman Jim Adkins to read. The content of the memo led some to believe Stabins might have harmed himself. He later apologized.
There also has been a confusing series of announcements about Stabins' plans for his political future. First he said he would not seek a third term on the commission because he was tired of "tilting at windmills.'' Then he announced plans to run for Congress in the district in New York where he grew up and where he had just purchased a summer home.
Two weeks later, he abandoned those plans and again filed paperwork to run for re-election to the County Commission.
Most recently, Stabins blasted a constituent during a commission meeting.
Spring Hill resident Steven Langone accused Stabins of abandoning his job by spending too much time in New York.
Stabins criticized Langone for wasting county staff time with various complaints and told him to stop harassing his parents in New York unless he wanted to be "eating spaghetti out of a strainer with a spoon.''
"Is that a threat?'' Langone shot back.
Langone has filed a complaint against Stabins with the Sheriff's Office. He declined to comment further, saying the case was under investigation.
Stabins won't apologize for his outburst.
"The man is a menace. The man has wasted the time of dozens and dozens of public- and private-sector employees for months and months on issues around his house,'' he said.
Stabins said county employees congratulated him for standing up to Langone.
He said he has tried to help Langone with his issues, but that no amount of assistance seemed to satisfy him.
"People may not have liked it,'' Stabins said. "But sometimes you've just got to speak your mind … and I had gotten to the end of my rope.''
He said he knows his actions have rubbed some people the wrong way, but believes they were justified.
"In this series of events, I have done nothing wrong,'' he said. "Maybe I've been controversial, but so damn what. What's wrong with being controversial and outspoken?''
• • •
It is not the first time Stabins, 51, has been controversial or outspoken.
Throughout his political career, which includes three terms in the Florida House of Representatives, he has sparred with the leadership of the Republican Party in Hernando County.
In 1996, while in the Legislature, he landed in the headlines after being charged with DUI in Tallahassee. He later pleaded guilty to reckless driving.
His political stands on the County Commission also have drawn him into some controversy, and he said he became concerned earlier this year that some of his positions might result in retaliation.
In early March, Stabins used the Craigslist website to find a tenant to rent one of the three bedrooms in his house. Whoever applied had to like dogs.
Stabins said he was worried that his two Labrador retrievers might be at risk because of his unpopular political stances on some issues, including space needs of the county and the judiciary. He wanted someone to look after the dogs, he said, and he also was seeking to supplement his income.
Garoffolo took him up on the offer to rent a bedroom for $300 a month.
But the friction began almost immediately.
Stabins said Garoffolo would go off on an issue, sparking a verbal altercation. Then, minutes later, it would be like nothing happened.
"How did he suddenly go from berserk and a danger to himself and others to calm, cool and collected?'' Stabins said. "He could turn it on and turn it off. That was very frustrating.''
During the time Garoffolo stayed at Stabins' house, there were a half-dozen times when sheriff's deputies were called to provide assistance or deal with altercations involving Garoffolo. One of those ended with Garoffolo accusing another tenant in the house, Kaihoo Tang, of battering him.
Tang had actually made the 911 call, complaining about Garoffolo. No charges were ever brought.
Stabins said he made a mistake by ever renting a room to Garoffolo, whom he now calls "a monster'' and "a pathological liar.'' He said he's sorry he put his neighbors through the ordeal of dealing with Garoffolo.
When the Times asked Stabins whether he was aware that Garoffolo had a criminal record, Stabins said no.
For months, Stabins tried to persuade Garoffolo to leave.
"I had operated without a lawyer because I'm always trying to save a buck,'' he said.
But Stabins recently hired an attorney to direct a formal eviction.
Garoffolo's version of his life at Stabins' home is very different.
He describes a chaotic atmosphere whenever Stabins was around. Garoffolo — who said he is bipolar, disabled and on medication — accused Stabins of getting verbally abusive when he drinks. And Stabins drinks "quite often," he said.
Garoffolo said he was concerned for his safety and that's why he sought an injunction against Stabins.
Stabins said there was never any violence in the home, but he too worried for his safety in recent weeks, keeping a butcher knife in a book on his night stand.
He denied that he gets verbally abusive when he drinks, but acknowledged that he does enjoy a drink or two at the end of the day.
Stabins said he had a lapse in judgment when he brought Garoffolo into his home, and he warned other people who might rent rooms to become familiar with Florida's landlord-tenant laws, which make eviction complex and difficult.
Despite the impact that taking in Garoffolo has had on his life and the public's perception of him, Stabins maintains that he has continued to do the job voters elected him to do.
"I'm a human being who has had a rough patch,'' he said. "I'm trying to resume my normal functioning to the best of my ability. And I think I'm a good commissioner.''
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.