NEW PORT RICHEY — As executive director of Greater New Port Richey Main Street, Judy DeBella Thomas filed an application last month to sell alcohol at an upcoming event put on by her organization.
As a City Council member, Thomas voted with her colleagues Tuesday to approve the application bearing her signature.
Was her vote a conflict of interest?
Thomas, who was elected in April, said Wednesday she had no idea.
"Quite honestly, I didn't even think about it," she said after the Pasco Times raised the issue.
City Attorney Tom Morrison, who might have advised her about whether to vote, was three seats away from her at Tuesday night's meeting. He said this Wednesday:
Morrison went on to say that he had not connected the application to Thomas. "I didn't pick up on that one at all," he said.
Greater New Port Richey Main Street has a roughly $45,000 annual contract with the city to market the downtown, in large part by putting on festival events such as the upcoming Main Street Blast.
The events usually generate revenue for the Main Street program, and alcohol sales can be a big part of that.
Thomas said that when she ran for City Council, Morrison told her she would need to sit out only when the council voted on the contract with the Main Street program.
"I believe he stipulated that was the one vote I need to abstain from," she said.
State law prohibits public officers from voting on measures that would provide special, private benefits to them, their relatives and business associates.
Morrison said Wednesday that he didn't think Thomas' voting on the application violated that law.
"I don't think she personally benefits from that event. My gut is that it's not a conflict," he said. "But I'd really have to study it."
Still, he said he would have probably recommended Thomas abstain, for appearances' sake.
"Usually I just tell people to stay away from that stuff," he said.
In other business, a proposal to raise street light fees failed amid a split 2-2 council vote.
Mayor Scott McPherson and council member Marilynn deChant voted against the proposal; Thomas and council member Rob Marlowe voted in favor. Deputy Mayor Bob Consalvo was out of town.
The city charges property owners a fee — on average, about $26.07 per year — to pay most of the street lighting bill, projected to be about $285,700 next year. But the fees don't cover the full cost, so the city has been using about $50,000 in general fund money to keep the lights on.
City administrators, faced with shrinking property tax revenue, had wanted to raise the street light fees enough to cover the full bill.
Raising the fee by another $5.76 a year on a typical property owner would have generated an extra $51,700. Now city officials must take the money from the general fund or find it elsewhere.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.