NEW PORT RICHEY — Much to the dismay of Deputy Mayor Rob Marlowe, state ethics officials have ruled that he should recuse himself from voting on zoning changes for Advanced Research Institute.
Marlowe owns an Internet service company that provides email services to numerous clients, including ARI, a clinical drug trial company that has been operating for months without the proper land use.
ARI pays Marlowe's firm about $50 a month for computer services — a tiny fraction of his client base. So he was surprised that the Florida Commission on Ethics considered ARI a client that could create a conflict of interest for him.
Marlowe said he would follow the commission's ruling, but worried that such a strict interpretation could prevent a public official from doing business with anyone.
"It puts good government on its head," he said. "It's to the point of being absurd."
The ruling, which the City Council learned about Tuesday evening, is the latest wrinkle in a case that has already sidelined council member Judy DeBella Thomas, who is the marketing and enrollment liaison for ARI.
The controversy over the business began in May, when city code enforcement cited ARI owner Susan Randall for operating at 6716 Congress St. without the proper zoning. The property — which used to hold the Harbinger House for troubled youths — is zoned for residential use, while the city found Randall needs a medical office designation.
City staff has been working with ARI's attorney to find a solution. The city has proposed amendments to help bring the business into compliance. City Council could vote on the matter as early as next month.
But the decision will rest with just three members: Mayor Bob Consalvo and council members Bill Phillips and Bob Langford.
Marlowe had asked the city attorney to seek the ethics commission's advice, since he does business with ARI.
An attorney for the commission, Betsy Daley, likened Marlowe's situation to a case in which commissioners found state law prohibited a member of a city board of adjustment from voting on variance petitions from persons who were clients of his engineering firm.
The same reasoning would apply to Marlowe because ARI, which stands to benefit from the zoning ordinance amendment, would be considered a customer or client of Marlowe's company, she wrote.
Marlowe said he will recuse himself from ARI votes, as will DeBella Thomas, who told the Times after the meeting she would continue to do so due to her employment there.
"I hope I don't have to stop going to my hairdresser, though," she said of the ethics ruling.
A hearing on ARI is scheduled today for the city's Land Development Review Board, according to Interim City Manager Susan Dillinger. After that, any recommendation made by the board would go before council for a vote.