NEW PORT RICHEY — Wary of running afoul of state law, the City Council will seek legal advice about searching for a new permanent city manager — or not.
At a special meeting Tuesday evening, Mayor Scott McPherson raised the concern that the city could be responsible for reimbursing the state if it rehires Tom O'Neill as city manager without properly honoring his 30-day retirement.
O'Neill, who has worked for the city for 35 years, had to retire two weeks ago because he had enrolled five years ago in the state retirement program when he was still public works director.
At issue now is a controversial loophole in state law that allows public employes to return to their old jobs after 30 days, eventually collecting both a salary and their monthly pension — a process known as double-dipping.
O'Neill would also collect a lump-sum retirement payment of $192,278.
McPherson said he feared the city could be responsible for returning that money if there were the appearance that the council was holding O'Neill's job for him for these 30 days.
"The thing that really concerns me is if it doesn't pass the smell test, if they resign and the council does nothing and they just walk back in after a calendar month," McPherson said. "The last thing in the world that I want to see happen is to be up here explaining to residents why the city has to cut a check for $200,000."
The mayor presented the council with a legal advisory from a similar case in the city of Live Oak, where the attorney general said the city could be liable for returning the retirement payment of a worker who was rehired.
Although he practices law, McPherson reminded the council that he is not the city attorney. McPherson recommended asking City Attorney Thomas Morrison to advise the council on the issue, and the council agreed.
Morrison was not present Tuesday evening.
Council member Rob Marlowe originally said it would be more cost effective to rehire a tested veteran than to search for new candidates, but after hearing the mayor's concerns, he suggested the council could advertise the position.
"I don't believe it should be a slam dunk that he just waltzes back in here on the 31st day," Marlowe said of O'Neill. "But it would be a gross waste of taxpayer money to hire someone to do a nationwide search."
McPherson said he wanted to have an honest discussion about how the council should handle the city manager vacancy.
"I have better things to do with my time than to play games of charades with my fellow council members," he said.
McPherson added that while it has never been the case that there was a backroom deal to hold O'Neill's job for him, "frankly, we do all want him back."
But some residents said they were unhappy with the council's handling of the issue.
"I'm very concerned about this because I don't like the impropriety factor and the ethics involved," said resident Catherine Fata. "It sounds like you've all given him the rubber stamp of let's rehire him and it's a pain to look at other candidates."
Though the meeting concerned his fate, O'Neill did not attend because he has to stay out of city business for the duration of his retirement.
On a related matter, the council voted unanimously to allow Jeff Sutton to continue as interim city manager for up to six months even though he lives outside the city limits. City law requires the city manager to live in the city unless the council makes such an exception.