New Port Richey's likely choice of interim manager lives outside city limits

NEW PORT RICHEY — Jeff Sutton, the city's longtime personnel director, seemed the natural choice to fill in as top administrator after Tom O'Neill "retired" last week.

But there is one problem: He does not live in the city limits, a possible violation of the city charter's residency requirement.

Mayor Scott McPherson raised concerns after he noticed the residency requirement for city managers while studying the charter.

Next week, the City Council will meet to consider waiving the residency requirement, an authorization that is allowed under the charter.

"It's certainly something we can cure," McPherson said.

Sutton, who has lived just outside the city limits for about nine years, said he hadn't even thought about the requirement because he assumed it did not apply to him. The charter does not say acting city managers must live in the city.

"It's open to interpretation," he said.

McPherson said his concern is that Sutton is actually an interim city manager, because O'Neill technically retired, and thus Sutton is subject to the requirements laid out in the charter.

O'Neill had to retire last week because he had enrolled five years ago in the Florida Retirement System's Deferred Retirement Option Program, or DROP. Due to a controversial loophole in state law, however, O'Neill could return to his old job after 30 days. After a year back, he would start collecting his monthly pension in addition to his salary — a practice known as "double-dipping." Many also collect a lump-sum "retirement'' payment.

City Council members have said they want to rehire O'Neill after the 30 days, and O'Neill has said he wants to come back.

In previous interviews, O'Neill has pointed out that when he entered the retirement program five years ago, he was the city's public works director and figured he would finish his career there. When the previous city manager left in 2007, O'Neill decided to pursue that post.

McPherson said Wednesday that he does want to discuss whether to advertise the city manager's position. That issue will be on a work session scheduled for next Tuesday.

"I'm very satisfied with the way Tom has done his job," said McPherson. But the public outcry over the double-dipping practice has persuaded him to consider whether to hire someone else.

"It's best to at least engage the public," he said.

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

New Port Richey's likely choice of interim manager lives outside city limits 06/03/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 3, 2009 9:20pm]

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