PORT RICHEY — Talk about tense.
Allegations of deceit, arguments among the council, sharp rebukes aimed at city leadership — Tuesday night's City Council meeting was one bitter standoff after the next.
Much of it centered around the allegations of Kevin Hamm, who served for a decade as an information-technologies manager at City Hall before his termination this month.
He accused City Manager Ellen Posivach of wasteful spending, broken protocols and the purging of public records, and said the city had not acted in good faith to provide more than a dozen public records he requested in recent weeks.
Officials fired back, calling Hamm's request excessive and unreasonable and questioning the motives of his data hunt. Mayor Richard Rober called him a "disgruntled former vendor" with an ax to grind. Posivach said Hamm's ceaseless questioning had slowed the city's operation, including the long-delayed dredge.
Some council members felt Hamm's claims deserved a closer look. Members Terry Rowe and Nancy Britton backed bringing in a third-party auditor to tackle suspicions of mismanagement.
"To sit here and not conduct an investigation on these things is criminal," Rowe said. "If we don't address these things, it looks like, 'Okay, this guy came forward with something, and now the city's going to crucify him.' "
Posivach said officials were already leading an exhaustive internal inspection and had yet to find any wrongdoing. Administrative employees asked by Posivach to speak before City Hall refuted Hamm's allegation about failing to publicly post job openings and recited the state public records law that gives no timeline for fulfilling requests. Posivach said the city was doing its best to stay transparent and responsive to criticism, but that "there's only so much you can do when you don't have the resources."
"To be accused now that we're trying to bury this is absurd," City Attorney Michael Brannigan said. "I think people are going to be disgruntled no matter what we do."
Officials said Hamm was terminated due to failures at his job. Hamm, who has sought protection as a whistle-blower, believes it was an act of retaliation. The city has asked the Pasco County Sheriff's Office to investigate whether Hamm sought to "sabotage or cause harm" to the city by withholding city property, Brannigan said. Hamm said a Pasco detective visited his home Tuesday to ask about "electronic documents" he had allegedly spirited away.
Tensions peaked when Rober, who accused Hamm of hiding city records in a police lockbox no one else could access, shouted down Hamm's attempt to respond: "You are not allowed to address that!"
The allegations and bickering upset at least one neutral party — outspoken former council member Phyllis Grae.
"Council, you spent the better part of at least 45 minutes on this issue, and somewhere along the line Mr. Brannigan said citizens are happy. I speak for this citizen — she is not happy at all," Grae said. "What it looks to the public, it looks to me, that something isn't right. So let's bring in the big guns and try to make Mr. Hamm go away."
Attention turned later in the meeting to Brannigan and Posivach, whose contracts at the head of city leadership were called into question by council members. Britton asked whether their rates could be cut in this cramped budget year. Brannigan is paid a retainer of $4,125 a month, with $185-$200 an hour more for work over 25 hours a month. Posivach's salary and benefits net her $135,000 a year.
Brannigan said he would ship the suggestion to his bosses at the Hogan Law Firm in Hernando County. But Posivach's contract is much more rigid, making changes in the contract difficult to maneuver. To dismiss Posivach, four of the five council members would need to agree, a chance that seemed unlikely given pledges of support by Rober and Vice Mayor Steven O'Neill.
Britton and Rowe said residents had criticized Posivach's attendance as sporadic. Posivach's contract allows her to set her own hours and travel as she sees fit.
"I think Ms. Posivach has done a good job, but I have an issue with how much time she has spent here," Britton said. "I think the city needs somebody different, to be honest ... somebody who can be in that seat Monday through Friday."
They also questioned her secrecy over her private company, which she said she has run since resigning as city manager of Tarpon Springs in 2008, but which was first registered with the state, as Ellen S. Posivach Management Solutions LLC, last month.
Posivach insists there is no conflict of interest but would not divulge her clients, likening the consulting company to a law firm with its own rules of confidentiality.
"Private sector companies don't need to be laid out at the footsteps of City Hall," she said. And of the "disparaging" criticism that she's an absentee manager, she pointed to the flexibility afforded her by the council. "They didn't care if I did it from Russia or the North Pole. We've got telephones."
O'Neill, Rowe and council member Bill Colombo said they had heard similar requests from residents to, in O'Neill's words, "see you here more often." Rowe said Posivach's contract, approved before his election this year, deserved more scrutiny, and that "it's sad that we are locked into this thing."
Rober was not so dismissive, calling Posivach's skill-set hard to find — and important to keep.
"I ask myself, are there other people courting you? ... I think, is somebody looking to put the move on my city manager?" Rober said. "So I pose the question, do you want to stay with us?"
Posivach said later that at least three headhunters had sought to hire her within the last two weeks, and added that she had not yet made a decision on whether to remain with the city.
Hamm was not so affectionate.
"I don't feel the same love," Hamm said. "I'm not going to propose to anyone up here."
Drew Harwell can be reached at (727) 869-6244 or firstname.lastname@example.org.