PORT RICHEY — In September, three days after Port Richey council members voted to raise the tax rate, City Manager Ellen Posivach boarded a Delta jet to Montreal.
Her destination: the International City/County Management Association's annual conference, a five-day gathering that also featured book signings, scenic tours, a golf tournament and fun run centered at the downtown Palais des Congrès.
Over the next week Posivach, 58, would eat $64 of food a day, attend a $145 four-hour workshop and, as she wrote on an invoice, work nearly 80 hours. Her work time, flight and fees would cost Port Richey about $6,000.
Her travels weren't over. During Posivach's first year she traveled once to Marco Island, Fla., and San Antonio, Texas; twice to Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.; and three times to Orlando, charging weeks' pay and $5,000 in expenses to a city that was declared two years ago in a state of financial emergency.
Posivach, who earns $132,000 a year, said her expense reports don't show costs she paid out of pocket or the value of bringing back out-of-town know-how to Port Richey public office. A former administrator for cities like Hopewell, Va., she said the trips are worth every penny.
"The thing that everybody needs to understand is that this may be a bad budget year for everybody, but we've already cut 26 percent of our workforce," she said. "If you're going to expect someone to do seven jobs, you've got to be able to give them the training and the resources to do that."
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Two years ago, the Tarpon Springs City Commission voted to replace Posivach as its city manager.
She had worked in the position for nearly a decade, tweaking the city's water, zoning and tax policies with well-regarded results. But in the months before their vote, commissioners began to sour on Posivach's regular out-of-town travel.
She spent seven weeks in Tallahassee during the state's legislative session. She scheduled, to a commissioner's surprise, a conference visit in New Orleans. And, a month before her resignation, she asked for time off to travel to interview for a new job in Goodyear, Ariz.
"I feel sometimes like Ellen doesn't realize that we're her bosses," former commissioner Peter Dalacos told the St. Petersburg Times. "She has to report to us."
In June, about a year after she resigned, Port Richey hired Posivach to take over for former city manager Richard Reade. Though the city of 3,400 is about an eighth as populated as Tarpon Springs, officials offered her an increased salary, flexible hours and the freedom to train and travel.
Posivach seized the opportunity. Within two weeks of her permanent hire, she spent about $300 for two nights at the Hilton Marco Island Beach Resort and Spa, joining city employees for a conference near Naples. Days later she would pay $745 in registration for the Montreal workshop, "Understanding the Fatal Flaws in a Council-Management Relationship."
In November, two months after her Canadian journey, she traveled to Texas for a $515 Congress of Cities conference. Posivach said the event, like other sessions, would give her perspective and ideas on the future of Port Richey. A registration e-mail shows she was scheduled for one event, a three-hour presentation on improvements to the San Antonio River waterfront.
Her sporadic trips and work schedule, she said, are vital parts of her contract. As the sole employee of Management Solutions, a company she said she created after leaving Tarpon Springs, she works for three private companies separate from the city. Council members knew little about her company, which could not be found in state business records.
Posivach said the companies, which she helped with budgeting and streamlining, do not work with the city but would share no other details. "That's the difference between government and the private sector," she said.
The arrangement allows for Posivach to decide her own hours, adding or drawing from a pool of "comp time" as she sees fit. One week in October, she clocked seven hours; about 40 the next, which included a 16-hour day.
"I've got certainly a lot of flexibility," Posivach said. "My more productive time on these types of director things might be at home, at the kitchen table, digging through a pile of stuff trying to understand it."
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Posivach's expenses are in contrast with other managers in Pasco.
In New Port Richey, a town with five times as many residents, City Manager Tom O'Neill did not travel, took four classes online and earned a salary $23,000 less than Posivach. Zephyrhills City Manager Steve Spina spent only $71 on travel. Reade, in the year before Posivach's hire, attended two lunches and a conference.
John Gallagher, who has worked as Pasco County administrator since 1982, said the county has always restricted its trips to the Southeastern United States. Even then, he said, he rarely travels — his most recent, an Urban Land Institute conference in Dallas, was nearly four years ago.
"It's hard for the general public to believe we have a lot less money when we're spending it," he said.
Port Richey Mayor Richard Rober and council member Perry Bean defended Posivach's travel as fair compensation for what her contract states is six jobs in one. Though managers and supervisors head the departments, Posivach is labeled the director of finance, purchasing, public works and utilities. She is also her own assistant city manager.
"It just comes down to how professional do you want us to be, how good do you want us to be at our jobs," Bean said. "I think we should be performing at the highest possible level. That's how people get their money's worth."
Not everyone has seen value in Posivach's work arrangement. Council member Phil Abts said her "wasteful spending" and members' complicit approval would bankrupt the city if left unchecked.
"Our city is a small town. We do not need to be spending thousands of dollars sending our staff jet-setting," Abts said, before quoting a letter he wrote last year to the Times. "Our city manager is spending like a teen at the mall with her dad's credit card."
Drew Harwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6244.