PORT RICHEY — Mayor Eloise Taylor was about to adjourn Tuesday's City Council meeting when council member Terry Rowe spoke up.
As television cameras rolled, Rowe said the board would appear "inept" if it didn't address the elephant in the room: the incident involving City Manager Tom O'Neill, who was found passed out at the wheel of his sport utility vehicle last month apparently smelling of alcohol.
"It's unfortunate Port Richey is again under the spotlight and we can do nothing but wait for the completion of the state attorney's investigation on this," Rowe said. "But I think it would be very poor of us not to at least address this and let the citizens know we are aware of this, we are monitoring it, and we will take whatever appropriate action that we may need, if need be."
O'Neill, 59, has said he "had a need for medical attention" that night. He declined to comment for this report and has not said what his medical condition is.
Just before midnight on July 13, New Port Richey police Cpl. William Phillips responded to a 911 call about an SUV idling in the middle of Astor Drive. He found the driver asleep at the wheel with the engine running and the vehicle in neutral. He later noted in his report that he recognized the sleeping man as O'Neill, who is the former New Port Richey city manager. Phillips asked other agencies to respond to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. Emergency dispatch sent an officer from Port Richey — O'Neill's current employer.
A police dash cam video showed O'Neill with his arms over paramedics' shoulders as they walked him to the back bumper of his SUV after waking him. Phillips asked O'Neill to perform field sobriety exercises, but O'Neill was unable. An ambulance took O'Neill to a hospital. He was not further investigated for DUI.
After the incident was reported by the Tampa Bay Times, State Attorney Bernie McCabe announced he was opening a criminal investigation. By Florida law, the State Attorney's Office had to notify O'Neill in writing that it plans to seek his medical records. O'Neill then has 10 days to respond to the letter, which was sent last week. If he declines to cooperate, prosecutors will seek a court order for the information.
O'Neill either can hand over the records or fight the subpoena, according to defense lawyer Thomas Carey. Either O'Neill himself or the hospital can refuse to release the records. If that happens, a hearing would be held in front of a judge.
Carey, who has handled multiple DUI cases and is a member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said asking for medical records in a DUI case isn't unusual, but doing it before the case begins is.
As for the records themselves, Carey said they may not show anything anyway.
"I'd say about 50-50 it would show" that he was intoxicated, Carey said. "It all depends on what they did to him when he got (to the hospital)."
It's up to the state attorney, Carey said, to prove O'Neill's guilt, and it's in O'Neill's rights to put up road blocks to the state's case.
O'Neill's attorney declined to comment for this report.
Times staff writer Alex Orlando contributed to this report.