PORT RICHEY — A week after firing its city manager, a split City Council voted Tuesday to negotiate with someone to lead Port Richey on an interim basis:
Retired New Port Richey City Manager Tom O'Neill.
Mayor Richard Rober called the special meeting to get the council's blessing to begin courting O'Neill, 57, who spent more that three decades working for New Port Richey, much of that time in public works.
O'Neill told the council he was willing to help while Port Richey searched for its next city manager.
"You need as a city to take your time in that decision," O'Neill said. "And I can help you with that."
Council members agreed O'Neill would bring valuable know-how to the table. The debate came over the prospect of paying O'Neill, instead of continuing to assign the interim duties to Police Chief Dave Brown at no extra cost — especially with the city likely on the hook for a costly payout to fired City Manager Ellen Posivach.
City Attorney Michael Brannigan has said he will recommend the council give Posivach her full payout of $90,000 in severance and benefits, according to her contract.
Rather than rush to hire O'Neill on an interim basis, City Council member Terry Rowe suggested diving right into the process of looking for a permanent city manager. Brown could continue to run the city in the meantime, Rowe said.
"We have the chief in place and I think he is doing a fabulous job," Rowe said. "I think we need to step back and take a breath and calculate our next move cautiously and with financial concern."
But council member Steve O'Neill (no relation to Tom O'Neill) was skeptical the city could land a permanent replacement quickly.
Coming up with an enticing package for qualified candidates in the wake of the uproar over Posivach's possible payout will be difficult, Steve O'Neill argued. Council members will discuss just how much they will pay Posivach during a special meeting tonight.
"It's going to take a long, long time to work another situation out," he said of hiring a full-time replacement.
And the council's poor past decisions on city manager hires should also weigh on the proceedings, Steve O'Neill argued.
"It doesn't look like we've made too good of choices over several years," he said.
Council member Bill Colombo also urged caution over rushing to a decision, and wondered whether Tom O'Neill's expertise — particularly in utilities — could be tapped without hiring him as interim city manager.
Council members Nancy Britton, Steve O'Neill and Rober voted to negotiate with Tom O'Neill for services as interim city manager. Colombo and Rowe cast dissenting votes. The council will hear the results of those negotiations at the March 22 council meeting.
Rober said he proposed negotiating with Tom O'Neill not as any reflection on Brown's ability as acting city manager, but to take some of the workload off the chief and other overwhelmed city administrators.
Tom O'Neill would also offer expertise on crucial issues facing the city, including a challenging budget season in the coming months, Rober said. The mayor said he did not even know if the city could afford O'Neill's services.
"But I don't know where it's going to hurt us to ask," Rober said.