PORT RICHEY — Police Chief David Brown and Utilities director Pat Stewart thought they were alone as they vented about one of their bosses.
Stewart expressed frustration about having to gather information for City Council member Phil Abts.
"I can't get any work done," Stewart groused.
Brown advised him to let the city manager handle it. The conversation continued, with Brown offering a suggestion.
"Maybe somebody needs to swing a two-by-four at him," he said of Abts. The two men said Abts "is very good at throwing mud, but not at catching it."
Turns out the conversation last September was caught on tape. No one seems to know exactly how, but Brown said he addressed the situation as soon as he became aware of it.
"There were some terribly offensive comments I didn't know were being recorded," Brown told the St. Petersburg Times last week after the newspaper obtained a copy through a public records request. "I cannot deny the statements; they are on tape, but I am quite embarrassed by them."
Brown said he gave Abts a copy of the tape, apologized, and offered to resign. He said Abts told him that would not be necessary.
"As far as I know it's a dead issue," said Brown, who explained that his comments were not meant to be taken literally.
"It was a heat of the moment statement," he said. He said he couldn't remember the details of why Stewart was upset.
"A lot has happened since then," he said.
Abts would not comment on the tape or the conversation. Stewart did not return phone calls. City Manager Ellen Posivach also did not return calls.
The quality of the audio is poor, with a lot of background noise. Most of the comments are too muffled to be clearly understood. The conversation took place after police officers finished questioning someone in an investigation.
Mayor Richard Rober said Brown came to him in person about six weeks ago right after talking with Abts and told him about the tape. He also offered to resign. Rober refused to accept it. But he didn't let Brown off without a lecture.
"I told him how inappropriate his behavior was," he said. "Then everybody went forward."
Rober said the same type of conversations probably go on across every city in the country.
"But it's just unacceptable behavior," he said. Rober said he had not discussed the matter with Stewart, saying that was a job for the city manager.
Rober called the matter "more of an issue" for Abts than for him.
Rober said he had not listened to the tape but that Abts' concerns about utilities have come up at council meetings.
He said the city is improving its water lines and some neighborhoods are lower on the priority list than others. Abts' neighborhood is among those slated for Phase II.
He said he can see both sides of the coin as far as Abts and the staff are concerned.
"I can see a councilman's frustration and can see the response on the other side," he said.
Rober said he tries to avoid dealing directly with rank-and-file staff.
"If I want something, I go right through the city manager," he said. "There's a fine line between engaging yourself and interference."
Abts, who was elected two years ago and is not seeking a second term, has had a rocky relationship with his colleagues. He ran up a $36,319 legal bill by fighting an ethics complaint filed by former council member Mark Hashim. Abts cast the deciding vote in January 2009 killing a proposed passenger boarding fee on sightseeing and casino boats. Hashim alleged Abts should have rescued himself, since Abts sells health insurance to employees of SunCruz casino boats.
Abts hired Temple Terrace attorney Ann M. Allison, who billed him for nearly 112 hours of legal representation at $325 per hour.
The Florida Commission on Ethics cleared Abts. But his bill for Allison's services — which included items such as writing an affidavit for her own attorney's fees — was due.
Abts asked the ethics commission to order Hashim to pay the legal bill, but that request was denied. Abts then asked the council to have the city pay the bill. Council members refused to even bring the issue up for a vote. So Abts sued the city in December.
Brown said he has had no trouble with Abts since the incident.
"He's one of our fine councilmen,'' Brown said, "and we've had a business relationship since then."