PORT RICHEY — City Manager Tom O'Neill's suspension stemming from an August DUI charge is official.
But the unanimous City Council vote last week on a resolution outlining his unpaid leave came days after O'Neill had already returned from his suspension — an oversight that didn't sit well with some on council.
"It's way too late as far as I'm concerned," said council member Terry Rowe.
In September, the council voted to suspend O'Neill for 30 days and he agreed to enter substance abuse treatment, stemming from a July 13 traffic stop when a New Port Richey police officer found O'Neill asleep behind the wheel of his sport utility vehicle. He was unable to perform field sobriety exercises.
The board delayed his suspension until November so the city could complete its budget and hold hearings on a water rate increase. Rowe voted against the suspension, saying he thought O'Neill should have been fired.
The plan was for council to vote upon a resolution making the stipulations of the unpaid leave official prior to the beginning of O'Neill's suspension which began Nov. 4. During a Nov. 26 council meeting — while O'Neill was on leave — Rowe pointed out that the resolution had not come before the board.
So on Tuesday — as O'Neill attended his first regular council meeting since his return — the resolution passed.
O'Neill was not arrested the night of the traffic stop. After a story detailing the incident in the Tampa Bay Times, the State Attorney's Office opened an investigation. A dashboard camera video of the incident surfaced showing O'Neill with his arms draped over paramedics' shoulders as he was helped to the back of his SUV. An investigation revealed he had a blood alcohol level of 0.367 — more than four times the level at which Florida law presumes a driver impaired. He was charged in August with driving under the influence. The case is pending.
In other news, the council also addressed several complaints from residents with sticker shock over bills reflecting new, higher water rates. The majority of complaints came from residents using irrigation meters whose bills have skyrocketed hundreds of dollars in some cases.
The council voted unanimously to allow a one-time reprieve for customers reducing their Nov. 15 bills to the lowest tier irrigation rate, in hopes that users will cut back on consumption.
O'Neill said many of the city's biggest water consumers are not adhering to state watering restrictions. One customer, O'Neill told the council, used 66,000 gallons during the billing period — a rate three times that allowed by the state.
"I was astounded personally when I heard that," O'Neill said.
O'Neill said he hopes the one-time relief on residents' bills will allow customers to look closer at their water use and opt for more conservation. Mayor Eloise Taylor also recommended the city look into entering into a reclaimed water program for residents.