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Port Richey suspends city manager over misspending allegations

PORT RICHEY — The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to suspend outgoing City Manager Ellen Posivach, a move that could foreshadow her termination and endanger her potentially pricey payout.

Posivach and the council had agreed last week to a mutual separation that could have, according to her contract, allowed her a $89,229 severance package that state Rep. John Legg slammed as "irresponsible." Posivach's last day was set for the end of the month.

Not so fast. A city's auditor report alleging fault in Posivach's work, released to the council Tuesday, had members asking whether it would be cause enough to fire her without an expensive goodbye.

Judson Baggett's draft audit alleges officials, guided by Posivach as purchasing manager, misspent tens of thousands of dollars in violation of city codes.

After lightning disabled the city's water system last year, Posivach bought an emergency replacement system for about $35,000 without seeking the necessary council approval, Baggett wrote. And officials paid a contractor more than $25,000 to build a water-meter communications tower without obtaining quotes from other businesses that could have lowered the cost.

"Large purchases are being made without being let out for public bid," Baggett wrote. "The City Council and taxpayer have no way of knowing if the contract prices are fair and reasonable."

Baggett blamed city staff, who he wrote "did not follow the city's policies and procedures." Though the audit was delivered to the city around Jan. 7, finance director Pam Zeigler said, the council received its first copies within hours of Tuesday's special meeting.

Members fumed that the audit's findings were hidden from them for weeks.

"My worry here is that we're going to look like we're complicit in some kind of cover up," council member Terry Rowe said. "I want no part of that."

Posivach, who was not present at Tuesday's meeting, did not return messages left on her mobile phone Wednesday.

The council's vote for suspension does not pause Posivach's wages — she earns salary and benefits worth $135,000 a year – and gives her 15 days to request a public hearing before the council, City Attorney Michael Brannigan said.

A four-fifths council vote after that hearing would be required to fire her.

Police Chief Dave Brown is serving as the interim city manager.

The audit appears to vindicate former city employee Kevin Hamm, whose public criticism last year of officials' backroom transactions — he detailed both purchases' flaws months ago — earned him sharp rebukes from, among others, Mayor Richard Rober.

"You sat here and demeaned this man … meeting after meeting, because of what he was trying to tell you," former council member Phyllis Grae said. "He told you this was wrong, and yet nothing was done."

The question of whether the auditor's allegations could relieve the city from paying Posivach's severance remains unclear. Finance records show she accrued $41,000 in unused vacation time, $14,000 in payable compensatory time and, as her contract allowed, three months of pay for about $33,000, which she would be due after her last day.

A contract clause states that "malfeasance, misfeasance or nonfeasance in office" would nullify the city's obligation, though there remains the possibility that any decision they make could be appealed in court.

"Someone I know said to me, 'You're hoping for a soft landing.' I was," Rober said. "I don't think it's going to be that soft."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 869-6244 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

Port Richey suspends city manager over misspending allegations 02/02/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 2, 2011 8:43pm]
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