Thursday, January 18, 2018
News Roundup

Same man was city attorney for resignations of mayors in both Zephyrhills and Port Richey

In March, the mayor of Port Richey resigned amid a scandal over professional misconduct.

In December, the mayor of Zephyrhills resigned amid a scandal over professional misconduct.

One instance is unusual enough. Two in the same year is quite an anomaly. And one man found himself involved in the fallout of both cases: Joseph Poblick, who, by sheer coincidence, serves as city attorney for both Port Richey and Zephyrhills.

"It's definitely been a unique year," said Poblick, 38, who shook his head and let loose a grin of disbelief at the situation.

He has seen his share of unusual times. The Pasco High School graduate worked as a reserve deputy in New Orleans while attending Loyola University School of Law. After he and his wife were displaced by Hurricane Katrina, they moved back to Florida and Poblick opened a private practice to handle everything from misdemeanor cases to landlord-tenant disputes to traffic cases.

Then he saw the judicial system from a different vantage point — the victim's — in 2007 when his Zephyrhills home was burglarized and ransacked. That experience prompted him to run this year for county judge.

"I think things can be done better," Poblick said when he filed to run. He lost in the August primary; Frank Grey won the seat after a runoff.

Poblick said his work as city attorney for Port Richey and Zephyrhills accounts for about 70 percent of his practice. He'd like to provide legal services for another city down the road, he said. He just hopes the mayor of that next town isn't superstitious.

"When the second situation happened in Zephyrhills, I said to myself, 'Oh, man, if I try to take on another city, I hope the mayor there isn't going to veto me as a candidate,' " he said with a smile.

Of course, the two scandals had major differences.

Port Richey Mayor Richard Rober, 52, shocked everyone in March with the news of his resignation. Federal prosecutors were preparing to file tax fraud charges against Rober and his wife, Averill, who siphoned more than $239,000 from their water testing and treatment company, Gator Water and Wastewater Management Inc., into a private bank account. The couple spent the money on family finances, their Hummer and repairs for their boat, without declaring any of that income to the IRS.

Rober met privately with Poblick to tell him about the pending charges and his plans to resign. Later, the mayor held his news conference.

"It was 'whoa,' but really there wasn't much left for me to do since he planned to resign," Poblick said.

Poblick helped figure out the logistics for a special election, in which voters returned Eloise Taylor to office. Meanwhile, the Robers pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the federal government, and a federal judge sentenced the couple in October to six months in prison, followed by six months of house arrest and three years of supervised release.

Poblick found himself playing a larger role in the controversy that erupted this fall over Zephyrhills Mayor Steve Van Gorden.

The Pasco school district placed Van Gorden, then principal of Zephyrhills High School, on paid leave in October while it investigated allegations of sexual harassment. Van Gorden, 37, resigned from the principal's post a few weeks later, and the district released a report in which colleagues accused him of making crude comments and unwelcome advances. A teacher who declined his overtures said she suffered retaliation.

Like much of the community, the folks at City Hall were stunned by the report. The school district did not alert Zephyrhills officials about the controversy brewing around its mayor, Poblick said.

"That I was upset about," said Poblick, who has served as Zephyrhills city attorney since 2006. "I think it would have been a courtesy for the school district to contact the city, whether it's me or the city manager, to let us know what's coming."

Van Gorden acknowledged behaving inappropriately and quickly left his principal's job — but he initially held onto the mayor's seat. As Zephyrhills City Council members began hearing from concerned constituents, council president Kenneth Compton asked Poblick to prepare a report on the council's options.

Poblick consulted the city charter, which describes how a mayor can be removed from office. He also looked for guidance in state statutes and picked the brains of lawyer friends and colleagues in other cities. Some had experience dealing with situations involving public officials being removed from office, but the vast majority resulted in the official resigning from office.

Poblick outlined a couple of options, including censure or removal from office. In late November, the council took the first step toward impeaching Van Gorden.

"It happens, it's not unheard of," Poblick said, though he noted an impeachment hearing would be "a unique situation." There would be a quasijudicial hearing in which the council would serve as judge and jury; an outside attorney would be hired to act as a prosecutor, making the case for impeachment; and the mayor would be defended by his own lawyer.

The women who complained to the district about Van Gorden would be called to testify and would be cross-examined by Van Gorden's attorney.

"Like I told the council before they voted, this will be a messy road to go down," Poblick said.

Then in mid December, Van Gorden gave up the fight for the largely ceremonial post.

"Hardworking, taxpaying citizens deserve to have their money put to work on services and in leaders that focus on the improvement of their quality of life," Van Gorden wrote in his resignation, dated Dec. 13. "I do not believe it to be in anyone's interest to further debate or distract or divert resources from that single priority."

And now it's time for Poblick to help another city plan for another special election.

While he has seen both cities go through the shock of losing their mayor this year, Poblick said only time will tell what that means for Port Richey and Zephyrhills.

"My job is to provide legal representation and protect my clients," he said. "I'm working with people, and people make mistakes. So that part of it is really out of my hands."

Call him unlucky. Call him a bad omen. Call him a bystander to a strange coincidence. Call Joseph Poblick whatever you want, as long as you don't make him deal with another mayoral scandal in the areas where he works as city attorney. Because two of them in one year is enough.

DECEMBER. After first resigning as principal at Zephyrhills High School, Zephyrhills Mayor Steve Van Gorden faced impeachment but ultimately left on his own.

MARCH. Port Richey Mayor Richard Rober shocked everyone with news of his resignation. Federal prosecutors were preparing to file tax fraud charges against him and his wife.

 
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