NEW PORT RICHEY — Two familiar faces on the political landscape and a longtime government consultant are facing off April 10, vying for two City Council seats.
The top two vote-getters among incumbent Judy DeBella Thomas, former New Port Richey City Council member Bill Phillips and retired consultant Eric Rhodes will take open seats on the council, one of which was vacated by Ginny Miller, who opted not to run for re-election.
In a city drowning in real estate debt, all three candidates in interviews with the Times pointed to New Port Richey's financial well-being as the No. 1 issue facing the council.
DeBella Thomas, 60, is seeking her third term on the council after being elected in 2008 and re-elected in 2009. She said she decided to run again after constituents urged her to and she felt a desire to finish ongoing projects.
"I feel I'm just getting into a rhythm of how things work," she said.
DeBella Thomas said one of her biggest accomplishments is being part of a council that passed a budget in difficult economic times.
"Actually we have been very successful in managing the budget," she said.
She said it is still crucial for the council to focus on redevelopment downtown, including the city-owned Hacienda Hotel, and if re-elected, she wants to begin focusing on deteriorating rental properties in the area. She said New Port Richey needs to cultivate "pride of ownership" among its residents.
"That's what's missing right now in the city," she said.
Voters will also be considering questions that have surfaced over DeBella Thomas' role as a marketing liaison for Advanced Research Institute, a local firm that conducts clinical trials for pharmaceutical companies. The company is looking to move into the city but has hit a zoning snag, and DeBella Thomas sent emails to city officials pushing for the project.
She has denied any conflict of interest, saying she stands no financial gain from it and said it's her duty as a council member to provide input to staff about businesses that would benefit the city.
Also seeking a seat is Bill Phillips, who is seeking to get back on the council after serving New Port Richey from 1992 to 1994. In 1994, Phillips left the council to run unsuccessfully for the Florida House of Representatives, but he said he's ready to return to politics.
"It's time for me to step back in and make a difference," he said.
Phillips, 55, said a top city priority is to sell real estate it purchased, which is drowning New Port Richey in debt since the economic downturn.
"The city doesn't need to be in the real estate business," he said.
Phillips, an accounts manager for roofing company, said while downtown redevelopment is key, efforts must also be made to re-invigorate other residential and business districts.
"We spend a lot of time talking about downtown, but New Port Richey is a whole community," he said.
Eric Rhodes, 85, is the newcomer on the ballot. He said his background as a government consultant would bring extensive experience to the council.
Rhodes has consulted for government agencies in 37 states. He points to his major projects, including developing a master plan for 22 colleges with 35 campuses for the Virginia Community College System, as proof he knows how to get things done in government.
Now retired, Rhodes has served on the New Port Richey Land Development Review Board, and he said he wants to use his experience to help turn the city's financial situation around. He, too, believes the Hacienda and other city-owned properties bought for redevelopment should be sold.
He said he would also like to see the city make efforts to beautify its riverfront, which he feels the city does not promote enough.
"Hopefully we don't have that deteriorate," he said of the riverfront.
JUDY DEBELLA THOMAS, 60, is seeking her third term on the New Port City Council. A marketing liaison for Advanced Research Institute, DeBella Thomas was first elected to the council in 2008 and re-elected in 2009. She was also former executive director of Greater New Port Richey Main Street and currently sits on the Tourist Development Council and Sixth Circuit Court Judicial Nominating Committee. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, and has lived in New Port Richey since 1972. She is married and has a daughter and two sons.
ERIC RHODES, 85, is seeking his first term on the New Port Richey City Council. A retired government consultant, Rhodes assisted agencies in 37 states, including as a consultant for the Virginia Community College System where he developed the master plan for 22 colleges on 35 campuses. For six years, he has been a member of the New Port Richey Land Development Review Board. Rhodes first moved to New Port Richey in 1979. He is married and has a daughter.
BILL PHILLIPS, 55, is seeking to return to the New Port Richey City Council after serving one term between 1992 and 1994. After his first term, he ran unsuccessfully for the Florida House of Representatives. He has also served on the Pasco County Impact Review Committee, the Penny for Pasco Committee as co-chairman and the Pasco Citizens Committee. An account manager for a roofing company, he has lived in New Port Richey for 24 years. He is married and has two sons.