PORT RICHEY — Not all that long ago, City Council meetings drew crowds and contention, sometimes running late into the night as a line of people waited for their turn at the microphone. Residents fuming over dredging, dissolution and the noise ordinance turned council chambers into a pressure cooker.
But much of this year has seen sedate meetings, attended by just a handful of staffers, a reporter and maybe a resident or two. As much as anything, 2011 may mark the year City Hall saw calm.
"I think it shows that people are happy with the job we are doing," Vice Mayor Bill Colombo said.
Mayor Richard Rober agreed that the current board has become more efficient, but said an empty City Hall during meetings may not be a sign of content.
"All it takes is one issue and it will fill up, believe me," Rober said. "I just think with the economic times we are in, people have other things on their minds than going to a meeting."
To be sure, the city started rocky in February with the firing of City Manager Ellen Posivach and the controversy over her severance package. The council fired Posivach after an auditor's report found Posivach violated city purchasing procedures in spending thousands of dollars without going through proper channels set out in ordinances. After losing her job, Posivach demanded a $90,000 payout that included $33,856 in severance pay, $42,397 in vacation and sick time and $14,303 in compensatory time, all spelled out in her contract. The city's labor attorney decided Port Richey didn't owe her anything, and they sent her away empty-handed.
The city tapped Police Chief Dave Brown to serve as acting city manager while the council looked for Posivach's replacement. Rober said the stability of leadership at City Hall helped keep the city running smoothly.
At the same time, some of the issues that once drew emotional crowds have receded. The push for dissolving the city petered out after the council denied a referendum in 2009 that would have put the question before voters. The enthusiasm for dredging 20 canals has waned amid legal questions over the funding — and the realization that waterfront property owners would likely have to dig into their own pockets to make the project happen. A new noise ordinance passed a year ago attempting to address loud outdoor music, though tensions between the bars and the neighbors could reignite anytime.
Critics say the appearance of serenity doesn't mean all is well. Some say the meeting room is empty because people aren't free to speak, or they don't think their input will matter.
In August, Rober changed the way he runs the council meetings, citing a provision in the City Charter that says the public may only address the council about items on the agenda, and only city residents may speak. Previously, Rober had allowed anyone to speak for three minutes at the beginning of the meeting.
The new method silenced the city's most strident critic, Kevin Hamm, a computer technician who was a contract worker for the city until his termination in 2010. Hamm has railed against the city's spending practices and handling of public records, but cannot speak at meetings any longer because he lives outside the city limits.
"I don't think an empty room shows anything but that people feel like nothing is going to change, so they feel like it's hopeless," Hamm said. "When people's constitutional rights to speak are being squashed its going to discourage participation and that is sad."
The changes came this summer after Hamm filed ethics complaints against Colombo and Brown for their use of $5,000 in city funds to pay for a Fourth of July fireworks show. The money was donated to a nonprofit entity, which, in turn, hired Colombo's fireworks company. Colombo denied any wrongdoing and said he made no profit, as all of the city's funds went into the show. Florida's Commission on Ethics is investigating the matter.
Hamm spoke of his allegations during a council meeting, and prior to the next meeting Rober announced the changes to the public comment portion. Rober said he made the changes due to public outcry to adhere to the charter, not as a response to Hamm — though he acknowledged he did not care for Hamm's last address to the council.
"I am not going to have a free-for-all. He went down the road of personal attacks," Rober said. "I'm just not going to allow that."
Port Richey will start the new year with a new city manager, Tom O'Neill, known for his calm competence in the same post in New Port Richey. Earlier this year the council dithered over making O'Neill interim manager, and instead focused on the search for a permanent replacement, which yielded more than 100 applicants.
When the council agreed late last month to offer the job to O'Neill, council member Nancy Britton had only one complaint:
She wished they had done it sooner.