PORT RICHEY — Two weeks ago, voters ousted City Council members Nancy Britton and Dale Massad.
On Tuesday night, the new council voted 3-2 to fire City Attorney James Mathieu, who lives with Britton and owns an investment property with Massad.
"Mathieu assumed a political role in a nonpolitical position by the nature of his ties," council member Mark Hashim said Wednesday. "That made it uncomfortable. I threw it out there for the newly elected council. They made their decision."
The two newcomers on the council, Phil Abts and Perry Bean, joined Hashim in firing Mathieu.
Mayor Richard Rober, who voted to keep Mathieu, said the attorney's performance had outweighed his personal connections. He said if there had been a conflict of interest, it was resolved when Bean and Abts replaced Massad and Britton.
"We haven't had malfeasance or poor service," Rober said. "The advantage we have is that he is highly accessible, reasonably priced and he is part of the team."
Council member Steven O'Neill also voted to keep Mathieu.
"To what cause do we need to consider new legal counsel?" O'Neill asked. "We have benefited from the services of Mr. Mathieu. … It is an enormous task to replace the services he has provided."
Council members and residents debated the attorney's fate for an hour Tuesday night, weighing Mathieu's entanglements against his accomplishments.
"To get rid of somebody who lives in our city and does such a great job because of his personal life is crazy," said Jim Carroll, a resident. "This man's done an excellent job for us. Why get rid of someone who does an excellent job?"
Steve Johnston, who lost a mayoral race against Rober last year, said he feared for the city's reputation if Mathieu remained city attorney.
"Mr. Mathieu's job performance is irrelevant," he said. "He jeopardized that the moment he applied for the job. We need to move forward and strive for a higher level of professionalism and leave the days of us being a political joke behind us."
Mathieu, who is paid an $1,800 monthly retainer, remained quiet Tuesday night until Rober asked him to respond.
Mathieu questioned the council's motive to fire him after Britton and Massad lost their bids for re-election.
He said he worked toward installing the city's red-light camera system and decreasing the city's water loss from 11-million gallons per month to 3-million gallons per month while he served as interim city manager last year.
He agreed to remain city attorney until officials find his replacement. But he emphasized that he let the council know he was Britton's live-in boyfriend when he applied for the job.
With Britton and Massad no longer on the council, Mathieu said Tuesday, "it's quite clear that I don't have a conflict now."
Camille C. Spencer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6229.