PORT RICHEY — Officials aren't entirely sure who will lead the city now that two mayors have been arrested and suspended from office in less than a month.
Nothing like this has ever happened before in the small, coastal Pasco County municipality of 2,800, said Assistant City Manager Jocilyn Martinez.
Last month, Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended Mayor Dale Massad after he was arrested Feb. 21 on a variety of charges, including attempted murder. On Tuesday, the governor suspended Massad's successor, acting mayor Terrence Rowe, who was also on the City Council. Authorities arrested Rowe on March 13 on charges that he conspired with Massad to intimidate a witness against the still-jailed former mayor.
Massad has resigned from his mayoral position, according to an email from City Attorney James Mathieu to city administrators obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.
To fill the vacancy left by his departure, the City Council has been advertising for anyone interested to make their case before the council at its next meeting, which is Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. at the city building at 6333 Ridge Road.
Martinez said the council will choose a “qualified citizen” from among the applicants — someone registered to vote in Pasco County, who has been a Port Richey resident for at least 12 months and who has not been convicted of a felony or a “crime of moral turpitude.”
That citizen would fill the vacancy until a special election is held in June 18, when a special election for Florida House District 38 is also set to take place.
TAMPA BAY TIMES COVERAGE: Two Port Richey Mayors Arrested
To fill the council vacancy left by Rowe, city administrators are still reviewing their options, Martinez said. In his email to city administrators, Mathieu said that if Rowe also resigns, the same process will start for his seat, perhaps in time for the June 18 election as well.
But the city attorney said if Rowe won't resign then his seat will remain open because he was suspended from office, not removed. That would only change if the governor took further action, which Mathieu doesn't expect to happen until Rowe's criminal case is resolved, or if a majority of the City Council votes to remove him from office.
The city charter says the city council shall consist of five members, including a mayor elected by the voters and a vice mayor chosen by the council. In a section about "extraordinary vacancies," the charter says if two or more openings occur at the same time, the council must call a special election to fill them within 15 days.
Martinez didn't know Wednesday whether the city would do so. She was also was unsure who, if anyone, would assume the mayor’s seat. Mathieu said in his email that a senior member of the council — members Jennie Sorrell or William Dittmer — would have to take the gavel at meetings.
“Procedurally, we're trying to figure it out,” Martinez said.
The positions of mayor and city council member are non-partisan offices in Port Richey. Massad is registered as a Republican, Rowe as a Democrat.
Rowe was arrested March 14 after taking part in a recorded jailhouse phone call in which he conspired with Massad to intimidate Port Richey Police Officer Donald Kendall “Kenny” Howard, who was involved in Massad’s arrest, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Massad made the call from the Pasco County jail, where he is being held on charges of practicing medicine without a license and attempted murder. Howard is a witness in the medical case against Massad, the state says.
After the phone call, charges including obstruction of justice were filed against Massad. He remains in jail, held without bail.
Following his arrest, Rowe posted bail and was freed from jail. Technically, he remained acting mayor of Port Richey until the governor issued his order on Tuesday.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story described incorrectly the process for choosing a mayor in Port Richey.
Times staff writer Dennis Joyce contributed to this report. Contact Justin Trombly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @JustinTrombly.