Two months after joining the New Port Richey City Council, Main Street executive director Judy DeBella Thomas faced the initial public entanglement of her two jobs. That neither she nor the city attorney, upon whom she relies for legal advice, recognized the potential conflict of interest is troublesome.
As Times staff writer Jodie Tillman reported, Thomas filed an application last month to allow alcohol sales at an upcoming Main Street event. Such permit applications require council approval and Tuesday night Thomas joined the rest of her colleagues in granting the request.
The alcohol sales help generate income for the events run by New Port Richey Main Street. The nonprofit group pays Thomas' salary, employs her husband part-time and receives annual allocations from the city of nearly $59,000. Main Street gets $45,000 from the Community Redevelopment Agency and $13,850 for marketing from the utilities' enterprise fund.
It's a no-brainer. Thomas should have abstained on the vote. Or, at the very least, requested an opinion from the city attorney.
Casting a vote on her own application didn't strike Thomas as inappropriate. Apparently, it didn't strike her at all. Thomas said she didn't even think about a conflict until questioned by reporter Tillman. Likewise, City Attorney Tom Morrison, sitting three seats away during the meeting, was unaware of Thomas' approval of the alcohol permit.
"She voted?'' he asked the next day.
Such a response is hardly a confidence-builder in effective governing.
Afterward, Morrison said he didn't believe the vote constituted a conflict of interest because Thomas did not benefit personally. However, he said, he would have recommended Thomas recuse herself to avoid any appearances of impropriety.
That's not what he told her during the campaign, at least according to Thomas. In response to questions about potential conflicts from holding both positions, Thomas authored a letter to this newspaper that said in part:
"Prior to filing for the election, Thomas Morrison, the city attorney of New Port Richey, reviewed the question of any possible conflict. Mr. Morrison responded in writing that he could determine no conflict from filling both posts as long as I would abstain from voting on any Main Street funding issues. He commented that the Main Street issues would constitute less than "one-half of 1 percent" of the council's annual business.''
Apparently, the percentage just went up.
A more pressing issue awaits: deciding how or if the city can continue the Main Street marketing grant. Recently refinanced bonds include a covenant precluding the utilities budget from paying for non-utility costs. Historically, the utilities fund included $40,000 for events marketing, of which Main Street received $13,850.
It means the city will need to find the money elsewhere, while at the same time it must cut hundreds of thousands of dollars from its general fund budget because of new voter-approved property tax exemptions. Thomas, the Main Street director, may advocate for continued financial support for downtown events, but Thomas, the council member, should not vote.
She shouldn't need a lawyer to point that out to her.