New Port Richey City Council member Judy DeBella Thomas must decide if she wants to serve the public or her private employer. Doing both is problematic and raises grave concerns about DeBella Thomas' inability to differentiate between her two roles and the potential conflicts of interest that can create.
For the past nine months DeBella Thomas has been marketing the services of Advance Research Institute, a Trinity-based company that conducts clinical trials for pharmaceutical companies. ARI is now seeking to move to a Congress Street address within the New Port Richey municipal limits. However, the city halted remodeling work on the company's leased property earlier this month and fined a contractor for doing renovations without a building permit.
The city manager reported the company now says it will seek the proper zoning change. Earlier, ARI made multiple, unsuccessful pitches to have the city amend its comprehensive plan to let a medical research facility operate in what was formerly a residential program for troubled teenage boys.
Emails from City Hall indicate DeBella Thomas failed to separate her loyalties even though ARI's chief operating officer dropped her name in Jan. 30 correspondence to another Council member but added "she cannot get involved as we all feel it would be a conflict of interest.''
The supposed lack of involvement was short-lived. DeBella Thomas emailed City Manager John Schneiger March 12 stressing it was important "that we work together on this to come up with an amenable solution as this is a target industry for us to have at this site.''
The following day, Schneiger's own email indicated he'd had a personal conversation with DeBella Thomas, who wanted the city manager to meet with the ARI chief executive officer.
In other words, six weeks after a company executive acknowledged it would be a conflict of interest for the councilwoman to intercede on the company's behalf, DeBella Thomas and ARI were so persistent in seeking to change the comprehensive plan that the city manager characterized it as "like we are on different planets at this point.''
Worse, still, came the revelation that DeBella Thomas, at the company's request, signs emails from her ARI account with both of her titles: "Councilwoman'' and "Marketing & Enrollment Liaison.''
She is wrong to represent herself as a public official when trying to drum up business for the private sector since it carries perceptions of influence peddling.
Her logic that she stands to gain no financial benefit from the current zoning dispute is hollow.
DeBella Thomas was either naive or ignorant not to recognize the pitfall of mixing her duties. Neither excuse is very comforting considering DeBella Thomas' past entanglements between her elected office and her former job as director of Greater New Port Richey Main Street, which is subsidized by the city. DeBella Thomas eventually resigned that post so she could vote on public funding for the nonprofit agency.
DeBella Thomas can best serve the electorate and her private employer by recusing herself from any involvement in ARI's pending zoning issue. Likewise, she must sever her elected office from her private career and she would be wise to remove "Councilwoman'' from her company email account and any other ARI stationery. Otherwise, voters just might do it for her on April 10.