Is there no end to New Port Richey's bumbling over the so-called vacancy in the city manager's office? A flummoxed City Council will meet this evening to try to cure one of its oversights after it turned a blind eye to the double-dipping of City Manager Tom O'Neill. It turns out the temporary replacement, personnel director Jeff Sutton, does not live within the city limits, violating the residency requirement contained in the city charter.
Waiving the charter provision, however, won't restore the lost credibility at City Hall, particularly after Times staff writer Jodie Tillman reported that O'Neill never bothered to turn in his publicly owned vehicle when he left his job last week. The wink-wink, nudge-nudge attitude toward O'Neill's supposed retirement is an insult to private-sector workers and public employees alike who face job losses, salary freezes or pay cuts.
It's easy to blame the state Legislature — as Mayor Scott McPherson does — for crafting a generous retirement incentive that allowed people to leave their positions, take a large lump-sum payment, then return in 30 days to collect both a salary and a monthly retirement check. But it is the council that continues to acquiesce after O'Neill announced his intentions to do just that.
McPherson said last week he is open to discussing whether to advertise the city manager's position because of the public furor over double-dipping. That is a conversation that would have been more productive in March, but at the time some council members were more interested in rehiring O'Neill on the spot, not in considering their role as enablers. To suggest now that the council might turn elsewhere to fill its city manager's job simply perpetuates the contrivance.
O'Neill served the city for 30 years, including the last 16 months as city manager, and left amid high praise for his performance. He isn't alone in double-dipping. The state law has been used by more than 225 elected officials — including County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand — and 9,000 state employees since 2001. The Legislature amended the law this spring, requiring a six-month waiting period before retired public employees could return to the state payroll, but the change doesn't take place until July 2010.
Forget the charade of posting the city manager's vacancy; if New Port Richey's City Council wants to make a statement on double-dipping, it should negotiate a reduced salary for O'Neill upon his return. To avoid repeats, it can adopt the personnel philosophies of Pasco County government and Pasco-Hernando Community College, among others, which prohibit employee double-dipping.