A Port Richey Council majority is blinded by political vindictiveness in its attempt to stick fellow council member Phil Abts with a $36,000 legal bill for doing his job.
Last week, only council member Bill Colombo indicated he believed Abts acted in the public interest when Abts joined in the debate and council vote on a proposed port tax that died in January. Colombo's motion — not to pay the legal bill, just to declare Abts' earlier participation as appropriate — died for lack of a second. It is an astounding display of arrogance by the rest of the council, which deems itself worthy of sitting in judgment of Abts' intentions after he had been cleared by the Florida Commission on Ethics.
The size of Abts' legal bill is irrelevant, at least at this point. Without a finding that Abts acted in the public's interest, the council was unable to debate the cost of his legal defense, offer an alternative amount or instruct the city attorney to negotiate a compromise with Abts' attorney, Ann Allison of Temple Terrace. She billed Abts at a rate of $325 an hour for defending him against an ethics complaint that he had a conflict of interest in the port tax issue because he sells health insurance to employees of SunCruz, the off-shore gambling boat based in Port Richey.
However, a 1985 opinion from the state Commission on Ethics said insurance agents are not prohibited from voting on matters advantageous to people or businesses for whom they write policies if neither the officeholder nor his or her agency benefits directly. Abts did not benefit from the demise of the port tax proposal, though SunCruz would have been the biggest collector of the $7.50-per-passenger tax if it had been implemented and withstood a legal challenge.
The Dec. 15, 2008, ethics complaint came from then-Vice Mayor Mark Hashim, the leading proponent of the port tax. It is dated the same day Abts joined a majority in firing the city manager — a move Hashim opposed — but three weeks before the final vote killing the tax proposal. The commission cleared Abts over the summer, but denied his bid to assess the legal bill to Hashim. Hence, the reasonable request for the council to pay for the defense.
Last week, Mayor Richard Rober likened the debate about Abts to closing the barn door after the horse was out, saying the cost of the legal defense should have been discussed beforehand. Rober should rework his cliche. The amount of Abts' legal bill should have been discussed after the council ruled that he acted in the public's interest. Instead, they sat in silence while Colombo's motion died.
Rober was remiss in failing to fill the leadership void. He could have easily passed the gavel and seconded the motion rather than allow the others to extract their political pound of flesh.
This spiteful council majority damaged its own credibility with its inability to discern Abts' obligation to represent the people and vote on pending matters. Even if some council members didn't like the outcome of the port tax or city manager votes, their behavior shows the typical governing by acquaintance and petty personal vendettas are alive and well at Port Richey City Hall.