A circuit court judge has told Port Richey council members something they couldn't figure out for themselves: It was wrong to try to stick former council member Phil Abts with a legal bill simply for doing elected duty.
The inability of council members to decipher Abts' and their own job descriptions — a requirement to vote on issues unless they benefit personally — means a mounting legal bill from Abts' attorneys that now is the public's responsibility.
Abts, who served a single term on the council ending in 2010, was the subject of a Dec. 15, 2008, ethics complaint that came from then-Vice Mayor Mark Hashim, the leading proponent of a failed port tax. The complaint 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.
Hashim alleged Abts should have recused himself from the port tax vote because he sold health insurance policies to employees of SunCruz, an off-shore casino boast that would have been the largest collector of a per-passenger tax. The Florida Commission on Ethics disagreed but declined to assess the council member's defense costs to the vice mayor as Abts had requested.
That tossed the matter to council, but its arrogance and attempts at political payback overcame sound judgment. In December 2009, only council member Bill Colombo indicated he believed Abts acted in the public interest, but his motion to put that on the record died for lack of a second.
That pushed Abts to sue the city and last week Circuit Court Judge Lowell Bray ruled in his favor. In the meantime, Abts' $36,000 legal bill grew by a third to $48,000.
Case law and the city's own precedent requires it to pay Abts' legal expenses. A 1989 council resolution protects the city's elected officials against "unsubstantiated or unfounded charges'' and requires reimbursement by the city "for reasonable amount of attorney fees plus any reasonable costs incurred by the defending party whether or not the official is absolved from the charge.''
It's a resolution that dates to the days of the frequent disputes between Mayor Keith Kollenbaum and council member Joe Mastrocolo. Certainly, it's a too-generous standard since the public shouldn't pay the legal costs of an elected official who is not absolved of wrongdoing, but that is not applicable to Abts. The Commission on Ethics cleared him of Hashim's allegation and he is entitled to his legal fees.
If the council wants to debate "reasonable'' legal fees, that is an entirely different matter. But the council already fumbled one opportunity to stop the legal meter from running when it failed to instruct the city attorney to try to negotiate a settlement after the Ethics Commission ruling.
Besides Colombo, only Mayor Richard Rober and council member Steven O'Neill remain in office from 2009. Their inaction 14 months ago led to Abts' successful lawsuit and climbing costs to the public. They and the rest of the council need to end this vindictiveness. Their constituents can't afford it.