The price of goofball governing is about to hit home in Port Richey in the form of a $36,000 legal bill from council member Phil Abts. It's an exorbitant figure — certainly worth a phone call from the city attorney to try to negotiate it downward — but it is the cost of an ill-advised gambit from a former vice mayor to block Abts' participation in votes on a scuttled port tax.
More to the point, Abts wondered if the ethics complaint is actually tied to another vote. The complaint to the Florida Commission on Ethics from then Vice Mayor Mark Hashim is dated Dec. 15, 2008, the same day Abts joined a majority in firing the city manager. At the least, it's a questionable coincidence, and at its worse, this is an unfair attempt at punitive governing by a clique that didn't get its way.
Three weeks before the city manager's dismissal, Hashim had asked Abts to recuse himself from deliberations over the vice mayor's proposal for a $7.50 fee for each passenger boarding gambling or sightseeing boats docking at privately owned land along the Port Richey waterfront. Hashim contended Abts had a conflict of interest because he sold health insurance policies to employees of SunCruz, the offshore casino based in Port Richey.
Abts declined and later cited a 1985 opinion from the state Commission on Ethics that 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. The City Council eventually killed the port tax proposal on a 3-2 vote after lawyers from SunCruz pointed out the illegality of the maneuver and the city's own attorney recommended delaying the idea until it could be researched further.
Between the initial tax proposal in November and the final vote in January, Hashim complained to the Ethics Commission, which said the complaint warranted investigation. In late July, the commission issued a public report finding no probable cause and it later said the attorney fees could not be charged to Hashim, as Abts and his lawyer requested.
The bill defending Abts, accumulated by attorney Ann Allison at $325 an hour, is scheduled to be discussed by the council next week. Abts said he believes city insurance may cover the expense. If not, the public will have to, as long as the bill is tied only to Abts defense.
The rest of the council cannot, in good conscience, stick Abts with the costs of defending himself against unfounded allegations stemming from his vote as a council member. To do so would be unfair, despite the size of the expense. Officeholders should not have to absorb tens of thousands of dollars in punitive costs for doing their duty. Since no conflict existed, Abts had an obligation to vote on the tax proposal as an elected representative of the people.
The council should authorize payment of the bill. Otherwise members are allowing a disenchanted party to extract a financial pound of flesh because he didn't like the outcome of the vote. That is a dangerous precedent for the council to set and likely would have long-term ramifications over the quality of future council candidates. Who would want to govern in a city where elected officeholders risk their personal finances every time there is a 3-2 vote?
The irony is the port tax, if passed, likely would have brought, "a successful challenge and litigation (that) would be very costly without a guarantee for success,'' City Attorney Michael Brannigan said in a January report to the council.
Turns out, it's going to be costly anyway.