In Port Richey, silence is golden when the topic is good government. Last week, Port Richey Mayor Richard Rober reversed his policy of allowing nonresidents three minutes each to address the City Council on whatever topic they desired. It is a heavy-handed tactic intended only to muzzle nonresident Kevin Hamm, an information technology contractor formerly retained by City Hall, who frequently critiques Port Richey's spending and purchasing policies.
By quieting Hamm's criticisms, Rober is preventing other nonresidents from addressing the council and he's cutting off the opportunity to collect information from sources beyond city limits. After all, it was private attorney Steve Booth and the out-of-town owners of several Port Richey bars/restaurants who used the public comment period to inform the council of its overbearing noise ordinance enforcement in 2010.
Likewise, Hamm told the council of flawed spending by the city that later was flagged in a critical audit from an outside accounting firm and led to the eventual termination of the former city manager.
Now, no matter how worthy the topic, Rober won't let them near the podium. Nonresidents will only get a chance to talk if they are a party to an item on the agenda. The mayor has effectively stifled a staple of local democracy. Such commentary, commonly called "voice of the public,'' is a routine part of meetings of the Pasco County Commission, New Port Richey Council and other elected governmental bodies and participation is not limited to legal residents of those governmental entities.
Rober's position is irresponsible and childish. It's a vindictive response to Hamm's revelation of how the city handled its July Fourth fireworks display. Hamm criticized the council and filed complaints with the state Commission on Ethics because the city gave funding to a nonprofit, which, in turn, used a fireworks company co-owned by a council member.
Ignoring a City Hall critic is not a strong signal that the city intends to keep its newfound promise of improved financial transparency. More accurately, it means if there is a future problem with the city's purchasing policies, the mayor doesn't want to hear about it.