Give Port Richey police Chief David Brown a tip of the hat. At least he didn't lose or destroy an embarrassing public record like some of the past occupants of City Hall.
But that's the limit on the kudos. A clandestine recording of a conversation between two city department heads shows a poisoned political atmosphere continues to impede professional governing within Port Richey.
As Times staff writer Lisa Buie reported, the recording equipment — being used in an unrelated criminal investigation — captured Brown and Utility Director Pat Stewart commiserating about one of the city's elected leaders, council member Phil Abts. The conversation might be construed as typical employee bellyaching about a superior if Brown hadn't suggested "maybe somebody needs to swing a 2 by 4 at him.'' The chief also states on the recording "there is a solution to the Abts problem. They choose not to do it.''
The chief's proclivity to advocate violence, even in an off-handed manner in what he thought was a private conversation, is disconcerting as is his and Stewart's preoccupation with what they perceive as a problem council member. The public would be better served if Brown paid more attention to his own charges, considering last month he had to fire a sergeant accused by federal marshals of trafficking prescription painkillers.
After Abts learned of the tape's existence last fall, Brown offered him his resignation and repeated the offer six weeks ago to Mayor Richard Rober. It highlights a long-standing problem with Port Richey's small-town governing. The chain of command remains an illusion.
Elected leaders should establish policy and allow the professional staff to implement it. Employee management must come from a single source — City Manager Ellen Posivach. That is to whom Brown should direct questions about his job status. His refused resignation offers to Abts and Rober went to the wrong people.
The September 2009 conversation between Brown and Stewart stemmed from Abts request — sent via e-mail to the city clerk — for data about water line breaks on his own street, which had been removed from a Utility Department project replacing aging water lines. Abts said in an interview Wednesday he wondered if the lines on his street were in better shape than others around the city, or if Blue Point Drive had been cut as retribution for his positions on council. In the recording, Stewart complained to Brown that compiling the information ate into his time to do his normal duties.
The conversation followed on the heels of an unsubstantiated ethics complaint against Abts, the legal costs for which remain in dispute. Abts, who is not seeking re-election in April, is suing the city to recover nearly $37,000 in attorney fees defending himself from a complaint filed by former council member Mark Hashim. The complaint alleged Abts should have recused himself from a vote on a Hashim's proposal for a port tax because Abts' medical insurance clients included employees of what would have been the largest payer of the tax — SunCruz offshore casinos. The state ethics commission cleared Abts of wrongdoing, but council has declined to pay the legal bill.
It is curious that city department heads believe there is an "Abts problem.'' Council member Phil Abts is not the obstacle at City Hall. Vengeful governing is. The proof is there for all to hear.