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Port Richey shouldn't pay for election review

Blind to conflict and super-sensitive to criticism, Port Richey MayorKeith Kollenbaum succeeded this week in sticking taxpayers with a bill for a lawyer he had hired to represent him in a court-ordered review of the questionable activities of two other city officials.

Residents ought to be outraged.

By a 4-1 vote Tuesday, the council approved using city money to pay for $3,900 that Kollenbaum has spent so far for legal representation in a state and circuit court review of whether City Council member C. E. "Buck" Hempfling and building official Clay Shake improperly solicited absentee ballots for the election last April. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has concluded that there was no wrongdoing, but Circuit Judge Lynn Tepper is studying whether to throw out the election results because two of the absentee ballots were invalid.

Kollenbaum defeated former council member Joe Mastrocolo in the mayor's race by 12 votes on the strength of the absentees. Shake and Hempfling, supporters of Kollenbaum, distributed and collected many of those ballots.

That Kollenbaum would suggest the city taxpayers foot his legal bill is audacious. That he was unable to see that he had a conflict in voting for the reimbursement is incredible. The worst that could happen from the mayor's point of view is the judge would void the election results and order a special election.

With Hempfling (surprise), Harold Loser and Michael Cox falling in line with Kollenbaum, the council also decided to pick up $1,700 Kollenbaum has spent defending himself against at least two charges brought by Mastrocolo that he violated the state Sunshine Law. Such reimbursement might be arguable, but should not there first be a formal finding?

The council didn't seem to think so in December when it adopted a

resolution designed to protect itself against "unsubstantiated or unfounded charges." The resolution says that "reimbursement shall be made by the city for the reasonable amount of attorney fees plus any reasonable costs incurred by the defending party whether or not the official is absolved from the charge after investigation, the filing of a formal indictment, information or trial."

Whether or not the official is absolved from the charge . . .?

Perhaps this is understatement, but the council does not seem to be putting the taxpayers' interest first.

Few Port Richey officials manage to escape charges of violating the Sunshine Law, which is designed to keep elected officials from doing the public's business in private. It is a terribly political little berg, but the volume of charges stems mainly from the need for a fundamental change in the city charter.

Officials of backward cities such as Port Richey, where the mayor serves as sort of a city manager and council members have dual roles as policy setters and department heads, can hide behind a provision in the law that allows them to meet for administrative and operational duties - as long as they don't discuss anything they might be voting on at a council meeting. The state Attorney General's office does, at least, recommend against such meetings, obviously recognizing that appearances of impropriety can have a devastating effect on a government's credibility.

As long as taxpayers are going to pick up the bills for any legal

challenges, these Port Richey officials have no real motivation to do what virtually every progressive city in Florida has done - establish a true city manager form of government and remove the politicians from the day-to-day operations.

Until Port Richey voters demand this fundamental change, they will continue to have politicians who enjoy far more power than they deserve.