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New Port Richey hit with federal civil rights lawsuit

A property owner accuses city officials of harassing her with code violations and illegally breaking into her property.
 
New Port Richey City Hall . [ALICE HERDEN | Special to the Times]
New Port Richey City Hall . [ALICE HERDEN | Special to the Times] [ Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Sept. 18, 2023|Updated Sept. 18, 2023

New Port Richey is facing another federal civil rights lawsuit, this one filed by a property owner who said she was was cited with numerous code violations and was harassed by city officials who broke into her house to conduct an illegal search.

The 39-page complaint was filed last week by Michelle Wojciechowski against the city, City Attorney Timothy Driscoll and New Port Richey code enforcement officer Charles Morgan. The eight-count lawsuit alleges violations of civil rights, trespassing and retaliation, and is seeking $1 million in damages and preventative measures against future retaliation.

Wojciechowski, a licensed psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner, purchased the property at 5445 Gulf Drive, New Port Richey, in late 2020 and planned to open a therapy practice. According to the complaint, records showed that the property was an office and residence and therefore appropriate for that use.

After closing on the property, she started work cleaning up and preparing the site and reached out to city officials to make sure what she needed to do to open the business. She said she spoke with Tammy Ledford, permit technician, explaining her plans to open a mental health clinic.

“Ledford told her that ‘methadone clinics’ were not welcome in New Port Richey and refused to provide Wojciechowski with a clear and direct answer regarding NPR’s requirements for opening a business — essentially refusing to speak with her further about the issue,” according to the complaint.

Wojciechowski said she made no mention of opening a methadone clinic, according to the complaint. Soon after, she said the “attacks” by city officials began. In late 2021, Morgan cited her for using her commercial property as a residence even though she says she was not living there. It was the first of numerous alleged code violations.

The lawsuit states Wojciechowski reached out to city officials but they did not work with her.

“Instead ... New Port Richey went on a crusade to revile, torment, and intimidate Wojciechowski and took active measures to hinder her use and enjoyment of the Gulf Drive Property, and ultimately force her to leave New Port Richey,” the suit alleges.

When she spoke out about the treatment at City Council meetings, city officials “attacked and retaliated against Wojciechowski for exercising her First Amendment right to free speech by citing her with a multitude of unsubstantiated code violations,” the complaint states.

The city also pursued criminal charges related to the code violations, which the state attorney later decided not to prosecute, according to court records that included information about the search of her property.

On March 16, 2022, the suit claims, the city drilled out the locks on Wojciechowski’s property and conducted an extensive search there when she was not present. Led by Driscoll and Morgan, police entered the site “with guns drawn and proceeded to search the property without probable cause. Before breaking into the Gulf Drive Property, the Defendants were observed searching through the trash cans on Wojciechowski’s property,” the lawsuit states.

Security camera footage showed officers “contemplating killing Wojciechowski’s dogs who were in the building.”

The suit outlines the 13 officials who allegedly trespassed on the property, including the city attorney, code enforcement officers, the building official, five members of the city police department and fire personnel. City officials later replaced the lock on the property but did not provide the property owner keys back into the building, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also states that officials made it clear that she was not welcome in the city and they didn’t appreciate residents such as Wojciechowski who filed frequent public records requests. At one recorded council meeting, then-Mayor Rob Marlowe said that people who “weaponized” public records requests should “just go away.”

City Manager Debbie Manns and Morgan said that the city doesn’t comment on pending litigation. Driscoll did not immediately return a phone call.

This is the second recent federal suit against New Port Richey. The previous one was filed last year by Marlowe Jones, a resident arrested for assault during a Black Lives Matter demonstration. He was later acquitted. He has accused the city of discrimination, mistreatment and harassment.

That lawsuit seeks $2 million in damages.