PORT RICHEY — One of the most important City Council meetings in years was about to start Tuesday evening when City Manager Vincent Lupo shared the latest bad news with a crowd now used to that sort of thing.
Council member Richard Bloom had called 20 minutes earlier and said he had food poisoning and couldn't attend. There was no quorum, so there could be no vote to appoint a new member as planned.
There would be no way to jump-start a city government paralyzed by the recent arrests of two mayors.
More than 50 had crowded into the chambers, some to observe, others vying to join the council.
Disappointment quickly turned into outrage. Port Richey is getting used to that, too.
"This is staged!" called out resident Kenneth Burke, 60, from the audience.
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It all goes back to the council vacancy created by the Feb. 21 arrest and resignation of ex-mayor Dale Massad on charges of attempted murder and practicing medicine without a license.
Vice mayor and fellow council member Terrence Rowe stepped in as acting mayor — but then on March 13, authorities arrested him, too, on charges that he conspired with Massad to target a city police officer who helped investigate the former mayor.
The attempted murder charges were filed because authorities say Massad fired on the deputies who raided his home. Massad remains held without bail in the Pasco County jail, which is where authorities said he placed the recorded phone call that caught the two mayors plotting together. Rowe was freed after posting bail.
Massad's council spot is open because he resigned. Rowe technically remains on the council, but cannot vote or participate because the governor suspended him.
So the plan Tuesday night was for the remaining three council members to replace Massad by picking an interim member from a pool of the residents who would show up to interview for the job — sort of an "American Idol" for municipal government.
But then Lupo told the crowd that Bloom had suddenly fallen ill.
Burke fumed afterward. He said officials deliberately avoided the quorum of three members required for council to function.
"Richard Bloom knew this," he said. "Richard Bloom decided to step out."
Why? To dodge a vote that would alter the council's makeup and potentially Rowe's fate, Burke said, by voting to remove Rowe since he still hasn't resigned or been removed by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Bloom did not return a call for comment placed after Tuesday's meeting.
Lupo, however, denied there was anything suspicious about the circumstances that disrupted Tuesday's agenda. He encouraged residents interested in the council seat to hold steady in their pursuit.
Later, on Wednesday, the council announced that applicants for the council seat will be heard at a rescheduled meeting April 4.
"We had no way of knowing until this last minute," Lupo said. He showed a Tampa Bay Times reporter his cell phone and the 7:11 p.m. call he got from Bloom. The meeting started at 7:30 p.m.
If officials had known ahead of time, Lupo said, they would have told residents about the delay.
"It's bullcrap," said resident Stevie Brooks, 52, who said he moved here from Tampa last year. "It's a good-ol'-boy system."
Brooks said his first year in this small Pasco County city has been hectic. Burke agreed, saying he bought a house here because he wanted to live in a small, quiet community.
The breakdown of Tuesday's meeting is symbolic of the city's larger issues, said resident Joseph Del Sardo, 28. He said he's a lifelong resident of Port Richey who plans to run for mayor.
"This just really put the nail in the coffin," he said.
As the chambers emptied and Lupo spoke to a reporter, one resident told the city manager she thought he was going to announce that Rowe had finally resigned.
Lupo replied: "That's what should've happened."
Contact Justin Trombly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @JustinTrombly.