PORT RICHEY – When state Rep. Amber Mariano walked into the auditorium at Pasco-Hernando State College West Campus on Oct. 11 to call to order the Pasco County Legislative Delegation’s annual public meeting, she knew the audience was not there to cheer her on.
The agenda held a local bill that would have started the process of dissolving the city of Port Richey, a bill that was authored by Mariano, R-New Port Richey.
At the delegation meeting, most every statement made by Mariano, the chair of the legislative delegation, was met with either cynical laughter or boos from people opposed to dissolving the city’s charter.
In the end, the delegation adopted a motion made by Mariano to table the bill pending an operational audit of Port
Richey by the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee.
State Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, cited the election of attorney Scott Tremblay as Port Richey mayor for his decision to support tabling Mariano’s bill, pending the outcome of the audit. Simpson is in line to be Senate president in 2021 and 2022.
In an Oct. 31 interview, Mariano said the letter requesting the audit has been drafted and would be sent within the next few weeks.
“We did request the audit to be expedited, but it most likely will take up to a year,” Mariano said.
Mariano recalled what she described as “two very bad weeks” for her, both politically and personally, but has no regrets about proposing a legislative end to Port Richey as a incorporated city.
The state representative said the trigger for making such a move came from six months of “homework,” with staff pouring over the financials of Port Richey. The review was a response to the ouster in early 2019 of Mayor Dale Massad and acting Mayor Terrence Rowe after both men were arrested on criminal charges surrounding an investigation of Massad for practicing medicine without a license by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
In arguing against Mariano’s bill to dissolve the city, Port Richey officials stressed that the allegations against Massad and Rowe did not involve their city government duties.
Mariano, however, said the “red flag” for her was how the city was spending money raised by its Community Redevelopment Agency on salaries.
“I was just doing my job. That information was passed along to our state House legal counsel, who advised us this was not being done according to statute,” she said. “This was not a formal judgement, but a legal opinion we were given. My fear was this could lead the city into an unsustainable financial situation and there were no signs they were stopping how they were using those funds.”
Both before and after the legislative delegation meeting, City Manager Vincent Lupo and other Port Richey officials said the financial concerns raised by Mariano were unjustified. At the Oct. 22 City Council meeting, Andrew Laflin, a principal in the accounting firm CLA who acts as the city’s finance director on a part-time basis, gave a presentation that highlighted the city’s financial stability. City officials have said they are confident the audit will back their contention that Port Richey is not facing any financial crisis.
Mariano still believes turning the city over to the county would save in property taxes and have services provided “at a more efficient cost.”
Mariano, in the interview, said there had been public acknowledgement by city officials about what was happening, and there had been some reversal in the percentages of the funds being used toward administrative costs.
“If the new mayor had come in and those numbers dropped to zero, there would have been no issue,” she said. “But, this was taxpayer money being used in a way our legal counsel said was impermissible. If the city knows it’s wrong, that percentage should be zero right now.”
Mariano denied allegations from city supporters that her bill to dissolve Port Richey had come “out of nowhere.” The legislation was publicly advertised, and her office issued a press release announcing it, she said.
“There is no obligation to put out a press release in addition to the notice,” Mariano said. “We did that. From there, it went crazy. I think some didn’t understand the process.”
There were also “misconceptions,” Mariano said, about the delegation meeting, which the House and Senate members whose district include Pasco County hold every year as a prelude to the regular legislative session.
“The purpose of the meeting was to get the input of the citizens and to hear how they thought it was going to impact them,” she said. “I gave my presentation and said why I thought financially it was the best decision.”
Adding language to the bill that would allow Port Richey residents to vote yes or no on disincorporation was “the point of the process” of staging the delegation meeting, Mariano said, adding the meeting could have been held in Tallahassee in the middle of the legislative session.
“But, I wanted to make sure the citizens were there,” she said. “That was the point of adding the referendum. Do I know what’s best for the citizens? I don’t know. I was trying to save them money and future headaches.”
Mariano spoke of the “negative and just mean words that were said about me” after she announced the disincorporation bill and the criminal complaint against her the city filed with the FDLE.
That city’s complaint against Mariano, for filing a false report to law enforcement, was quickly dropped by law enforcement authorities.
Asked about the history of past attempts over the years to do away with the city, Mariano, 24, said she only recalls one vote, concerning merging with New Port Richey and the efforts to elect City Council members who were committed to doing away with the city. “But the ones who got elected decided they didn’t want to do that anymore.”
Mariano said she understands why city employees don’t want to see Port Richey dissolved, but downplayed the significance to the election of Tremblay as mayor and council members Tom Kinsella and Todd Maklary. Special elections were held after the arrests of Massad and Rowe and former Councilman Richard Bloom’s resignation from council to run for mayor.
“They have a new mayor and they say they are turning a new leaf, but there is so much more to a city beyond the mayor and council,” Mariano said. “There is a culture there that has over decades bred these kind of issues. I’m not casting stones on anyone in particular, but clearly there has been turnover in every department in every position and it was important to have this discussion.”
Marino insists dissolving the city was not an idea that came without much thought.
“I may have said in the beginning we should dissolve it, but before I did any formal action to move forward we did our homework and it made sense for the city to be dissolved,” she said.
Mariano says she is satisfied to wait for the operational audit’s findings.
“If everything shows up well, and the citizens want to pay for extra government, that will be their decision,” Mariano said.