PORT RICHEY – Nine residents threw hats in the ring to become the next member of this arrest-shortened City Council roster at a special meeting held April 4.
Some were still working, some were retired. Some were longtime residents, some only around for a couple years. Nurses, teachers, engineers, real estate professionals, coaches.
They all had one important thing in common at the end of the night last Thursday, however: none of them had been named City Council member.
If nothing happens in the next couple of months, council may temporarily be down to two members. Councilman Richard Bloom has said he will resign in mid-June.
The city swung and missed again during its second attempt at temporarily filling a seat on a five-member board with two vacancies.
Former mayor Dale Massad and vice mayor Terrence Rowe, who was briefly the acting mayor following Massad’s suspension from office by Gov. Ron DeSantis, are no longer seated after being arrested within the past couple months.
Strike one at placing a resident on the board came on March 26, when Bloom called in sick with food poisoning about 19 minutes before the regularly scheduled meeting began.
Bloom took his seat April 4, however, and again proved to be the impediment to the shorthanded council selecting a resident.
“Because of the way the council is structured it requires a majority vote,” City Manager Vincent Lupo said to reporters after the meeting adjourned. “Councilman Bloom refused to accept the gavel knowing full well that it would allow two votes. So, he played a game of chess and evidently succeeded.”
Any nominated resident needed a simple majority to succeed April 4, meaning two of the three remaining council members. Councilwoman Jennie Sorrell nominated Janet Eckermann as Councilman William Dittmer held the gavel, but Bloom refused to second the nomination. Dittmer passed the gavel to Sorrell and nominated Todd Maklary. Bloom again refused to provide the needed second.
As Lupo stated to reporters, Bloom refused to accept the gavel with the assumption that Dittmer and Sorrell would have nominated and seconded a resident.
While speaking from the council and to reporters afterward, Bloom cited Florida statutes and due process for those facing charges as reasons for city not taking action April 4. He also raised the prospect that the city could end up in a legal battle if it removes Rowe from his seat and replaces him with a resident.
Bloom, who is both an attorney and a doctor, and City Attorney James Mathieu disagreed on the legality of vacating Rowe’s seat. Mathieu stated that council is proceeding in line with the city’s charter section regarding vacancies and forfeitures, not state statutes cited by Bloom.
“I respectfully disagree with you, Dr. Bloom, but trust me, I’ve done a lot of research on this and it happens all the time,” Mathieu said about his confidence in the city’s ability to forfeit Rowe’s seat legally.
Rowe’s council duties were suspended by Gov. Ron DeSantis on March 19 after he was arrested on one count of obstruction of justice, one count of conspiracy to commit obstruction of justice and one count of the use of two-way communication devices to facilitate the commission of a crime. Charges were in relation to communication Rowe had with Massad while the latter was being held in the Pasco County Jail, according to the Pasco Sheriff’s Office. Rowe used his city email account to request the personnel file a Port Richey Police officer he and Massad allegedly suspect of being involved in Massad’s arrest and case. The two disgraced councilmembers spoke about the officer in a recorded phone call made by Massad from the jail.
A councilperson’s seat can be filled by someone else only after it becomes vacant. A suspension from the governor’s office doesn’t vacate a councilperson from their seat. That can happen by the board forfeiting the councilperson’s seat, as was attempted last week, or by the city receiving a letter of resignation from the councilperson.
Dittmer limited his comments last Thursday but Sorrell was more outspoken in venting her frustrations.
“Any person who serves in an elected office for the people should not hold the city hostage like he is doing,” Sorrell said. “It is unfortunate that Councilman Rowe has had his legal problem that caused this to be brought upon him. … We’re all sorry about that but morally he should not hold the city hostage.
“We need to move forward, we need to get more stability in this city and we really, really need to get our council back on track to take care of the people that live here.”
Following adjournment, Lupo stated that the city is still operating as usual despite the unsettled council situation.
“The city is operating,” Lupo said. “The city is moving forward. There was an item on the agenda, the consent agenda, that allowed us to pay all of the bills and do all of the normal things. This city is still working 24/7. Our policemen are here, our firemen are responding and the city will progress.”
While taking questions from reporters, Bloom also announced his intention to resign his seat so that he can run for mayor when a special election is held June 18.
“There was an old councilman that used to sit up here; he’s running for mayor,” Bloom said, referencing Bill Colombo, who spoke during public comment supporting the city’s effort to remove Rowe from council.
“These folks out here tonight are supporting him and they want to try and take over the council so they can repeat everything they have done in the past. I will do everything I possibly can to prevent that from happening. That is why I resign my seat as councilperson. To begin June 18, I will no longer be a councilperson. I resign to run for mayor.
“I have to do everything I can in my power to prevent Bill Columbo from getting into this seat as mayor of this city. That would be a throwback and it would be devastating to Port Richey.”