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An ill-conceived legal strategy by city attorney

By C.T. BOWEN
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 16, 2002

Divide and conquer.

It's the legal strategy from Port Richey City Attorney Paul Marino. Except, under the Marino doctrine, the aim isn't to separate the enemy. It's to put a schism between the city he represents and the chief building official the city used to employ.

Make that divide and cover. Your backside.

In layman's terms, this is the don't-blame-us, it's-all-Ralph's-fault school of legal defense.

Ralph is Ralph Zanello, who left city employment in fall 1999 for a job in Hernando County. His seven-year tenure in Port Richey was colorful to say the least.

There were questions about attempting to bill FEMA for $1,700 worth of plants to be purchased from Zanello's ex-wife after the no-name storm in March 1993, a 90-day probation after being accused of improperly lobbying a council member on a zoning case, a lawsuit against said council member, disputes with government gadflies and run-ins with council members.

"You won't have Ralph to kick around anymore," Zanello told the City Council upon his departure.

Wrong.

Kicking Ralph around is exactly Marino's intent. He and City Manager Vince Lupo secretly hired a retired Gulfport police investigator to check into complaints about the building department. Mostly, Marino worried about the city's liability from homeowners who said the city issued them certificates of occupancy even though their houses weren't built to code.

Marino explained why to the council earlier this week. The city's legal defense, if it is needed, will be to distance Port Richey from the official responsible for the problem, he said.

In other words, hang Zanello out to dry.

But, just imagine the cross-examination of Lupo if there is a legal proceeding. A sharp attorney will just pull a one-page letter from Zanello's employment file. This is the honest-to-goodness Sept. 13, 1999, correspondence from Lupo to Zanello upon his resignation:

"It is with a sense of both sadness and joy that I accept your letter of resignation. Joy in that I am certainly happy for the new opportunities that you and your family will receive by virtue of your new employment. Sadness in that during the three years that I have known you, I have come to trust and rely upon your dedication, knowledge, professionalism and unswerving attention to the needs of the city of Port Richey.

"Your working title in Port Richey, chief building official, does not begin to convey the many hats and activities that you conducted on behalf of the city. As a river/coastal city, one needs only to recall the many storms and the dangerous days and nights that you labored tirelessly to help protect the city and its residents. Then, afterwards, characteristically, you assisted the entire community with getting on with the rebuilding and finding the financial aid necessary to not only accomplish the repairs, but also to construct future flood mitigation projects.

Your construction knowledge and negotiation skills have not only saved this city thousands of dollars, but has also enabled us to complete many projects under budget and ahead of schedule.

Your ability to work with federal, state, county and other municipal officials and their agencies and the positive results from those interactions are absolutely legendary.

I believe that this community has been indeed fortunate to have you assisting them over the past seven years.

Once again I wish you every possible success in your new life career."

Let's highlight that prose again: Trust. Dedication. Knowledge. Professionalism. Unswerving attention. Protect the city. Positive results. Legendary.

So, Zanello is a legend when he's walking out the door, but now is the cause of the previous ill will at the city building department?

Then how come Lupo rehired Zanello, on a contract basis, in 2000 when the city was between building department heads? At the time, Lupo said questions about Zanello's past were "immaterial."

Don't mistake this as a defense for Zanello. He never should have been allowed to remain employed with the city for seven years.

But, considering the way the city manager blessed Zanello's work performance, and what looks to be an ill-conceived legal strategy from the city attorney, the City Council should consider a more pressing question:

Is there anybody else from whom Port Richey should distance itself?

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