2002: The Year in Review
City Hall moved, but the tempests within resumed: over the police, the budget and the building department.
By MATTHEW WAITE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 26, 2002
PORT RICHEY -- Port Richey in 2002 was playing a lot of the same music as before. The big difference was, the noise was coming from a new venue.
City Hall up and moved in March, with the town government now in a Mediterranean-style building at Ridge Road and Formel Avenue. The move completed a journey that saw City Hall sold to Wal-Mart in 2000, moved from an abandoned strip mall to another strip mall outside the city until it was annexed, and then to the new building.
The venue was new, but the political battles inside were a mix of ongoing feuds and new fights, with old elections and building department worries carrying over into new brawls over keeping the city's police or contracting with the Sheriff's Office.
The year started with political simmering over former council member Joe Menicola caught on tape in 2000 "declaring war" on the Police Department over his son's getting a ticket. The tape was made public in December 2001, just before city politics heats up for the elections.
Menicola said he was treated badly by police when he saw his son getting a ticket and that's what set him off.
The war was short-lived -- Menicola and police Chief Bill Downs made peace long before the tape was released to the Times -- and Menicola had to call on police to help his election chances.
One of the bigger campaign issues in 2002 was that someone was stealing campaign signs belonging to Menicola, Vice Mayor Pat Guttman and council member Dale Massad. Those three, representing a council majority at the time, asked that police patrols be put out to stop the sign bandit.
In the end, the Port Richey political sign bandit stole several dozen signs and cost the city's taxpayers $2,036 in police overtime.
Guttman and Massad won seats on the council, along with Bill Bennett in April.
Peace after the election -- marked by the development of waterfront revitalization plans -- lasted until June, when the city learned that the state was investigating former Building Official Ralph Zanello. Zanello stopped working for the city in 1999, and the building department has been a source of controversy since.
At the same time state investigators were looking around, city officials hired their own investigator to look into building department matters.
The City Council, upset by the secret inquiry, decided to do its own investigation -- what would have been a third in as many months -- but put it off in deference to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation inquiry. That probe became public in December, and council members haven't said if they are going revive their own probe.
The major obstacle to hiring an investigator: money.
Council members shot down a tax increase before learning during budget workshops in the summer that the budget was tight, revenue projections were a little too optimistic and services would have to be cut.
A lot of the budget hand-wringing was over the Police Department's $1.2-million share of the city's $3.2-million budget. Then, during budget hearings, a citizens group put forward a proposal to eliminate the Police Department and contract with the Pasco Sheriff's Office.
Divisions in the city quickly formed, with dueling petitions circulating to either keep or eliminate the police. A budget had to be passed before the police matter could be settled, but council members have a referendum for voters on track for the April 8 city election.
The first quarter of 2003 will be dominated by the police matter until it's settled in April. Each council meeting dealing with the police has been packed, and both citizens and council members are emotional about the issue.
-- Matthew Waite covers Port Richey city government. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6247, or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6247. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org .