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Port Richey council kills move to curb complaints

The attempt fails, but a city building official says the accuser, unchecked, could make him leave.

By ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 11, 2003

PORT RICHEY -- City Manager Vince Lupo has a simple way to illustrate his point about Dolores Felske. Standing outside his office Thursday, he whispered her name to an employee who happened to walk by.

The woman shuddered and grimaced, which pleased Lupo. "Go ahead, ask anyone," he challenged a visitor. "You'll get the same response."

During Wednesday's night's City Council meeting, Lupo tried to resolve his problems with Felske, a longtime critic of city government who is not shy about requesting documents or filing complaints.

Lupo suggested that the city investigate the possibility of an injunction that would stop, or at least impede, her efforts.

"I am aware of the potential chilling effect on the public," Lupo said, but "the city has suffered an inordinate amount of unfounded challenges."

The proposal failed by a 3-2 vote, with Dale Massad and Phyllis Grae in the minority. But the unusual request stirred debate, and the council's inaction could cost the city its building official, Bill Sanders -- a frequent target of Felske's complaints.

Sanders said he would notify Lupo this morning that he would seek another job because the complaints, even if unsubstantiated, damage his reputation. If Sanders does leave -- he said it could take up to a year -- the city would be faced with hiring its fifth building official in as many years. The department has been dogged with allegations of wrongdoing and sloppy code enforcement.

Council members who voted against pursuing an injunction said it was inappropriate. "It's dangerous ground," said Mayor Eloise Taylor, a lawyer in west Pasco. "I believe people have rights to complain about their government."

Fletcher Baldwin, a University of Florida professor specializing in constitutional law, was equally unsympathetic:

"The government in this country belongs to the people. Until that person acts in violation of the law, that person has every right to be a gadfly."

Felske, 60, said she was annoyed but not surprised. She said city officials had tried to limit her access to City Hall, saying she should pose questions in writing.

"As far as me taking up a lot of time at City Hall, that's an outright lie," she said. "If they can stop me from coming in, then they can stop any citizen in this city from asking questions."

Felske is no ordinary citizen, Lupo said. He accused her of "spreading innuendo" and costing the city time and money to research and defend itself against her claims, most of which deal with building and zoning issues.

In a recent complaint to the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation, Felske criticized Sanders for his dealing with a plastic business near her Leo Kidd Avenue home.

Among other things, Felske objected to Sanders' reasoning that Bruce Development Inc. was not an industrial site and could be placed in a commercial zone with a variance.

The City Council provided Sanders with a lawyer to defend him against the charges, which were later dismissed by the state agency. The lawyer charged $150 an hour but has not yet submitted a bill.

Lupo insisted Thursday that he was not trying to squelch Felske's right to attend council meetings. But he said she should be limited from showing up at City Hall, demanding records and investigations.

"This has nothing to do with freedom of speech. This has to do with us in City Hall having to deal with untoward comments and allegations that cost us time and money."

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