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Column

Attempt to bully gadfly is a sign of dangerous thinking

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By C. T. BOWEN, Pasco Times Editor of Editorials

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 13, 2003


Port Richey City Manager Vince Lupo wants to hang a "Keep Out" sign on City Hall.

Not for everyone. Just for Dolores Felske.

Felske's crime? She asks questions. She requests public records. She reports what she believes to be unacceptable government behavior to the appropriate authorities.

A sheriff's detective once described Felske as a community watchdog. Lupo doesn't perceive Felske to be a good-government advocate. He considers her a nuisance, a pest to city employees, and he wants an injunction to keep her away from City Hall.

So, who's next on Lupo's list? Nosy journalists? People who live in mobile homes? People who don't drink at the Seaside Inn?

It is a far-fetched list. But it illustrates the danger of Lupo's thinking. City Hall is a public building paid for by the taxpayers of Port Richey. That includes Felske. Trying to keep her out, or keeping her from petitioning her local government, is unconstitutional.

You would think the city's legal counsel would have cut off the debate at Wednesday's council meeting when Lupo made his pitch. No such luck. It shouldn't surprise, however, since there is historical precedent for the tomfoolery.

Four years ago, Lupo, in a public meeting, described Joe Mastrocolo and Fred Miller, former council members turned commentators on a public access television show, as "Tweedle Dumb and Tweedle Dumber" and as "political losers."

Lupo's commentary followed Mastrocolo's telling the state Department of Environmental Protection the city had built a children's playground atop a former gun range. Tests found high lead levels in a berm behind the playground fence. The state ordered the city to do more tests, the results of which indicated contamination was not widespread. The city closed the playground, but Lupo complained about the $40,000 price of the environmental monitoring.

"Maybe it's time for this City Council to take a hard-line position against individuals who think it is cute . . . to make false and misleading claims," City Attorney Paul Marino chimed.

Marino repeated a similar theme Wednesday when he suggested the city sue Felske for the legal fees the city must pay defending Building Official Bill Sanders.

Sanders, meanwhile, said he will begin looking for another job. Felske's recent complaints about him -- unfounded, according to the Department of Business and Professional Regulation -- have damaged his reputation, he said.

Sanders' supposed departure presents the City Council with a superb opportunity. Some members want a time and motion study of each city department as it considers cost savings. They should reread the report submitted two years ago from a grand jury investigating the building department. Disband the department if the city can't run it professionally, the grand jurors said.

A vacancy at the head of the department is a good time to act on the recommendation. Of course, contracting with Pasco County or another agency to handle permitting and other building department chores has its drawbacks. It could end the chicanery, real or perceived, that has dominated the department for decades.

Felske has battled the department for years over property across the street from her residence on Leo Kidd Drive. Now, she faces an upcoming code enforcement board hearing to answer an accusation the vehicles from her family's dump-truck hauling business violate residential zoning codes.

Felske points out the trucks have been parked there since 1993 and the property is zoned C-3, commercial. No wonder she believes she is the victim of government retaliation. Lupo's pitch for an injunction only cements that impression.

But Lupo isn't the first Port Richey official to take aim at Felske or other gadflies. Eight years ago, the City Council adopted a local law saying it needed to protect city workers from residents stalking and physically or verbally harassing them. A private lawyer onced warned Felske to cease the slander, harassment and intentional infliction of mental distress on then Building Official Ralph Zanello. Just last year, three days after Felske detailed her complaints with the Building Department in a letter published in the Times, she discovered the city's code enforcement officer, a member of the Building Department, outside her home. He told her the RV she and her husband just acquired was parked illegally.

It is commendable that a three-person council majority deflated Lupo's ill-advised attempt to obtain an injunction. It is no surprise that Dale Massad backed Lupo's bid to bar Felske from City Hall, but it is disappointing to see newly re-elected Council member Phyllis Grae acquiesce to the bullying.

Tuesday night, after her re-election, she said she wanted to repair the divisions within the city. Her vote less than 24 hours later shows her healing powers are severely limited.

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