Legislators retreat from bid to dissolve the city

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NEW PORT RICHEY — State Rep. Amber Mariano retreated Friday from her bid to dissolve the city of Port Richey, agreeing instead to a legislative audit of the city’s financial performance.

The action came during Pasco County’s legislative delegation meeting at the Pasco-Hernando State College campus in New Port Richey. Mariano is a Republican from Hudson.

RELATED: Did Port Richey turn a corner just to get mugged by legislator?

Facing Port Richey supporters dressed in aqua-colored T-shirts, legislators agreed to table Mariano’s bill to revoke the city’s charter. Instead, they said they may reconsider the bill depending on the results of an audit.

Mariano, while previewing the proposed legislation, also revealed a significant change. She originally said the decision should be made by legislators in Tallahassee. Her new version called for a public referendum by the voters in Port Richey on whether to dissolve.

But even Sens. Ed Hooper, R-Palm Harbor, and Tom Lee, R-Brandon, admitted they were confused by the bill’s language. And at one point, Mariano said she didn’t understand Hooper’s questions.

Hooper also said that the performance of Port Richey Mayor Scott Tremblay, elected in a June special election, had eased his concerns about the city’s ability to self-govern.

“If you were not standing here as mayor, I’d be supporting dissolving the city of Port Richey, full bore ahead,” Hooper said as Tremblay stood at the podium.

Hooper also drew an extended standing ovation from city employees and residents in the audience, estimated at more than 150 people, when he said: “To the citizens of Port Richey, this is a big deal.”

RELATED: Rep. Amber Mariano, Port Richey officials trade criminal conduct allegations

Mariano’s bill required legislative approval of the dissolution and set up timetables for Pasco County to assume the city’s debts and assets and to provide public services. She included a separate deadline to allow the city of New Port Richey to consider annexing Port Richey. But the revised version included a provision that none of that would happen unless city voters approved disbanding the municipality in a referendum.

Many in the audience missed Mariano’s call for a referendum and instead groaned and guffawed as she laid out why she wanted the bill. Mariano cast the issue as a cost savings for taxpayers and has questioned the city’s spending of redevelopment money, suggested it faced mounting debts and pointed to city scandals earlier this year.

City officials have disputed her assertions and said the city has a $12 million annual budget and just 3 percent earmarked for debt service on a $2.4 million debt. Spending by the Community Redevelopment Agency — the City Council acting in a separate function — meets state law, City Manager Vince Lupo has said.

“Financially, Port Richey is thriving,” Tremblay told legislators.

RELATED: Port Richey dissolution is power grab by Rep. Amber Mariano’s father, city alleges

The scandals, legislators admitted, had given them pause about the city’s future. Then-Mayor Dale Massad was arrested in February on a charge of practicing medicine without a license and multiple counts of attempted murder of a law enforcement officer after he was accused of firing two shots at Pasco County Sheriff’s deputies executing a search warrant.

Later, both Massad and his successor, then-Acting Mayor Terrence Rowe, were accused of conspiracy and obstruction of justice. A jury convicted Massad on those latter charges. The case against Rowe is pending. Both resigned their public offices.

It was Lee who suggested a financial review by the Joint Legislative Audit Committee so lawmakers and residents could have budget information from an impartial source. Tremblay said he welcomed the review. And after Mariano and Hooper conferred behind the curtain on the elevated stage, the representative returned to her seat and made the motion to table the bill.

“It’s not a rash thing we’re trying to do,” Mariano told reporters afterward.

Asked about her private conversation with Hooper, who is listed as the proposed bill’s Senate sponsor, Mariano said, “we just needed to make sure we were all on the same page.”

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