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Wednesday, Apr 23, 2014
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Port Richey councilman wants O’Neill to resign

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PORT RICHEY — A Port Richey city councilman has called for City Manager Tom O’Neill’s resignation in light of O’Neill’s pending DUI charge and the revelation that his blood alcohol content was more than four times the legal limit.

“I believe I was lied to — we all were lied to — when he led us to believe he was having a medical condition,” Councilman Terrence Rowe said. “I don’t have trust in my city manager anymore.”

He attempted to call a special meeting to deal with the matter, but three other council members declined to second his motion and the fourth, Councilman Steve O’Neill, didn’t return phone calls from the city clerk. “This is going to have to lay for two weeks until we have our next council meeting,” Rowe said. “I’m very upset.”

The next City Council meeting is Sept. 10 at 7:30 p.m.

Councilwoman Nancy Britton accused Rowe of sensationalizing the matter. “Do I think this is a serious matter? Absolutely,” she said. “But there’s no reason it can’t wait for 10 days until our next meeting.”

She said she didn’t feel a sense of urgency because O’Neill wasn’t drinking on the job and wasn’t driving a city vehicle. “I mean, he’s not stealing money,” she said. “He didn’t do something unethical. He did something stupid.”

Councilman Bill Colombo said he still trusts O’Neill. “Do I feel like he was forthcoming? Yes,” he said.

Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe charged O’Neill Thursday with a single misdemeanor count of DUI for the July 13 incident that New Port Richey police initially classified as a “welfare check.” O’Neill’s blood alcohol content was .367, according to an affidavit filed by the officer who found him shortly before midnight, unconscious and slumped behind the wheel of his SUV with the motor running.

New Port Richey Cpl. William Phillips did not charge O’Neill or impound his vehicle at the time. Instead, he was taken to North Bay Hospital for treatment, accompanied by Port Richey Police Chief Dave Brown. Port Richey police drove the car to his house, and Phillips returned his keys to him at the hospital.

New Port Richey Police Chief Kim Bogart said Brown did not make an overt attempt to influence the investigation. “But I don’t think the chief took a passive role, either,” he said. “I think his presence at the scene complicated the situation unnecessarily.”

In his sworn statement, Phillips said he learned that O’Neill has consumed “large amounts of alcohol” that night and displayed “telltale signs of intoxication.” He had bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, and he couldn’t stand without assistance from paramedics.

Rowe said O’Neill was “a danger to the public that night.” O’Neill was hired as city manager in 2011 after a 35-year career at the city of New Port Richey, which included a short stint as city manager. He works at the discretion of the council and can be fired without cause, according to his contract.

“This may have happened on his personal time, but his actions reflect back on the city,” Rowe said. “At the very least, I would like to place him on administrative leave until the case is resolved.”

O’Neill’s arraignment is scheduled for Sept. 12. O’Neill told the Tribune he was in the process of hiring an attorney and would not comment until the case was resolved.

Rowe also had strong words for Brown, who he believes influenced the investigation, but stopped short of calling for his ouster. Brown, who is close friends with O’Neill, told Phillips his boss was taking medication for a medical condition.

“It looks like there was interference there,” Rowe said. “I know he wishes he hadn’t been there that night.”

Still, he said New Port Richey Police should have followed through with a DUI investigation that night. “They didn’t follow procedure — it stopped somewhere along the line,” Rowe said.

Bogart agreed that Phillips “could have done more” and said the department “has learned a great deal as a result of the incident.” Ultimately, it was Phillips’ signature on the DUI citation.

Bogart said Phillips also erred by not briefing him immediately and by withholding information, such as the presence of the dashboard video. He didn’t learn about the incident until two days later, when he overheard some of his officers discussing it and he found out about the video from media reports. “I should have been notified,” he said. But he insisted “there was no cover-up on our agency’s part.”

lkinsler@tampatrib.com

(813) 371-1852

Twitter @LKinslerTBO

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