PORT RICHEY — In the first meeting since the city manager was found passed out in his SUV last month, a reluctant City Council tiptoed around the issue of what, if anything, to do about it.
Council members did not discuss the issue during the regular portion of Tuesday night’s meeting. Mayor Eloise Taylor moved to adjourn after the council had finished its regular agenda, but council member Terrance Rowe said the group had an obligation to talk about the issue.
“I think it would be very poor of us to not to at least address and let the citizens know that we are aware of this, we’re monitoring it and that we will take whatever appropriate action that there may be. … for us not to acknowledge it would make us look inept, at least,” Rowe said.
City Manager Tom O’Neill was discovered passed out in the driver’s east of his SUV late on the night of July 13. O’Neill, 59, told council members he was having a medical issue and had to pull over his Ford Explorer, leaving it idling.
When New Port Richey Police Cpl. William Phillips discovered O’Neill, he could not rouse the city manager. Phillips requested help from the Florida Highway Patrol and from the Pasco Sheriff’s Office, but neither agency had an officer available.
When O’Neill was finally wakened, the officer said, he noticed the smell of alcohol.
“He had difficulty removing his wallet and I observed signs of impairment to include watery bloodshot eyes, dazed expression, slurred speech and the odor commonly associated with alcohol about his person,” Phillips wrote in the report.
O’Neill was eventually transported to Northbay Hospital and the incident was classified as a welfare check.
More than 45 minutes of the ordeal was captured on a police cruiser’s dashboard camera.
Port Richey Police Chief Dave Brown, a close friend of O’Neill’s, was called to the scene and followed the ambulance to the hospital. He later drove O’Neill home. O’ Neill’s SUV was driven to his home by a Port Richey police officer.
“I am concerned for the liability of the city,” Rowe said, “because Mr. O’Neill has to function in this city within an automobile of some sort, whether it be his own or ours. And if this is something that could cause that type of situation, then we need to know about it.”
Few on the council chimed in, but there was a show of support for O’Neill, who has served as the Port Richey City Manager for two years and also served the City of New Port Richey in several capacities for 35 years.
“As Terry indicated, the first sense of awareness, we have that awareness,” said Councilman Steve O’Neill, who is not related to Tom O’Neill. “We certainly don’t have any further information. I will say that Tom has done a wonderful job here and we’re human beings. Again, the process is going forward and that’s all we can do.”
The incident is under investigation by State Attorney Bernie McCabe. He has subpoenaed O’Neill’s medical records from the hospital stay.
“As to whether Mr. O’Neill has a medical condition or not that would impact his driving,” Vice-Mayor Bill Colombo said, “whether he can drive or not or has a driver’s license, I would assume – again, I’m not an attorney – is between him and his doctor. And if he has a license to drive, it’s considered that he is capable of driving.”
Added Councilwoman Nancy Britton: “My mother was driving around with Alzheimer’s disease and she was a very safe driver. That has really nothing to do with the whole situation, but there’s so many people out there who have physical issues that typically, they’re out there driving.”
Tom O’Neill declined to comment during the final portion of the meeting and said he had nothing to add when the meeting concluded.