New Port Richey city manager texted she was 'not happy' about BLM activist's innocent verdict

The city manager says that she hopes that no division comes to New Port Richey because of the innocent verdict.

click to enlarge Debbie Manns speaks about a park renovation in New Port Richey. - City of New Port Richey Facebook
City of New Port Richey Facebook
Debbie Manns speaks about a park renovation in New Port Richey.

New Port Richey's City Manager Debbie Manns was "not happy" about a Black Lives Matter activist being found not guilty in court after he was falsely charged with a felony, text messages show.

In the text exchange obtained via a public records request, Manns discussed the case  of Marlowe Jones with former NPR councilman and current insurance agent Jeff Starkey.

Jones is a leader of the city's BLM movement who was charged with battery on a law enforcement officer during a march in 2020 and was prosecuted by the state attorney this year—despite zero evidence of him committing the crime.
On May 5, Jones was awaiting the verdict in his case from a jury of his peers. Meanwhile, Manns and Starkey texted back and forth about the case, after Starkey had asked for an update.

Manns told Starkey that that the case was not looking good for the city, and Starkey questioned why the state attorney chose to prosecute Jones.

"They didn't realize he would be portrayed as a saint," Manns wrote.

"He's no saint," Starkey responded.

Manns said "no kidding" in response to Starkey's text accusing Jones of not being a saint, and commented that the community good Jones has accomplished was also shared during the trial.

At 3:57 p.m. that day Manns texted Starkey "not guilty."

"He'll never let the city live this down," Starkey wrote. "Unfortunately this will just empower him and the loons that spoke Tuesday at Vox Pop."

"I know. Not happy," wrote Manns.

The "loons" Starkey referred to are the citizens and activists who regularly show up to NPR city council meetings to speak about issues in the city, with the hopes that public officials will listen.

They do this because NPR has important issues that need addressing, especially within the police department that falsely accused Jones.

During a 2020 protest, the far right group the Proud Boys prayed with NPR police. An NPR police officer also shared intel to an armed right-wing vigilante on where to locate the BLM protesters. BLM protesters were charged up to $2,500 with noise ordinance  violations during protests. Those fines were later dropped.
On a phone call with Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, Manns said that despite how the texts read, she doesn't actually agree with Starkey that the people who speak at public comment are loons, but that their input is actually crucial.

"It's the people's chance to get the level of service that they deserve," she told CL.

She also claimed that the text messages didn't reflect the entirety of how she felt about the Jones trial.

"The 'not happy' is not related to whether or not he was found not guilty or not," Manns said. "It relates more to the sort of circumstance in general."

She also placed the onus of any division that might come to the city not on the false charges themselves, but on the jury's decision.

"I think it's regretful that the whole circumstance happened at all and am just really hopeful that more division doesn't occur in the city as a result of the findings of the jury," Mann said.

She hoped that this wouldn't lead to Jones being "divisive" during future public comment sessions at city hall.

"I'm only not happy if things go off poorly, and if Marlowe Jones were to lead the divisiveness in the city through his attendance at VoxPop," Mann said. "Hopefully, you know, he's a man of some grace and wouldn't do that."

Mann confirmed to CL that she was being updated about the Jones case by NPRPD Police Chief Kim Bogart, and that Jones did have a track record of working to keep the peace between protesters and police at marches before the one where he was arrested.
Jones is now pursuing a civil claim against the city for his experience during the two years that the charges hung over his head, which could have landed him in jail for up to five years. He's retained Natalie Jackson Law, the same group that represented Trayvon Martin's family in their civil case.

"These text messages are very disturbing on so many levels," Jones said. "I am shocked but not surprised. After reading the texts, I would be lying if I told you that it did not affect my mental health, because no one should be treated like this. And it's all because I was a Black leader."

Thirteen days after their text exchange about Jones, Starkey asked Manns to leave working for the city and apply to the county administrator position.

"I think you would be great for the County. They have some idiots working there," Starkey wrote. "I'd do anything to help if it's something you are interested in."

Manns said she was torn but giving it some thought.

Starkey has not responded to a request for comment on this story.

A text exchange shows Debbie Manns and Jeff Starkey discussing the case of Marlowe Jones. - City of New Port Richey
City of New Port Richey
A text exchange shows Debbie Manns and Jeff Starkey discussing the case of Marlowe Jones.

About The Author

Justin Garcia

Justin Garcia has written for The Nation, Investigative Reporters & Editors Journal, the USA Today Network and various other news outlets. When he's not writing, Justin likes to make music, read, play basketball and spend time with loved ones. 

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