At a New Port Richey city council meeting last Tuesday, Mayor Rob Marlowe went on a tirade against people who speak during public comment, and against citizens who request public records.
Government agencies, including New Port Richey, are required under the law to receive public comments. And, according to Harvard Law School, an agency must consider the comments it receives. Florida’s “Sunshine Law” requires records be maintained and provided by governments in a timely manner.
Despite those laws, Marlowe sounded off about his disdain for public input and for those who want transparency from his government.
Marlowe called public comment “garbage.”
“I'd love to see them settle down and go about their lives,” he said.
After a long rant against the public speakers, Marlowe wasn’t done.
He claimed that a handful of people have “weaponized the requests for public records.” He said that his staff is “buried” under the requests, which are slowing down other work. He then called out a member of the audience.
“I know we've got at least one person in this room tonight that is involved in that and I will let them remain nameless,” Marlowe said. “But I know who they are and I know who the others are.”
He claimed that requests for public records were disrupting the city’s operations, adding that he’d “had enough of it.”
“I don't care where they go, just go away,” Marlowe said of the people who were requesting the records.
In the midst of his rant, and without proof, he also accused protesters of terrorizing children and said that BLM protesters marched downtown explicitly to hurt people and local businesses.
Speakers filed into city hall last Tuesday as part of a prolonged push for accountability within New Port Richey government.
The city has been caught in several scandals recently, especially over the actions of police during the George Floyd uprising. Residents also spoke about what they perceive as corruption within city management.
In 2020, NPR PD officers were caught by CL praying with SPLC-designated hate group “The Proud Boys” which showed up to counterprotest a BLM march. In 2021, an NPRPD officer leaked department intel about BLM protesters to an armed right-wing vigilante. Activists caught an NPRPD officer posing in front of a confederate flag.
The department also tried to put Marlowe Jones, a Black activist, in jail for battery on a law enforcement officer—a felony—despite not having evidence. All of the BLM protests in New Port Richey were peaceful, largely because of Jones’ work with the city and the police to keep them that way.
During one protest, a drunk white man attacked a woman protester. Jones broke up the fight, and when the police arrived, they falsely accused him of battery on a law enforcement officer. During the trial Nicholas Rickus, the cop who accused Jones, couldn’t get his story straight or show on video where Jones struck him.
At the Sept. 6 meeting, Jones asked why the city hasn’t investigated the actions of Police Chief Kim Bogart’s department. In response, Mayor Marlowe attempted to paint Jones as a sketchy character who put himself between the protester and the cops. The mayor left out the fact that Jones had broken up the fight to protect the woman.
Mayor Marlowe eventually kicked Jones out of the Sept. 6 meeting, for speaking while city council was in the midst of a discussion. After the meeting Jones told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay that the mayor’s comments were “very concerning and distressful" for his mental health.
Mistreatment from city officials is nothing new to Jones.
After his trial, CL found through public records that City manager Debbie Manns—who under NPR city charter holds the most power in the city—texted that she was “not happy” about Jones being found not guilty.
Michelle Wojciechowski also criticized New Port Richey city officials during the meeting.
Wojciechowski, who is Jewish, recently had her home broken into by police and code enforcement. During the searching of her house, body camera footage obtained by CL shows an NPR PD officer making a Holocaust joke.
When Wojciechowski’s home was raided, the warrant the code enforcement and police used did not contain her name, her correct address, or correct property parcel number. Meanwhile, Florida state law says that police can only search “the property described in the warrant or the person named.”
NPR City Attorney Tim Driscoll was present when police and code broke into Wojciechowski’s house to investigate alleged code violations. In 2007, Driscoll was forced to resign as city attorney for St. Pete Beach “in midst of distrust” for giving “duplicitous advice” to city commissioners.
At the Sept. 6 meeting, city officials re-appointed Driscoll as city attorney for another year. That drew more criticism from residents who said Driscoll allows code enforcement to operate without proper warrants.
Driscoll defended himself, telling council, “There's been a lot of misstatements made here tonight. And I really can't let you sit here and listen to that and believe that some of the hyperbole that you're hearing here is true.”
“We do not conduct searches without warrants,” Driscoll said, referring to a resident named Judith Allen who had accused code enforcement of attempting to enter another property without a warrant, and of serving warrants that don’t have the name or address listed, which is illegal.
But video from a March incident shows NPR code enforcement officer Erik Jay—who retired from NPRPD before moving to code enforcement—on site at a property talking to residents. In the video, the occupants said Jay arrived when they weren’t home and searched the property, and said they failed to provide them with a paper warrant.
The only NPR city council member who said that the government should listen to their constituents at the meeting was Peter Altman. The rest of the council members sided with Mayor Marlowe and even thanked him for speaking up against the people who are exercising their lawful rights.
After the meeting, Altman commented to CL about the importance of transparency in government.
“I think it is critical that elected officials always take the high road no matter how frustrated or anxious they are,” Altman said. “Having just come from the Florida League of Cities ethics training with a good section of time devoted to public records. I understand that it's critical to take those requests seriously.”
It’s not just residents having trouble getting transparency when it comes to the behavior of certain city departments. Both City Manager Manns and Driscoll have chosen to use personal cell phones when communicating city business, which are public record regardless of where they exist.
When CL made a records request for those text communications, the city decided that it would charge Driscoll’s hourly rate of $150 for his public records, and Mann’s would cost $67, her estimated hourly rate.
When this reporter said it was an unreasonable amount to charge for public records, City Clerk Judy Meyers said that those charges would stand because the public officials would have to access the public records themselves.
The matter of Manns and Driscoll's communications has now reached the attorney general’s office. The Florida Center for Government Accountability (FLCGA) has also communicated with CL about the issue.
“By using their personal phones to conduct official business they have become the custodian of public records,” Michael Barfield, Director of Public Access at FLCGA told CL. “It is unreasonable to pass the costs of their hourly rates onto the requestor simply because they chose to become the sole custodians of public records.”
Marlowe, Driscoll, Manns, Bogart and Meyers have not responded to requests for comment on this story.