Local Obituaries

Engineer, local government activist Phil McConaghey dies at 82

Engineering consultant and Bonaventure project manager Phil McConaghey, pictured at his Pemboke Pines home in 1999, was a local government watchdog who campaigned for mayor in Pembroke Pines.
Engineering consultant and Bonaventure project manager Phil McConaghey, pictured at his Pemboke Pines home in 1999, was a local government watchdog who campaigned for mayor in Pembroke Pines. Miami Herald file

Pembroke Pines civic activist and engineer W. Phil McConaghey had earned many handles in his 82 years: The White Knight. The Mongoose. Government Watchdog. And, well, probably other names from rivals that won’t fly here.

One gets the idea that McConaghey, who died Oct. 30 at 82, would welcome the flap.

“The mongoose takes on the snakes. I am not afraid of them,” he said in a 1999 Miami Herald article, asking to be referred as a “mongoose” rather than the less toothsome “watchdog.”

But one thing McConaghey could never call himself was “mayor.” The one-time chief engineer for the late developer Herb Sadkin, who turned the marshlands of Broward County into Lauderhill and Bonaventure, ran four times for mayor of Pembroke Pines. He faced incumbent Alex Fekete twice, in 1995 and 2000, and lost. Commissioner Ben Fiorendino defeated him in 1998. Commissioner Frank Ortis won the seat in 2004.

In the wake of the 2000 defeat, McConaghey, who seldom missed a Pembroke Pines commission meeting and who sued City Hall a number of times, suggested he might cut down his city government activism. Enough was enough for the man who was elected as a Port Everglades Authority commissioner from 1968 to 1976.

“I’m not sure it’s worth it,” he told the Herald in 2000. “I haven’t decided how much time I will spend staying involved.”

McConaghey, a Pembroke Pines resident since 1963, not involved? Surely, he was in jest. About the only thing he set aside was his lawsuit against the city over its annual fire-rescue fee of $74.98. He had already spent three years fighting that issue in local courts and declined to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

You have to protect the quality of life to preserve the quality of the tax base.

Pembroke Pines mayoral candidate Phil McConaghey, in a 2000 Miami Herald article.

The dogged activist, who ran for Congress as a Republican in 1992, losing to U. S. Rep. Peter Deutsch, felt a flat fee was unfair. Seniors and low-income residents would take a greater hit than the wealthy, he argued. He believed the city should fund fire rescue via property taxes.

And yet, in 2002, McConaghey was back in Fekete’s face at a commission meeting when he argued against Pembroke Pines’ plan to ban smoking in front of city buildings and in public parks. What’s next, he wondered, regulating colognes and perfumes if the aromas offended passerby?

The mayor, not pleased at the public lashing, tried to end McConaghey’s rant. “Don’t interrupt me again, Mr. Mayor, you arrogant bastard!” McConaghey exploded, his mongoose reputation intact.

McConaghey, colorful and energized, a fan of brash and brilliant Frank Sinatra, was a constant foe of how Pembroke Pines spent its money. He considered himself “the voice of the people.”

McConaghey, born in Pittsburgh, served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, earned his bachelor’s at Ohio State and raised four children with his late wife Gail.

He initially earned the White Knight tag for speaking up for the average resident and earned kudos from Life magazine for exposing corruption during his tenure at the Port Authority. In 1971, he traveled to Washington to lobby for I-75’s completion and quipped in a 1985 Herald article, “My reward was a ticket for using it.”

McConaghey is survived by his daughter, Tracie McConaghey; sons, Barry, Todd and Bruce McConaghey; grandsons, Corey, Christopher, Matthew, Sean and Ryan McConaghey and sister, Janet DeWitt. A vsitation will be held at 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Fred Hunter Funeral Home, 6301 Taft St., Hollywood. Donations can be sent to the American Diabetes Foundation.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen