Bay Buzz

The staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Tampa officials zing Charlotte over convention secrecy

5

March

Tampa and Charlotte , N.C. – the host cities for the Republican and Democratic national conventions, respectively – have taken markedly different approaches to disclosing how they spend federal funds provided for convention security.

Each is receiving a $50 million grant to cover police expenses related to its convention. In Tampa , the City Council votes on and often discusses police proposals for spending that money.

In Charlotte , not.

Now members of each City Council are defending their own city’s approach to striking the necessary balance between security and open government.

Last week, Tampa council members drew some pointed comparisons between Tampa and Charlotte during an hourlong discussion of whether to pay $2 million for about 60 surveillance cameras to be installed around the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

“This same process is happening in Charlotte ; the difference is that it’s happening in secret,” Council member Mike Suarez said “They’ve given carte blanche to their city manager to be able to put these cameras anywhere.”

City Council chairman Charlie Miranda said that while Tampa often holds up Charlotte as a “model city,” he found nothing worth imitating in this case.

“This discussion that we’re having is never happening in that city, because they put it (with) the city manager,” Miranda said. “They hide it away. … There’s no vote taken. There’s no discussion. There’s nothing.”

After hearing from Tampa Police Chief Jane Castor, who briefed council members on the camera purchase beforehand and discussed it further at the meeting, Suarez thanked her “for being so open.”

“We’re so different than Charlotte ,” he said. “We do appreciate that.”

To understand why Suarez is grateful, consider this report from the Charlotte Observer. In January, the newspaper reported that Charlotte police plan to spend up to half of the city's federal security grant on technology and equipment. Those purchases, however, were not going before Charlotte City Council for the usual public vote.

That's because the council voted the year before to give the Charlotte city manager the authority to approve convention-related contracts without saying what they were for, the Observer reported. Since that first article, Charlotte police have disclosed spending $1.73 million on a convention command center and $131,000 on motorcycle equipment.

After Thursday’s Tampa Council meeting, Charlotte television station WSOC played Suarez’s and Miranda’s comments for several Charlotte City Council members for its own report.

“Inasmuch as we would like to be transparent, the one thing you don't want to be is so open with your security (that) you leave yourself open for an attack of some sort,” Charlotte Council member Patrick Cannon told WSOC.

“We've asked our city manager, we've tasked him with taking these dollars, and it's a huge task,” Charlotte Council member Andy Dulin said. “He's not doing it by himself. He has folks helping him, and I'm comfortable that the city manager can handle it here in Charlotte , and I wish the folks in Tampa well.”

To be sure, Tampa officials are keeping secret much of their security plan, which is being crafted in the anticipation that the convention could draw up to 15,000 protesters, including a small percentage of anarchists determined to disrupt the event.

And the reluctance to disclose details has included one of Tampa ’s $6.7 million in purchases for convention security so far.

Early last week, police initially said details of a second purchase going to the City Council for approval – $1.9 million for police protective gear – were exempt from disclosure under Florida's Public Records Law because they concerned security system plans.

But when Castor briefed council members before their meeting, she answered their questions about the purpose of the purchase. And immediately after those briefings, she told a Tampa Bay Times reporter generally what the money would buy.

Tampa will stick to that approach as much as possible, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said last week.

"Much to the chagrin of the Secret Service, we have been very transparent," Buckhorn said. "I understand they have their job, but I also have my job and (Castor) has her job, and our job is to make sure our citizens know what we're doing and why we're doing it to the extent possible."

[Last modified: Monday, March 5, 2012 12:09pm]

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