After growing up in Tampa and New Jersey, John Dingfelder aspired to be a veterinarian, even studying agriculture at the University of Florida and beef cattle at Virginia Tech, where he earned a master's degree.
But in the years since, Dingfelder, 54, has had a variety of jobs, many in government and politics. It started in Tallahassee, where, as a young waiter at the big-bucks Andrew's 2nd Act restaurant, Dingfelder witnessed behind-the-scenes backroom discussions on big issues.
"It was like 'Wow, this is really fascinating,' " he says.
After law school in Gainesville, Dingfelder worked in private practice, in the Hillsborough County Attorney's Office, as an assistant public defender, as a middle school science teacher and a high school algebra teacher and, from 2003 to last year, as a member of the Tampa City Council. He left last year to run for the Hillsborough County Commission. After a loss, he returned to the practice of law.
This summer, Dingfelder joined the American Civil Liberties Union as its senior staff attorney for mid Florida. Last week, he sat down with Times staff writer Richard Danielson and previewed what promises to be a busy year ahead. Here's an edited transcript:
How is working for the ACLU like being on the City Council?
They're both public service. Previously I was elected to represent my fellow citizens and make sure that their tax money was well-spent and that their liberties were being protected, and I did that from the inside. Now I'm ensuring that their liberties are being protected, but I'm doing it from the outside.
And how is it different?
Access to information is a little more of a challenge. As a City Council member when I would call various departments you would get a fair amount of quick cooperation without too many questions asked. With any level of government, when you call and say you're from the ACLU, most get their back up a little bit.
What's the biggest challenge the city faces when it comes to hosting next year's Republican National Convention?
The physical location of the St. Pete Times Forum and the convention center, tucked in at the bottom of downtown, up against the river, creates a logistical nightmare. I sympathize with all of the people who have to do the transportation, the traffic planning, just getting people in and out before you even get into the security part of it.
Now add that maybe there's going to be 5,000 or 10,000 protesters coming in, and the fact that the courts have said, in our opinion, that the city has to provide a reasonable parade route for the demonstrators. These demonstrators are going to come in all shapes, sizes and colors. Ninety to 95 percent of them are going to be peaceful, and those peaceful demonstrators are the ones the ACLU is out to look out for . . . It's an extremely difficult balance, but you can't throw out the baby with the bath water. To me, you use the scalpel approach: You let the police take care of the anarchists who might be destroying property or threatening lives, but the other 95 percent of the protesters need the city's assurances that their First Amendment rights are going to be protected.
Come August, the best possible thing for me and the ACLU is that we have nothing to do and that it all comes off smoothly, without a hitch, without a complaint and hopefully without an arrest.
You've provided informal advice to Occupy Tampa in recent weeks. What do you think of the city's experience with Occupy Tampa?
Overall I'm proud of the city and TPD's restraint.
I think the city has experienced a little bit of frustration about the fact that it's so hard to deal with Occupy Tampa because there's no leader. My response, and this relates to the RNC, is you better get used to it. One of the things we've tried to do is say, in the absence of leaders for that kind of organization, work with the ACLU to identify a generic parade route that everybody can use.
(Police) get a little paternalistic in terms of saying you can sleep here on the concrete sidewalk, but you can't sleep 5 feet over on the grass of the park, and when they violate that, they send them to jail for a night. I think it's a big waste of police resources. But on balance I think they've done a pretty good job.
Will the ACLU challenge the city's new panhandling ordinance or red light camera program?
The red light cameras, no. We have a state legal panel that makes the decision on what we take on and what we don't. I think it's been decided that red light cameras are not really a constitutional issue that we're going to take on.
The panhandling, I think our local legal panel is still looking at. One of the things that probably slowed that down is this Bill Sharpe/Epoch newspaper. I think we're going to see how that plays out because it's obviously allowing a lot of the — let's not call them panhandlers; what do they call them? solicitors — to stay out on the corner to sell this newspaper that as far as we can see is completely within the boundaries of the existing ordinance. So there might be nothing to fight about.