TAMPA — Looking ahead to the mayor's election March 1, the Tampa police officers' union is holding a vote of its own this week.
For the first time in memory, the 975 members of the Tampa Police Benevolent Association will decide who gets the politically influential union's endorsement.
Traditionally, the PBA made an endorsement after union leaders interviewed candidates and made a selection. This year, the decisionmaking process is being opened to the rank and file.
"As far as I'm concerned, it's a wide-open campaign," PBA president Greg Stout said.
Voting began Wednesday and ends today. As of late Wednesday, more than 100 officers had voted.
The union asked about the candidates' positions on cost-of-living allowances, pension benefits, the take-home car program, layoffs, the department's chase policy and the mayor's role in contract negotiations.
The union also asked about the so-called step increase program, which allows officers to move one notch up the pay grade scale based on experience and performance reviews. With money tight, the city suspended step increases about a year ago. The PBA not only asked whether candidates would support the program, but also whether they would approve an extra step raise for officers who didn't get one last year.
To that and other questions, several candidates said much depends on city revenues and future discussions. In some cases, candidates said they simply couldn't answer the question yet.
Tampa police Cpl. Kert Rojka said he appreciates the candor. While he wants a mayor who will look out for law enforcement, he said he's leery of candidates who say they would give police whatever they want without considering budget realities.
There needs to be "a balance between the two," said Rojka, a 16-year veteran who declined to say who he liked for mayor.
Considering the weight the PBA's endorsement carries, it's not surprising that at least one candidate did some campaigning with officers before the PBA's polling opened. Former City Council member Bob Buckhorn, who received the endorsement of Tampa Firefighters Local No. 754 in June, has called a few officers, Stout said.
The union's leadership is not taking sides, but Stout said all the candidates seem supportive of law enforcement.
"To me, the top candidates all appear to be good for the police," Stout said. "I don't see that anybody's going to be detrimental to us at all."
The PBA plans to announce its endorsement Friday. It also will announce endorsements in City Council races, where it is making endorsements in the traditional way.
Richard Danielson can be reached at Danielson@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.