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Carlton: 'Coptergate' scandal shows how Tampa rolls

Guido Maniscalco says he did nothing wrong in taking a ride.

Guido Maniscalco says he did nothing wrong in taking a ride.

Let's agree on one thing in this latest "scandal" at Tampa City Hall.

A local elected official's free ride on a helicopter is not exactly King Ranch — you know, when your legislators accepted trips to the famed Texas spread on Big Sugar's dime and then got all wide-eyed when anyone asked questions.

Fair to say this is not that. In fact, "Coptergate" might say a lot more about how deep our hometown feuds go than about actual official malfeasance.

Less than a year into the job, Guido Maniscalco, at 31 the City Council's youngest member and lone millennial, finds himself the subject of an ethics complaint for a ride in a St. Joseph's Hospital trauma helicopter.

For the record, St. Joseph's Women's Hospital has been embroiled in a long and contentious dispute with the West Tampa neighborhood behind it over the hospital's rezoning request to tear down a parking garage and build new parking lots.

How contentious, you ask?

Charlie Miranda, the City Council's elder statesman, lives in the neighborhood and has abstained from participating on this issue as an elected official. He has instead appeared on the other side of the dais to argue passionately against it. Miranda's own front yard sports signs calling the hospital an "ANTI-HISPANIC NEIGHBORHOOD." (Yes, a little confusing at first — wait, are they declaring this an anti-Hispanic zone?)

Anyway, you get the idea of how strong feelings run.

This month, the City Council voted 4-2 for a linear park between the new parking lot and the neighborhood, not what those opposed wanted.

And this week came the complaint from a resident (not Miranda) contending that Maniscalco — who voted yes — "was provided use of the St. Joseph's Hospital's trauma helicopter for a joy ride around the city of Tampa." (Which sounds like they tossed him the keys and said, "Have fun, kid. Just be back by midnight, and put some gas in it.") The complaint calls this ride a gift worth more than $100, which by law Maniscalco should have disclosed.

Maniscalco says he did nothing wrong. The ride was part of a tour of a major hospital that is one of his district's biggest employers, he said. (He also took a tour of the hospital morgue, he said, which he kind of regretted.)

A newly elected official exploring a big institution in his district does not seem unreasonable, even if some of it was fun. I happen to know a helicopter ride over Tampa is indeed fun, though my own trip involved a Groupon.

A check of the Internet shows you can get a downtown helicopter flight for $90, or below the $100 threshold.

Now, people a tad older might raise an eyebrow at pictures Maniscalco posted on Facebook of himself smiling in flight in a super-cool headset, plus some shots of the city. Social media, Maniscalco says, is how he tells constituents what he's up to in the neighborhood. Facebook (or as some of us call it, Oversharing) is what These Kids Today do.

And do we really believe a public official sold his vote for a ride and then posted it on Facebook? At least on those Texas junkets, politicians got to drink beer and shoot at stuff.

And hey, even if as scandals go this one doesn't have legs, it's still a lesson in hardball, Tampa style.

Sue Carlton can be reached at carlton@tampabay.com.

Carlton: 'Coptergate' scandal shows how Tampa rolls 02/23/16 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 23, 2016 8:39pm]
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