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Contract creates potential wrinkle for Tampa council candidate

TAMPA — A housing contract is causing a wrinkle in the City Council candidacy of Sara Romeo.

Tampa Crossroads, the nonprofit group where Romeo is executive director, has a $3.7 million contract with the city to develop affordable housing in east Tampa. But the city's ethics code prohibits council members individually or through businesses from having city contracts.

City attorney Chip Fletcher says that means if Romeo wins the election in March, she must either step down from her job at Tampa Crossroads or the city will terminate the contract.

"It doesn't preclude her from being a candidate," he said. "It's something that would have to be dealt with upon being sworn into office."

Romeo, a former state representative, said she sought a legal opinion on the contract from the state division of ethics before she filed to run for the council in December 2009. That commission concluded the arrangement was fine as long as Romeo recused herself from any votes on the contract.

But Fletcher said the city ethics code is more stringent.

A provision added to the code in October 2003 does not allow for recusal. It specifically calls for the recall of any elected official who violates the rule and the transfer or dismissal of any employee who breaks it.

"It seems to me she would have to change her business relationship in order to serve," Fletcher said.

Romeo has been executive director of Tampa Crossroads for five years. The agency offers substance abuse programs and help for homeless people with a focus on women veterans.

In August 2009, the city awarded Tampa Crossroads $676,000 in federal neighborhood stabilization money to buy and rehabilitate foreclosed residential property. Tampa Crossroads used the U.S. Housing and Urban Development grant to buy a four-unit building on Nebraska Avenue near Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

A year later, about nine months after Romeo filed to run for office, the city gave the agency another $3.1 million from HUD to build 18 affordable rental apartments on the property for low-income families.

The contract requires Tampa Crossroads to meet several milestones with the project that won't arrive until well after the March elections. Construction must be completed nine months after the agency receives permits, and all units must be filled three months after that.

If those goals aren't met, grant money must be returned.

If Romeo is elected and remains in her job at Tampa Crossroads, the housing staff would end up in the awkward position of having to monitor a grant held by a nonprofit headed by a City Council member.

The contract also provides $277,140 in construction management fees to Tampa Crossroads. Romeo said that money will go to a subcontractor and won't benefit her directly.

"My compensation does not change," said Romeo, who supervises 37 employees. "I'm a little offended that these questions are even coming up."

Romeo said the grant is a unique situation and Tampa Crossroads isn't likely to be applying for another one in the future. Regardless, she said it shouldn't be a campaign issue.

"We're talking about an issue right now that is a someday, might possibly happen, down the road. First the campaign has to go forward and the elections have to be completed. I have to be elected for this story to have any meaning. At that point we look at how we deal with it," she said.

Fletcher said although the city law is clear, Romeo could ask the city's ethics commission to review the matter.

Romeo is running for the citywide District 1 seat now held by Gwen Miller, who is term-limited.

So far, West Tampa businessman Guido Maniscalco and bank vice president Curtis Stokes also have filed to run for the seat.

"She's going to have to make a decision," Stokes said. "Does she want to be on City Council or does want to run Tampa Crossroads? She's done a great job running Tampa Crossroads. I can't imagine why she would want to give that up."

Stokes, formerly head of the NAACP's Hillsborough chapter, has faced conflicts of his own. He now serves in the District 3 council seat. He was appointed to the post in July when Linda Saul-Sena resigned to run for the County Commission.

Since then, he has sat out votes where the council approved zoning changes to promote transit-oriented development around a high-speed rail stop slated to be built downtown. Stokes owns property in the area.

It's adjacent to the proposed Tampa-Orlando high speed rail line. Stokes has said he expects the Florida Department of Transportation to buy his land to accommodate tracks.

He did, however, vote against a measure to ask reluctant state transportation officials to build a high-speed rail station at Tampa International Airport.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Contract creates potential wrinkle for Tampa council candidate 11/13/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 13, 2010 11:27pm]
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