TAMPA — Former City Council member John Dingfelder, who lost his recent bid for a County Commission seat, said Tuesday he may try to return to the council in Tampa's March elections.
His candidacy would call into question a new city rule that prevents council members who don't finish their term from running in the next city elections.
Dingfelder and Linda Saul-Sena resigned from the council in June to run for the Hillsborough County Commission. Two days after both lost, the council passed its new rule.
Dingfelder said he likely would take the city to court and ask a judge to decide whether the law barring him from running in March is constitutional and can be applied to a council member who left the board before the law was enacted. He wants the opinion before he formally enters the race.
"I don't want this hanging over any campaign I would be running," he said. "I think the court would decide on my side and say, 'Wait a second, you left and then three or four months after that they passed this.' "
Dingfelder represented South Tampa in the District 4 seat for nearly eight years, earning a reputation as a defender of neighborhoods and pressing for a green building ordinance.
"I really loved the work, and many people are saying I did a good job," Dingfelder said. If he runs in March, he said he'll seek the at-large District 1 council position.
That would pit him against University of South Florida student Christopher Cano; West Tampa businessman Guido Maniscalco; and current council member Curtis Stokes, who helped push the law barring Dingfelder from the elections.
Council member Charlie Miranda, who frequently clashed with Dingfelder and Saul-Sena when they were on the council, came up with the rule earlier this year after the two announced their commission runs. It was rejected in May by a 4-3 vote.
Among the no votes: Saul-Sena and Dingfelder. Back then, Dingfelder questioned the constitutionality of the law and pointed out that in recent years the city has paid at least $600,000 in attorney fees after losing three lawsuits based on constitutional challenges.
Four months after Dingfelder and Saul-Sena left the board, council member Joseph Caetano suggested bringing back Miranda's proposal, and Stokes seconded the motion. Stokes has been on the board since July, when five council members selected him to finish out Saul-Sena's term in the citywide District 3 seat.
Five days after the rule passed, Stokes announced his candidacy for the citywide District 1 council seat.
Saul-Sena and Dingfelder both said they felt the rule targeted them.
Caetano said Tuesday it's true that he often didn't like the way Saul-Sena and Dingfelder voted when they were on the council.
But that's not why he wanted the ordinance.
"It was to prevent something like this from happening. You don't like the city, you leave and go run for something else, you lose and you want to come back. It's not fair to the constituents who elected them to serve a whole term," Caetano said.
When the council approved the rule, Dingfelder said he had no intention of running for the board.
He said he changed his mind when former state Rep. Sara Romeo withdrew from the District 1 race on Saturday. Romeo decided to focus on a nonprofit she heads that has a $3.7 million housing contract with the city. If she had been elected to the council, she would have had to resign from her job at Tampa Crossroads or forfeit the contract.
Dingfelder said without Romeo in the District 1 contest, there's no great candidate for the job.
"I absolutely would have supported Sara wholeheartedly because she would have been a great City Council person," said Dingfelder, who attended her campaign kickoff in June. "But with Sara pulling out, there is a viable seat to run for."
Maniscalco said he thinks Dingfelder should respect the new council rule.
"He has the right and the freedom to jump in in four years without any problems. Why do it now?" Maniscalco said. "He had his heart set on County Commission. For him to go back to the city, I don't understand it."
It's unclear what would happen if Dingfelder filed to run for the council without getting a judge to consider the rule prohibiting him from the election.
Asked whether the city would sue to keep Dingfelder off the ballot, City Attorney Chip Fletcher said: "We'd have to make that decision when we get there. My obligation as city attorney is to enforce our ordinance, but my expectation is that the elections supervisor would not accept qualifying documents that did not meet the standards established by the city."
Fletcher said he believes the law is constitutional.
"There are cases where a 'cooling-off period' like this has been applied to folks after they've left office," Fletcher said.
Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.