When a powerful official ignores the law in his private business, the public has every right to question whether he can be trusted in his public position. The slum rentals William A. "Hoe" Brown kept on the Seminole Heights property that includes the office of his private real estate business are shameful enough. But when a slumlord taking advantage of poor people and flaunting city code also is the chairman of the Tampa Port Authority, it's unacceptable. Brown should resign from the port authority board or Gov. Rick Scott should demand it.
Today came even more revelations about the rental operation Brown had been running at 106 W. Stanley St. — including five illegal and squalid mobile homes and five apartments inside his office building, none of which had the required city rental certificates. Mobile homes, in fact, aren't allowed in the city limits except in mobile home parks, and Brown had never sought permission to put them on his property. As the Tampa Bay Times' Jamal Thalji and Will Hobson reported, Tampa police have been called to the property an average of once a week over the past 18 months for reports of crimes such as assault, battery and grand theft. In March, police were called after the death of a tenant living inside Brown's office building. Brown acknowledged knowing about the death.
But Brown, a prominent Republican fundraiser, claims to have been ignorant of the extreme conditions in the mobile homes, which were each split into two furnished apartments that cost tenants a reported $550 a month. When a Times reporter visited last week, the stench in 67-year-old Victor Gonzalez's apartment in a mobile home was overpowering; Gonzalez had open wounds on his forehead that he blamed on scratching at bugs. "Where else could I go?" he asked.
Brown on Tuesday moved quickly to relocate the tenants and haul away the mobile homes — but only after the Times began asking questions and city code enforcement director Jake Slater visited the property. Brown acted only after the threat of embarrassment to his public image, not after city officials in April had alerted him that his property was out of compliance. And his defense is not believable. A savvy businessman and civic leader was just blind to a deplorable and illegal operation happening in the backyard of his business office?
This episode has nothing to do with holding a public official to a higher standard. No property owner should get away with operating rental property that Tampa's code enforcement chief called "deplorable" and "not fit for human habitation." But it does reflect on Brown's fitness for a public job as chairman of the port authority's governing board, which oversees a $15 billion economic engine that supports more than 80,000 jobs. He is a public face of an agency that plays a major role in the development of the Channel District and the downtown area. If he won't keep an eye on what's happening out the back door of his office, what will he overlook in his public duties?
Brown should resign from the port authority, which needs a more responsible board chairman.