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GROUPS' SPECIAL REVIEW ACCESS ENDS

The Tampa City Council made the change to ensure there are no Sunshine Law violations.

All neighborhood groups will see development plans at the same time they're filed with the city because of a new rule passed by the City Council Thursday.

Council members made the change to city code to end a situation they said gave two community groups exclusive and possibly unfair access to those plans. But one of the groups, the West Tampa Community Development Corporation, decried the council's stance as racially motivated.

The West Tampa group, along with an East Tampa group, enjoys an unusual status in the city code as part of the development review process. Most neighborhood groups learn about projects through a standard notice requirement. But since 2004, the city code has required developers to immediately send the community development corporation copies of development petitions they file with the city.

Council members and city attorneys said the change Thursday to give all registered neighborhood groups the same status was to ensure the city and CDC are complying with the state's open government law. They said the change has no effect on what the CDC has been doing.

The group, devoted to improving the social and economic conditions of its area, was included in city code in 2004 after its board members sought more voice for their low-income area.

But City Council member Charlie Miranda this month spoke out against "side deals" between developers and community groups, a topic Tampa police are now investigating. Miranda singled out arrangements between the CDC and a developer, who offered two contracts worth $750,000 to the CDC to fund affordable home building and rehab programs.

The offer came after the CDC objected that the developer's projects didn't include affordable housing.

Miranda implied the agreements gave the appearance of trading support for cash. Both the CDC and developer have denied wrongdoing.

CDC board chairwoman Margaret Fisher told council members her group holds no influence with developers. Like any group, it has the ability to review projects and voice comments to the city. Out of 67 projects the group reviewed, it disagreed just once with the city, she said.

"What is the problem now?" she asked.

"This is a racial issue to take us out," CDC board member Joe Robinson added.

"This is certainly not, from the city attorney's position, a racial issue," countered City Attorney David Smith. "It's a typical legal concern that most people don't understand because we pick nits."

When the City Council gave the special privilege, it authorized the group to "review" projects at the same time as the city staff.

That could give the perception that the organization is part of the development review process, Smith said, and might require the group to comply with the state's Sunshine Law, which ensures government business is done publicly.

Council members and attorneys came up with a solution. In a 6-1 vote, with council Chairwoman Gwen Miller dissenting, members voted to require developers to send copies of plans to all registered neighborhood groups - giving everyone the same privilege.

Assistant City Attorney Julia Cole stressed that this took nothing away from the CDC. "We should treat all the organizations the same," she said.

Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

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