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Tampa City Council moves toward hiring its own CRA chief

Council members voted Thursday to advance a plan to hire an executive director to manage the city’s Community Redevelopment Areas, removing that position from Mayor Jane Castor’s control.

TAMPA — Who controls the Community Redevelopment Areas scattered around Florida’s third-largest city?

For decades, it’s been the mayor who appoints staff, including an economic development administrator who acted as a de facto czar over the city’s eight CRAs. That system prevailed even though the City Council, sitting as the CRA board, wields final authority over budgets and projects.

But with last month’s retirement of Bob McDonaugh, council members renewed efforts September 12 to make his replacement report to them, not Mayor Jane Castor.

RELATED STORY: City economic chief retires

"If we’re responsible we ought to have the ability to deal with it, " said Bill Carlson, who along with John Dingfelder and Orlando Gudes led the charge to change the power structure of the city’s CRAs, which are projected to rake in $33.4 million in revenues in the coming fiscal year.

By a 6-1 vote as the Community Redevelopment Area board, council members asked Chief of Staff John Bennett and city staff to develop a plan to hire an executive director paid for out of the CRA budget. Bennett agreed to explore the issue and report back at the October meeting.

Council members did unanimously vote to approve the CRA budget and, for now, keep the current structure intact while the details of the new position are being developed.

Council member Charlie Miranda voted no. He said a system that is working well doesn’t need an overhaul.

With Tallahassee lawmakers tightening control over CRAs statewide, why create unforeseen problems? he asked.

“When you start taking one little screw out of an engine, that engine isn’t going very far,” Miranda said.

Since taking office in May, council members have sought to claim more authority for themselves. Recent examples include tough asks during budget negotiations, balking at proceeding with a $350 million wastewater reuse project, dubbed “toilet-to-tap” by critics. Exerting more control over the CRAs has been another goal first signaled by Dingfelder and Carlson just weeks after taking their seats in May.

RELATED STORY: Toilet to Tap dead, for now

RELATED STORY: Who should control Tampa’s Community Renewal Areas?

At the Sept. 12 meeting, though, both sides celebrated the give and take of a new mayor and City Council.

Bennett said Castor shares council members’ desire for more “accountability” in the CRAs.

“I see a lot of opportunity for growth,” he said, emphasizing, as he has repeatedly in recent meetings, the mayor’s administration values a friendly relationship with council members.

Dingfelder returned the praise.

“I like the tone we’ve been hearing from all sorts of directions from this administration,” he said.

Still to be worked out is how, legally, city staff can report to a CRA chief who doesn’t report to the mayor. Currently, each CRA has a manager and the city provides legal work and other services free of charge.

Under the city’s charter, the mayor is responsible for city employees, who answer to her. Exceptions to that rule include the seven legislative aides that work for council members and City Council attorney Martin Shelby.

Carlson suggested that the new hire be treated like those aides or Shelby. He said spending up to $200,000 to attract a qualified candidate would be cheaper than replacing existing staff.