TAMPA — Carlton Fields, a well-connected Tampa law firm, is holding a forum for mayoral candidates on Oct. 23, probably at its offices.
That much everyone agrees on.
Less clear is whom the lawyers had in mind as an audience.
The question has sparks flying in the campaign to replace Mayor Bob Buckhorn, with one candidate declaring he'd never show up at a forum closed to the public and others seeking legal advice on their attendance.
"Short answer: It's problematic," said City Council attorney Martin Shelby, who was asked by two sitting council members whether the state Sunshine Law would prohibit them from associating together at a forum like this without alerting members of the public so they can attend.
On Tuesday, Carlton Fields advised everyone to relax, saying the forum will indeed be open to the public.
"This was conceived as an event that we would invite folks to attend. We did not think of it as 'closed,' " Gary Sasso, the firm's chief executive officer, said by email in response to a Tampa Bay Times query.
But that can only mean Carlton Fields has changed its mind, insists candidate Ed Turanchik, who said the law firm told him the event was private — a chance for the candidates to interact with attorneys from the firm and their clients beyond the attention of the public and the media.
"I've always been an adherent to the Sunshine and public records and transparent and open government," Turanchik wrote in an email to Sasso. "A private forum with all the candidates seems to run counter to this."
City Council members Harry Cohen and Mike Suarez told the Tampa Bay Times this week that they understood the forum was to be private, too. They even reached out for legal advice about potential Sunshine Law violations.
They were told it could be a violation if the discussion involved substantive policy issues that reasonably could be expected to surface before the City Council. And it wouldn't be a violation if they went out to dinner together, say, and discussed only their golf games.
"This doesn't seem to be that kind of event," Shelby said.
Shelby even asked City Attorney Salvatore Territo for help determining whether Cohen and Suarez would need to provide formal notice of the forum and to take minutes. Territo demurred, saying he's reluctant to get involved in city politics — a subject outside the purview of his office.
Suarez has the perfect solution, he quipped: Cohen should "drop out of the race."
The two candidates said they'll follow the advice of counsel. Shelby is still researching the question.
"Whatever they want us to do, we'll do," Cohen said.
The other candidates — Turanchik, former police chief Jane Castor, retired banker and philanthropist David Straz, small business consultant Topher Morrison and political novices Sam R. Gibbons and LaVaughn King — aren't held to the same legal restrictions.
So for Cohen and Suarez, "That puts them at a distinct disadvantage," Shelby said.
Carlton Fields isn't seeking an inside track on City Hall business, Sasso told the Times, just a chance to get a sense of the candidates' vision for Tampa.
The firm had planned to hold the forum in its Tampa West Shore offices.
"If we have more interest in the event," Sasso said, "we can move to a larger space or make other accommodations. Our goal is not to discuss any specific current issues, but to explore broader themes about Tampa's exciting future."
Does it matter in the end whether the half dozen candidates seeking election in March get together for a private audience with powerful people?
"I don't think it's an issue," said Buckhorn, who was a City Council member with Charlie Miranda when the two men finished third and fourth in the 2003 mayor's race won by Pam Iorio.
Private forums weren't a part of the campaign then, Buckhorn said, but he doesn't see them as a danger to democracy.
"I don't think it's appropriate," he said. "A mayoral campaign should be run in the open."
Still, he reached out to Sasso via email after learning that the forum will be open. Sasso invited him to attend.
Turanchik said he'll be there.
Contact Charlie Frago at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727)893-8459. Follow @CharlieFrago.