Tampa officials zing Charlotte over convention secrecy

Published March 6, 2012

TAMPA — Two national political conventions. Two host cities. Two $50 million federal security grants. And two different strategies for talking about the money.

Both Tampa and Charlotte, N.C., are receiving the federal funds to cover police expenses during the Republican and Democratic national conventions, respectively.

In Tampa, the City Council votes on and often discusses police proposals for spending that money.

In Charlotte, not.

Now Tampa City Council members are zinging Charlotte over its secrecy, making pointed comparisons between the Big Guava and the Queen City.

"This same process is happening in Charlotte; the difference is that it's happening in secret," council member Mike Suarez said last week during an hourlong discussion of whether to spend $2 million on about 60 downtown surveillance cameras.

While Tampa often holds up Charlotte as a "model city," City Council chairman Charlie Miranda said at the same meeting he found nothing worth imitating this time.

"This discussion that we're having is never happening in that city, because they put it (with) the city manager," Miranda said. "They hide it away. … There's no vote taken. There's no discussion. There's nothing."

But in Charlotte, one of Miranda's counterparts suggested that while being open is important, so is being careful.

"As much as we would like to be transparent, the one thing you don't want to be is so open with your security (that) you leave yourself open for an attack of some sort," Charlotte council member Patrick Cannon told a Charlotte television station.

In January, the Charlotte Observer reported that police there planned to spend up to half of the city's federal security grant on technology and equipment. Those purchases, however, were not going before Charlotte City Council for the usual public vote.

That's because the council voted in February 2011 to turn over the authority to approve convention-related contracts to the city manager. Some council members later grumbled about the decision, and Charlotte police have since disclosed spending $1.73 million on a convention command center and $131,000 on motorcycle equipment.

In Tampa, officials "never, ever" contemplated such a change, said chief of staff Santiago Corrada, who has been City Hall's point man on the convention for both former Mayor Pam Iorio and current Mayor Bob Buckhorn. (Iorio said in an email that she didn't recall it ever coming up.)

Because the city charter requires that contracts go to the council for approval, Tampa voters would have had to approve that kind of change at a referendum, Corrada said.

It also probably would take an act of the Legislature, said Tampa purchasing director Gregory Spearman. Florida's Government-in-the-Sunshine and Public Records laws make city purchases open to public scrutiny throughout the process.

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"There is no such animal in North Carolina," said Spearman, who, in a previous job was the purchasing director for Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. There, he said, everything is done out of the sunshine until after the contract is awarded.

After Thursday's Tampa council meeting, WSOC TV in Charlotte shared Suarez's and Miranda's comments with several Charlotte council members.

"We've asked our city manager, we've tasked him with taking these dollars, and it's a huge task," Charlotte council member Andy Dulin said. "He's not doing it by himself. He has folks helping him, and I'm comfortable that the city manager can handle it here in Charlotte, and I wish the folks in Tampa well."

To be sure, Tampa officials are keeping secret much of their security plan, which is being crafted in the anticipation that the convention could draw up to 15,000 protesters, including a small percentage of anarchists determined to disrupt the event.

And the reluctance to disclose details has included one of Tampa's $6.7 million in purchases for convention security so far.

Last week, police initially said details of a second purchase going to the City Council for approval — $1.9 million for police protective gear — were exempt from disclosure under Florida's Public Records Law because they concerned security system plans.

But when police Chief Jane Castor briefed council members, she answered their questions about the purchase. Immediately after those briefings, she told a Tampa Bay Times reporter generally what the money would buy.

Tampa has tried to be open about its convention purchases, "much to the chagrin of the Secret Service," Buckhorn said, and will stick to that approach as much as possible.

While the city could make a buy in the future that is covered by the exemption for security plans, Buckhorn said it's part of his job and the police chief's job to make sure residents know what the city is doing and why.

Richard Danielson can be reached at, (813) 226-3403 or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.