TAMPA — John Dingfelder doesn’t stay in his seat.
The City Council member often exits the dais during meetings to talk with staff members and residents in the hallway outside council chambers. Sometimes he plops down next to them in the audience.
Dingfelder says he’s just doing his job getting answers to questions about city business. But his wanderings have irked some of his colleagues.
Last week, Chairman Luis Viera sent a memo to council members asking them “to refrain from roaming the council chambers and speaking with members of the public during meetings." He also asked his colleagues not to sit in the audience.
Joseph Citro, who runs the meetings when council members meet as the Community Redevelopment Area board, sent a similar memo. Citro’s missive went out Oct. 10, the same day Dingfelder sat in the back row of the council chamber talking to city staff during a vote.
Neither Viera nor Citro would acknowledge that the memos were aimed at Dingfelder, but both said meetings were less manageable when all members aren’t on the dais.
Charlie Miranda, who has spent decades on city council, was more direct. Though he didn’t name Dingfelder, he left little doubt who he was referring to when he said he had never seen a council member leave the dais so much as one member had during the Oct. 10 meeting.
“The next time this happens, I’m leaving City Council. End of story,” Miranda said at the meeting.
Dingfelder notes that other members regularly leave their seats to go back into their offices without being censured. And he said he prepares for meetings by calling, emailing and texting staff on issues, but sometimes questions arise that make it necessary for him to go ask for more information.
“I try not to be disruptive when I do it but it’s my job and I’m going to continue to do it,” he said.
When one member is getting information during a meeting that isn’t available to other members, that’s a problem, Citro said.
“If a council member has a side-bar communication with staff, resident or petitioner, that council member is gaining information that the rest of us do not get,” he said.
Dingfelder is often on the other side of the political fence from Viera, Citro and Miranda. And it’s not the first time philosophies have clashed in the first months of a city council with four new members.
But Dingfelder said he won’t “allow my hands to be tied" by other members. He served as a city council member between 2003 and 2010 before rejoining the council in May in a citywide seat.
“We’re all grownups and I’ve been doing this longer than any of them except for Charlie (Miranda). I know what I’m doing. I’m respectful and I would never violate any laws or do anything unethical,” he said.
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Viera said his memo wasn’t directed at any particular member, but he wanted to make sure everyone was on the same page. Having members leave the dais to talk to parties involved in a quasi-judicial hearing, for example, may place the city in legal peril, he said.
“It’s become an issue that has become relevant during our council proceedings and it’s something that I wanted to formally place in a memo so that all colleagues are aware,” Viera said. “This is just a good general practice.”