TAMPA — In October, city council member Orlando Gudes took a four-day trip to Chicago.
That trip, also attended by the volunteer head of a city board, sparked cries of a conflict of interest from community activists and prompted the city to backtrack on a proposed neighborhood development in East Tampa.
Ultimately, the city decided to start all over, likely delaying the project for months.
Gudes, 52, a retired police officer in his first months in political office, traveled to Chicago for a community development conference hosted by Neighborworks America, a national nonprofit. He went because the leader of a local nonprofit, CDC of Tampa, Inc., asked him. Gudes’ travel, lodging and transportation would be covered.
Here’s where it gets sticky: CDC of Tampa, Inc., was one of 10 bidders vying to redevelop 26 vacant lots that could include residential, retail and office space in Gudes’ East Tampa district. As a voting member of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency, Gudes would have a say in the outcome.
Gudes wasn’t the only controversial trip participant.
Natasha Goodley, the East Tampa Community Redevelopment Agency’s advisory committee chairwoman, also went on the Oct. 17-20 trip. Goodley then played an initial role in selecting the potential winning bid by rating the bidders along with other selection committee members. But after criticism about the trip from activists including Connie Burton and Michelle Patty and NAACP local chapter president Yvette Lewis, Goodley recused herself from helping to choose the winner.
Goodley, 39, said she did so to quiet what she calls unfair criticism from a handful of people who are bullying residents trying to improve one of the city’s poorest areas.
Initially, on the advice of City Council attorney Martin Shelby, Gudes paid $10 to cover part of the $110 registration fee and stay within Florida ethics law that says public officials can’t accept gifts of more than $100 from lobbyists and vendors . Although CDC of Tampa invited him, he said he thought the national organization was covering costs like airfare and a room at the Palmer House Hilton on Michigan Avenue. So there would be no potential conflict of interest with a local organization that had business before the city, he said.
In fact, CDC’s chief executive Ernest Coney Jr. said Neighborworks subsidizes its members to cover some of the trip’s costs, and his local nonprofit is one of those members.
After Gudes returned from Chicago, he said city officials told him that the Tampa Bay Times had made inquiries into the trip.
Gudes then decided to pay back the $486.94 of the trip’s costs that the CDC of Tampa paid for, one of several options he said had been suggested by city legal staff.
“Bottom line is I went on a trip, I paid for the trip and I’m done with it," Gudes said Tuesday. “I don’t need a gift from anybody.”
Gudes, who represents some of the city’s most blighted neighborhoods, has scored early victories on the city council. He successfully battled to get an ambulance stationed in East Tampa. And he overcame the initial opposition of Mayor Jane Castor to secure $1 million for a new cultural and senior center.
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Goodley didn’t refund the money. A city legal review she requested cleared her of any conflict. City attorneys also advised her in a Dec. 4 memo not to take any further part in the selection process to avoid an appearance of impropriety.
“There was no conflict for me,” she said. “The trip was not a vacation.” She said it was a series of intensive workshops in which she took copious notes that she later shared with CDC and the development agency.
That was the point of inviting her and Gudes, said Coney, the local nonprofit’s top executive, and not to gain an inside track on a potentially lucrative development deal. His organization didn’t pay for Gudes and Goodley to take the trip to influence their votes, he said. The annual conference is a valuable tool for creating community dialogue and sparking innovative solutions for places like East Tampa, he said. In the past, other elected officials have gone on similar trips.
Coney says he wasn’t even thinking of the city’s request for bids, “which is an open and competitive process.” He said his group would continue to invite community activists and leaders, including elected officials, to participate in conferences that yield concrete projects like beautifying neighborhoods and parks.
“There will always be naysayers who don’t want to see positive change happen,” he said.
The issue boiled over last month when East Tampa activists confronted Gudes and Goodley at a Community Redevelopment Agency meeting, saying the trips were inappropriate.
At that meeting, East Tampa development agency manager Edward Johnson told council members that the city had decided to take another look at all 10 bidders for the mixed-use project. Johnson noted that Goodley had decided to recuse herself from the revised process and said the delay was unfortunate.
“Stay tuned to see when we can get this back on track again,” Johnson said. A week later, the city decided to start all over.
In a Nov. 20 memo, Johnson wrote that there would be a new request for bids. He cited an ongoing search for a consultant that might yield new ideas on the development plan. No date has been set for the city to redo the bid process, said Deputy City Attorney Andrea Zelman.
Goodley said Friday she is still undecided whether she will participate in the new selection process.
Zelman also said that Goodley and Gudes’ actions played no role in the city’s decision to scrap the original bid process, pointing to Johnson’s memo.
Lewis, the NAACP president, said the Chicago trip exposed a corrupt process.
“East Tampa has gone through a lot. We’re only asking for an opportunity to grow and prosper,” she said.
“It’s hard to do that when you have elected officials playing favorites,” she said. “The question is, can we trust the chairwoman of the Community Advisory Committee?”
Goodley said she has the trust of residents, naming several neighborhood association presidents. Cynthia Few, who leads the College Hill group, defended Goodley at the meeting, saying she is helping improve East Tampa and needs to be given a chance to succeed.
Gudes said political opponents are manufacturing a false narrative.
“This is a nothing," he said. " Personally, I think there is a lot of hogwash out there. I’ve done nothing wrong. I’ve committed no crime. I’ve committed no ethical violations of any sort."
Shelby, the council’s attorney, declined to comment on his conversation with Gudes, but said he believed the council member didn’t violate any laws.
“Based on what I do believe to be the facts I’m confident that Florida law is being complied with,” Shelby said.
The mayor said she considered the matter closed.
When asked if the city should improve its ethics training for council members and residents who volunteer for boards that play a role in city contracts, the mayor said the proper procedures are already in place.
“We just need to make sure that everyone is aware of those procedures and that we are adhering to them,” Castor said.
Three of the four new city council members haven’t held elected office before, including Gudes. Council members’ first ethics training will be held later this month, Shelby said. Faced with long agendas and busy schedules, council members have delayed the course several times since taking office in May.
Editor’s Note: Florida ethics law prohibits elected officials from accepting gifts in excess of $100 from lobbyists and vendors. The original version of this story was unclear on that point.