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Tampa’s Rome Yard bid process upheld by review officer

The city didn’t violate bidding rules when it awarded 18 acres in West Tampa to Related Group, a hearing officer announced Monday.
The downtown Tampa skyline seen from an area known as the Rome Yard on Friday, April 16, 2021.
The downtown Tampa skyline seen from an area known as the Rome Yard on Friday, April 16, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published May 17
Updated May 17

TAMPA — A disputed bid that has caused a political headache to Mayor Jane Castor has been decided in the city’s favor, as a review officer ruled Monday that city officials and appointees did nothing illegal in awarding the contract to a Miami development firm.

Castor greeted the news with a statement calling it “monumental” for the city and West Tampa neighborhoods.

“It allows the city to move forward with the long-awaited transformation of the vacant Rome Yard storage lot into a vibrant, mixed-use community where everyone can have the opportunity to raise a family or start a business while celebrating West Tampa’s rich culture. It’s time to move forward and make progress on our plans to redevelop West Tampa and lift-up minority owned businesses with at least 75 million dollars dedicated to minority contracts and diversity opportunities,” Castor wrote.

The Rome Yard, an old city truck lot adjacent to the West River project (also controlled by Related) and the Hillsborough River, was preliminarily awarded to Related in March, pending negotiations between the city and the firm.

But within days of Mayor Jane Castor’s news conference announcing Related’s proposal as the winner, a losing bidder, Tampa-based InVictus Development, LLC, filed a formal protest, charging that a city selection committee member had fouled the process by making a motion to throw out InVictus’s minority, women and small business outreach scores.

That action tilted the scales, InVictus said, toward Related.

The committee member who made the motion, Joe Robinson, had signed a consulting contract worth up to $75,000 with the Tampa Housing Authority — a partner in the deal with Related — a month before the committee’s meeting.

InVictus highlighted Robinson’s motion as the primary evidence of the city’s “arbirtrary and capricious” treatment of its own bidding rules.

Review officer James V. Mathieu Jr. didn’t agree, writing in a 10-page ruling that it was not his legal role to “second guess” the city’s selection committee, which had “wide latitude” to pick the winning bid.

Nothing in the city’s rules or its Rome Yard request for proposal barred the committee from throwing out InVictus’s scores, wrote Mathieu, a Port Richey attorney hired by City Attorney Gina Grimes to hear the case.

Mathieu also dismissed InVictus’s other claim, that the city and Related violated the “cone of silence,” the requirement not to contact non-authorized city employees or attempt to influence the selection before it is announced.

The Tampa Bay Times reported last week that Castor’s partner, Ana Cruz, lunched and toured Tampa with Related’s founder and CEO Jorge Pérez in Feburary, about a month before the city made its decision.

Cruz and Pérez ended up at the adjacent West River project for a tour organized by Alex Castor, a Related official who is also the mayor’s nephew.

Related: Ana Cruz toured Tampa with Related CEO but they didn't discuss city business, she said.

Jane Castor has said her nephew and partner won’t profit from a deal for what most observers peg as the most valuable piece of undeveloped city-owned land in Florida’s third-largest city.

Cruz and Pérez said they didn’t discuss the Rome Yard project — or any city business— in their time together.

Cruz’s lobbying firm, Ballard Partners, worked to prepare Related for their oral presentation before the selection committee, but it is unclear when they were hired or how much Ballard was paid.

Todd Josko, the Ballard partner who prepped Related executives, said in April it was up to Related to release the contract.

Related hasn’t responded to requests by the Times for a copy of the contract.

On Monday, the firm’s president released a statement saying “hearing officer unequivocally confirms that the city of Tampa appropriately awarded the development of Rome Yard to (Related).”

The company can now focus on making its vision of a mix of affordable, workforce and market-rate housing with retail, workforce training and an observation tower evoking West Tampa’s cigar making past, the statement by Albert Milo Jr., president of Related Urban Development Group read.

“Related Urban followed all of the rules of the Rome Yard RFP. Our selection was based on our experience and the merits of our proposal,” Milo wrote.

Cruz has said she’s prohibited by an internal Ballard policy from participating or profiting from any work the firm does with the city. That policy was put into a memo by Brian Ballard, the firm’s founder, during Castor’s 2019 mayoral campaign.

InVictus failed to establish any improper contact or influence by Related or anyone else, Mathieu wrote, adding that the city’s news conference and emails to Related officials organizing the event’s logistics didn’t rise to the legal standard of violating the “cone of silence.”

At the May 12 hearing, Cruz’s trip with Pérez was briefly referenced by an InVictus official, but it wasn’t discussed except for an InVictus executive urging Mathieu to read the newspaper’s coverage, which an assistant city attorney deemed “salacious” and “unsubstantiated.”

Related: Tampa's Rome Yard hearing has both sides crying foul

Mathieu didn’t mention the Cruz trip in his ruling, writing:

“Unless InVictus can establish an assertion that there was any improper contact or any attempt by any person to influence an evaluation or ranking based on past or existing relationship between the city and Related, then there is no violation of the cone of silence. No evidence was presented at the hearing to support any finding that there was any attempt to influence.”

As for Robinson, his motion was, under the city’s rules, fair game to be taken up by the city’s selection committee, which wasn’t bound by minority, women and small business outreach scores compiled by staff, Mathieu wrote.

Related: West Tampa activist Joe Robinson at center of Rome Yard dispute

InVictus can appeal the ruling to a court and the firm’s officers said they are considering their legal options.

“There were more than enough irregularities during the Rome Yard RFP process to raise multiple red flags, but they either went unnoticed or were ignored. There is something terribly wrong with a process that purports to give a meaningful opportunity to local, women, and minority-owned developers in the RFP then implements the process so as to disadvantage them,” texted Paula Rhodes, Invictus’s president shortly after the ruling.