A conversation with Orlando Gudes

The Tampa City Council chairman talks about budget priorities, Mayor Jane Castor and how being a retired police officer factors into his new role.
Chairman Orlando Gudes, inside the Council Chambers at Old City Hall in Tampa, on Thursday, July 1, 2021.
Chairman Orlando Gudes, inside the Council Chambers at Old City Hall in Tampa, on Thursday, July 1, 2021. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published July 5, 2021

TAMPA — Orlando Gudes was elected chairman of the Tampa City Council in May.

Since then, it’s been a whirlwind of activity for the 53-year-old retired Tampa police officer who was elected in 2019 to office for the first time.

The last two months have seen disgruntled South Tampa residents upset about big apartment complexes being approved near their single-family homes, the restart of talks with the Tampa Bay Rays, and a compromise on police oversight that left activists and the ACLU unhappy.

Throughout, Gudes has used his powers as chairman to redirect meandering colleagues, occasionally shooting down long-shot procedural motions, and to forge a midpoint meeting of minds with Mayor Jane Castor on a new ordinance governing the Citizens Review Board, a volunteer body tasked with reviewing police conduct.

The Tampa Bay Times sat down with Gudes in his City Council office last week to talk about his priorities, his background and what he sees as the most important tasks for the seven-member City Council.

What is your priority as City Council chairman?

“For me, that this council stays unified. That’s key with any organization. Making sure that we have a relationship with the mayor’s office that is not combative, that we can talk and discuss issues that are pressing. That, we must get done.”

What are those most pressing issues?

“First of all, with the new budget (that needs City Council approval in September), I’ve already told the (Castor Administration) that our goal here can’t be about police issues. It has to be focused on housing and fire rescue.

“My main concern is making sure that the housing department has sufficient staff to do their job. Because, what I’m finding out, they don’t have enough staff to do the job. I find that they’ve been doing a lot more with less. But that now has run out. We’ve got to get them more help to get the resources to the people with the housing crisis that we have going on.”

You’ve spoken a lot about the need for affordable housing. Where is the money going to come from?

“I’m hearing that the police saved some dollars and those dollars need to be other places. Especially housing. So it’d be taking some money from the police budget, they may be some savings mostly in the police department. That’s what I’m hearing. Maybe $5-7 million.”

You’ve mentioned from the council dais that during your time as a Tampa police officer (1990-2016) that you experienced racism in the department. Is it still there?

“When you look at the process, there are a lot of good police officers over there. But there are some they do have some, I will say some bias.

“That’s the entire culture of hiring as well. That’s why on the police review (Citizens Review Board) what I asked for is that we have people look at the hiring process. Look at some of the questions that you’re asking candidates. Look at some of the questions you’re asking females. Look at some of the questions you’re asking in general.”

And how is former police chief and now Mayor Castor doing on diversity and minority outreach in the police department and around city government?

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“I think she’s putting a little more foot on the gas than some of the others have in the past. And that’s a good sign. I think she understands it. You know, being that, she is from the LGBT community. It’s just, it’s just the nature of the beast. If you look at how you’ve been treated, so you try to make those changes, right. But I think she’s phasing it all in. I think the mayor has done a decent job. She’s listened to Council. I mean the way this council is set up, we question everything. We look at things.”

Council members and Mayor Castor did clash early on over who controls the Community Redevelopment Areas and whether the city should convert highly-treated wastewater into drinking water.

But on the Citizens Review Board, the council has been accused by some of caving to the mayor who agreed to split appointments to the 11- member board with council members, but opposed independent subpoena power and attorneys. How do you see it?

“I can’t sit there and be the Black chairman and I’m filing a lawsuit against the mayor because that’s what had to happen (if the compromise hadn’t been struck). We would have needed to file a lawsuit to say who’s right, who’s wrong? Well, that costs money on this side; costs money on her side. Now we’re spending money that we could use for other things.

“So now the mayor had to make a lot of concessions. Did we get everything? I think some of those other issues will go to the voters eventually. Could we have pushed the needle? Well, obviously, sometimes when you do push the needle, the needle does break sometimes.

“So it was best to say, okay, do we keep fighting this? Or do we let up? Let’s go ahead and compromise what we have going. Let it work. Let’s see how it’s gonna work.”

You’ve not been shy about cutting off your colleagues if you think they’ve strayed off the point or pushing issues to another meeting if you don’t think there’s time. Where do you get that leadership confidence from?

“I guess me being me being a ball coach, I’m used to order. The team as being cohesive. I guess being a police officer, again, following orders, making sure we’re on the right path.

“I think it’s good to have that kind of balance. I think most of the council members, they know. I say what I say. I mean what I say. I don’t care who you are.

“Let’s take care of the business. Take care of the business.”