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Tampa City Council member sued over public records

A local development consultant says John Dingfelder is using his wife’s email account to conduct public business.
Tampa City Councilman John Dingfelder addresses the council members and visitors during the council meeting, Thursday, June 4, 2020 at the Tampa Convention Center.
Tampa City Councilman John Dingfelder addresses the council members and visitors during the council meeting, Thursday, June 4, 2020 at the Tampa Convention Center. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Oct. 11

TAMPA — Did John Dingfelder forward emails to his wife that praised his City Council performance — with a smiley-face emoji — merely to show her that he was doing a good job?

Or, as a lawsuit filed Monday alleges, did Dingfelder secretly conduct city business through his wife’s email account in violation of Florida’s Sunshine Law, then threaten a local consultant who tried to expose the illegal practice?

Underlying those opposing claims in the legal filing is Dingfelder’s support of limiting apartment complexes south of Gandy Boulevard. That effort drew praise from neighborhood activists and garnered headlines over the past year, but also angered developers.

Related: Dingfelder leads effort to slow down apartment building south of Gandy Blvd.

Stephen Michelini, a longtime Tampa development consultant, filed the lawsuit, alleging that Dingfelder violated the state’s public records laws and illegally threatened him outside City Council chambers in early September.

After an anonymous, comprehensive public records request was filed in August for Dingfelder’s communications, including emails, Dingfelder confronted Michelini, accusing him of filing the request. He told Michelini that the request was intrusive and inappropriate.

“This confrontation was designed to create in Mr. Michelini substantial fear and concern for making the Public Records Request,” reads the lawsuit filed in Hillsborough County Circuit Court.

According to the lawsuit, Dingfelder then threatened “consequences” if any more requests were made.

Later, Dingfelder apologized to Michelini.

“Public life is difficult on a spouse and family and my response was instinctive, but not intellectual. For that, I do apologize,” said Dingfelder in a letter on Friday to Michelini’s attorney, Ethan Loeb, that was included in the lawsuit.

As for the public records, Dingfelder said he only forwarded emails to his wife, Lynn Marvin Dingfelder, when constituents praised him for his performance.

But an Oct. 21, 2020 email from his wife’s account sent to South Tampa activists was signed “John” and contained a message that referred to Dingfelder’s actions as a council member in the first person.

Michelini’s suit alleges that there are more emails like that one, which Dingfelder has not produced. The suit states that Dingfelder originally told the Tampa Bay Business Journal that he wasn’t forwarding emails to his wife’s account.

Last week, City Attorney Gina Grimes texted the Tampa Bay Times to say her office would not be defending Dingfelder if he were to be sued for not producing public records.

“If any city official or employee fails to provide public records after being requested several times to do so, the city cannot expend taxpayer dollars to defend that position because it serves no public purpose,” Grimes wrote on Thursday.

Michelini has been involved in gaining approval for multi-family housing developments on Gandy Boulevard, which Dingfelder has opposed. Dingfelder told the Business Journal last week that he believes he was targeted because he was a defender of the neighborhoods. Developers and consultants were trying to intimidate him, he told the publication.

The lawsuit asks a judge to direct Dingfelder “to produce any hard drives or other electronic devices or storage media for immediate inspection by a qualified forensic expert to determine the full scope of public records that exist on Mrs. Dingfelder’s email accounts.”

Michelini also asks the court to pay his attorney fees and bar Dingfelder from using his wife’s account moving forward.

Dingfelder declined comment Monday citing pending litigation. Michelini didn’t respond to a request for comment.