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A Tampa City Council meeting turned into an angry spat. Why?

Charlie Miranda and Bill Carlson engaged in an explosive exchange Thursday, prompting colleagues to appeal for calm.
Council members Charlie Miranda (left) and Bill Carlson (right) engaged in an explosive exchange Thursday.
Council members Charlie Miranda (left) and Bill Carlson (right) engaged in an explosive exchange Thursday. [ Times (2020) ]
Published Oct. 22
Updated Oct. 23

TAMPA — The tension has always been there between Charlie Miranda, a working-class son of Ybor City and dean of Tampa politics, and Bill Carlson, an urbane public-relations executive with extensive international experience.

They’ve sparred in the past over the city’s plan to convert highly-treated reclaimed water, originally sewage, into drinking water. And they’ve tangled over Carlson’s assertions of malfeasance in city government. This week, that all went up like a powder keg.

First, some necessary background.

Carlson has vehemently opposed the water project, dubbed PURE, and he led the effort to scuttle funding for it in 2019. Miranda has long been supportive of the project as a way to secure Tampa’s water needs for the future.

How does Tampa Bay Water fit in?

Carlson’s firm, Tucker Hall, at one time had a contract with the regional water utility for public engagement. That contract was terminated by the firm two days after Carlson took office in June 2019, according to a records request by the Tampa Bay Times later that year.

For his part, Miranda, who sits on the utility’s board, has long been critical of Tampa Bay Water’s branding efforts and its treatment of Tampa.

To make things more confusing, what started Thursday’s battle royale had nothing to do with Tampa Bay Water, but with another long-time target of Carlson: the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council.

At issue was a proposed two-year contract between the city and the development agency.

Carlson had pulled the contract from the consent agenda and proceeded to ask his colleagues to approve amendments to the contract that he had written that morning and to delay approval of the project. Carlson has had a years-long feud with the economic development agency, rife with charges and counter-charges.

Carlson has accused the agency of fudging its numbers and acting arrogantly. Agency officials responded by saying Carlson made inappropriate requests to go on foreign trips.

Thursday, Miranda reacted to what he considered Carlson’s suggestion that the agency wasn’t operating correctly. Miranda then requested investigations from the “feds” and from the People’s Republic of China, South Korea and Japan into corruption in Tampa, a common Carlson refrain since joining council in 2019.

Miranda then said he wanted to be investigated as well. He said he didn’t like accusations without proof and welcomed investigators to seize his laptop and cell phone.

“I’m asking for them to investigate Charlie Miranda today. Today. See if I made one penny outside of my paycheck that I get from the city. My income tax, they can audit if they want,” Miranda said.

Miranda said Carlson’s presentation and his criticism of the economic agency was meant to create a “perception of a problem.”

“I’m not going to take it sitting down. I’m not going to let my father’s name be ruined,” said Miranda.

Carlson responded to Miranda’s comments, which included vague references to Tampa Bay Water, by bringing up his history with the water utility.

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“I resigned a client that was one of our longest clients that had about three years left on the contract,” Carlson said, adding his firm, Tucker Hall, gave up hundreds of thousands of dollars. “Why did I give up that money? Why did my shareholders give up that money? So I could fight a $2.5 billion boondoggle, which is toilet-to-tap, now called PURE.”

Carlson then said that someone had hired an out-of-state opposition research firm to dig up dirt on him because of his stance on PURE.

“Somebody is trying to throw me under the bus on this,” Carlson said.

Tempers flared enough that council member Luis Viera appealed for calm, saying the temperature has gotten too hot in politics lately.

“The temperature is 115 degrees. I’m an 89 degree guy, " Viera said. “It’s hot.”

Miranda wasn’t done. He said his outburst had nothing to do with the contract, rather with the “anger” in Carlson’s voice as he criticized the economic development agency and with what he said was Carlson making “innuendos without addressing the innuendos directly.”

“I come from the other side of the railroad tracks,” Miranda said. “It was the mannerism of the presentation that got my side of the railroad tracks’ dander up. That’s why I did what I did. And I’m not being apologetic.”

Miranda then seconded Carlson’s motion for city officials to consider his concerns about the contract. The City Council later approved that city staff report back next month.

It wasn’t the first time that Miranda and Carlson got into it over perceived corruption. Last year, Carlson suggested that Tampa might be vulnerable to an FBI investigation into its purchasing practices, an assertion without evidence that raised Miranda’s ire and that city officials rejected.

Related: Should the FBI investigate the city of Tampa? Bill Carlson drops a bombshell

On Friday, Carlson said he doesn’t know why Miranda said what he said. But Carlson pledged to keep up his fight against wrongdoing while taking a shot at former Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a longtime nemesis.

Related: Bill Carlson and Bob Buckhorn trade barbs

“One of the reasons I ran for office was because the public wanted to help end the alleged corruption of the last administration. And, as a result, I have been super careful to turn away from clients, resign from clients and recuse myself so that no one can say anything about me that they did about the last mayor,” Carlson said.

Buckhorn didn’t immediately return a phone call requesting comment.

Miranda said Friday that he has no regrets:

“When I have to say something, I say it. I say what I mean and I mean what I say,” Miranda said.