Resignation terms for Tampa City Council member Dingfelder called ‘hypocritical’

He officially gave up his seat Monday to settle a public records lawsuit, but he can’t talk about it.
Tampa City Council member John Dingfelder during a council meeting in 2019. [Times (2019)]
Tampa City Council member John Dingfelder during a council meeting in 2019. [Times (2019)] [ OCTAVIO JONES | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published March 14, 2022|Updated March 14, 2022

TAMPA — John Dingfelder is now an ex-Tampa City Council member, having resigned the position officially Monday to settle a public records lawsuit.

Dingfelder is not only out of office, he is prohibited from running for City Council, mayor or seeking an appointed position dealing with zoning or land-use issues for the next five years. He also is under a gag order not to talk with the media about settling the suit from Stephen Michelini, who sued Dingfelder in October, accusing him of failing to turn over public records from his and his wife’s personal email accounts.

The terms of the settlement, signed Friday and first reported by the Tampa Bay Business Journal, raised eyebrows at City Hall and elsewhere. They included a provision for hand-delivery of a written a one-sentence resignation letter to Mayor Jane Castor and council chairperson Orlando Gudes.

“I don’t think he needs to be humiliated more than has already happened by hand-delivering something,” Gudes said Monday. “I wish him well. I don’t know the full details of the investigation, but I know he’s always been a loyal friend to me. He’s always been a loyal friend for our communities.”

Castor, through spokesman Adam Smith, declined comment. Council members who could be reached Monday also were tight-lipped. Council member Luis Viera declined comment and council member Bill Carlson did not elaborate beyond his social media post Saturday, in which he called Dingfelder “a tireless advocate for the people of Tampa.” Carlson said he was sure Dingfelder “will continue defending the people of this great city as a private citizen.”

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mariella Smith said she first dealt with Dingfelder when he sat on the Metropolitan Planning Organization and Smith was a citizen advocating for better trails and safer streets. She characterized Dingfelder’s written apology to Michelini as a “hostage statement.”

" I think it’s ironic, it’s hypocritical that these attorneys claim to want transparency but they’re pressing for a settlement that keeps the public from ever knowing the whole story,” Smith said.

“It’s a travesty that a duly elected official could be forced out of office by a lawsuit settlement that keeps the public in the dark about all the facts of the case and prevents him from explaining,” Smith said. “The public will never know.”

Dingfelder has previously characterized the allegations in the lawsuit as “baseless” and said Michelini was “trying to silence me as a defender of neighborhoods.”

Michelini’s attorney, Ethan Loeb, said it was unfair to characterize the legal dispute as an attempt by his client to gain the upper hand in zoning matters on behalf of his development community clients.

“We wish none of this had ever happened. I just wish John had provided the records as required by law,” said Loeb. “The law’s the law. There is a consequence for what happened.”

Dingfelder, 65, had been embroiled in the lawsuit for months. Michelini filed it in October, alleging Dingfelder had abused state public records laws, in part by using his wife’s email to conduct city business out of the public eye, and threatened him at City Hall in September after Michelini filed a public records request with Dingfelder’s office.

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Dingfelder apologized for the confrontation and in a second apology attached to the lawsuit settlement, he said, “you did not deserve the treatment and embarrassment I caused you.”

In that statement, Dingfelder also says he “engaged in activities that were contrary to the spirit and intent of open government and transparency.”

Related: Text messages raise questions of Tampa City Council member's impartiality

Dingfelder was elected to a citywide seat in 2019. He had previously served on the City Council from 2003 until June 2010, when he resigned to run for a seat on the Hillsborough County Commission.

Dingfelder was a strong advocate for neighborhoods, especially south of Gandy, where his opposition to large apartment complexes, an issue that has nettled many residents, brought him into conflict with Michelini and developers.

“The neighborhoods will be severely impacted” by Dingfelder’s resignation, said Stephanie Poynor, president of the Tampa Homeowners and Association of Neighborhoods. She suggested other council members didn’t have Dingfelder’s expertise in land-use issues.

Dingfelder’s departure, she speculated, was likely a foregone conclusion after city attorney Gina Grimes said in October that the city would not provide his legal defense. The ongoing financial drain and risk of being on the hook for Michelini’s legal fees likely contributed to Dingfelder’s decision, she said.

“Councilman Dingfelder has put his family first and I think that’s what anyone should do,” Poynor said.