TAMPA — The often careening discussion at Tampa City Hall Tuesday was about possible changes to the city’s governing document: its charter.
But, really, it was about the strife, accusations, lawsuits and resignations that have been the visible battles of a war between some council members and Mayor Jane Castor. And the often-heated debate was also inflected with the first stirrings of rhetoric ahead of a looming city election, when Castor’s job and all seven council seats will be up for grabs.
Before Tuesday’s meeting even began, Castor, who has no declared opponent in next March’s election, announced her opposition to any charter changes in news releases and tweets. Former mayor Bob Buckhorn also weighed in on Twitter, saying the charter shouldn’t be changed.
But three council members, Bill Carlson, Orlando Gudes and Lynn Hurtak, introduced a raft of proposals that would have checked mayoral and city attorney powers. They all failed as a majority of council members — Luis Viera, Charlie Miranda, Guido Maniscalco and chairperson Joseph Citro — opposed them.
Maniscalco, a perennial swing vote on the council, said he sympathized with why Carlson and Gudes, who have both been subject to criticism from the mayor or her staff. Tensions have been high for years, spiking after John Dingfelder resigned his seat in March after former City Attorney Gina Grimes declined to defend him in a public records lawsuit. A month later, Castor said she would have fired Gudes if she could after a city investigation found he had created a hostile work environment for a former aide. Carlson has publicly attacked Castor, accusing her staff of retaliating against opponents.
But Maniscalco said the era of bad feelings needs to come to an end.
“I feel like we’ve been at war with each other for 3½, almost four years. It’s unfortunate,” Maniscalco said.
Maniscalco urged everyone to try to find a way to get along, saying people needed to look within themselves to make peace between the warring sides.
Carlson responded by saying the Castor administration had started the fight and urged council members to buck her stance on charter changes. In fact, he claimed “millions of dollars” are being readied to back an unnamed opponent of Castor. Carlson told the Tampa Bay Times in April that he wasn’t interested in running.
He cited a number of controversial bidding decisions by Castor, including plans to redevelop the city’s Rome Yard fleet maintenance center and build a City Hall annex on Hanna Avenue. Carlson said the charter needed to be changed to require more transparency and increase council members’ power.
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“We need to provide oversight,” he said.
But the political undertones weren’t just visible from inside council chambers. Adam Smith, Castor’s communications chief who helped run her 2019 mayoral campaign, tweeted out a hashtag “runBillRun” after Carlson made his comments about a possible Castor opponent.
The period to file as a candidate for city office is in January.
Carlson predicted that the mayor’s staff members would be “high-fiving” what he said they would perceive as his defeat Tuesday, but vowed to keep fighting.
At times during the six-hour discussion, tempers frayed but stayed largely within civil bounds, aided by a paid facilitator. Gudes said he almost didn’t return after a lunch break because he had been on the wrong side of so many votes.
Some council members signaled they are open to more discussion on some items, like requiring council approval on contracts of more than $100,000, but voted against a charter change recommendation that likely would have been sent to voters in March.
Changes this consequential need more vetting, said several members repeatedly.
“I feel like we’re trying to squeeze a size 46 waist into size 32 pants right now. And that bothers me,” Viera said.