Tampa’s police chief claims to live in the city — and also 40 minutes away

Where police Chief Mary O’Connor lives matters because Tampa requires top city officials to live within city limits.
Tampa Police Chief Mary O'Connor recently told a Pinellas County sheriff's deputy during a traffic stop that she lives in Oldsmar. Tampa requires department heads, including the police chief, must live in city limits. A city spokeswoman says O'Connor also leases a condo in Tampa and lives in both places.
Tampa Police Chief Mary O'Connor recently told a Pinellas County sheriff's deputy during a traffic stop that she lives in Oldsmar. Tampa requires department heads, including the police chief, must live in city limits. A city spokeswoman says O'Connor also leases a condo in Tampa and lives in both places. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Dec. 2, 2022|Updated Dec. 2, 2022

TAMPA — It’s in the City Charter: Anyone who ranks as a department head or above has to live within city limits.

Police chief is explicitly mentioned as someone required to live in Tampa.

Yet in a video from body cam footage released Thursday, Chief Mary O’Connor was clear about where she lived when a Pinellas County sheriff’s deputy stopped her and husband Keith last month. The deputy said he stopped them because they were driving an untagged golf cart on the road in East Lake Woodlands, a Pinellas County gated community that’s 40 minutes from Tampa.

“We live in East Lake Woodlands,” Mary O’Connor told the deputy. The couple told him that they normally didn’t drive on roadways and mentioned a decision to grab some food from a nearby Greek restaurant.

Related: Do golf carts need tags? What to know after Tampa police chief’s stop

It’s unclear how, or if, the couple qualified for the few exemptions that the city provides department heads.

City spokesperson Lauren Rozyla said Friday that Mary O’Connor met the city’s residency requirements because she leases a condo in Tampa.

“Her husband and young daughter live primarily at the Pinellas County residence due to schooling. She resides at both the Tampa and Pinellas locations,” Rozyla emailed. Asked how many days on average Mary O’Connor spends at her Tampa home, Rozyla and Adam Smith, the city’s communications director, didn’t respond Friday afternoon.

Yet the charter outlines no special exemption for officials who lease a property in Tampa while living elsewhere.

Four high-ranking Tampa officials do have a temporary waiver granting them the right to live elsewhere. Getting such permission, however, requires approval from at least five Council members.

Adam Smith, Solid Waste and Environmental Program Director Larry Washington, Deputy Administrator for Development and Economic Opportunity Alis Drumgo and David Ingram, the newly-hired executive director of the Tampa Convention Center, are the only officials with current waivers, according to Rozyla.

Mary O’Connor, who was put on paid administrative leave on Friday by Mayor Jane Castor, doesn’t have that waiver, according to Rozyla and city records requested by the Tampa Bay Times.

It’s also unclear if her husband, Keith, needs a residency exception. He’s listed as a department head on the city’s website — director of the Neighborhood Enhancement Division. That designation as department head would require him, just like his wife, to live in Tampa. He doesn’t have the temporary waiver either. But the website is wrong and will be corrected, said Castor spokesperson Smith after a Times reporter pointed out the website’s title for Keith O’Connor.

Council member Luis Viera said he thinks officials should respect “the spirit” as well as the letter of the law.

The mayor, council members, administrators and department heads like the police chief are vested with “power and authority,” Viera said, making it incumbent on them to live in Tampa.

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“You have to deal with it. You have to abide by it,” Viera said, adding that the current system has flexibility, with waivers to accommodate family concerns and other relocation issues.

Chief of Staff John Bennett recently moved into Tampa after working for the city for about two years. He had previously lived in Hillsborough County. Bennett was unavailable for comment Friday, Rozyla said.

Former City Attorney Gina Grimes left her job rather than comply with residency requirements in August.

The residency requirement has been an issue for years. Sonya Little, the city’s chief financial officer under former Mayor Bob Buckhorn, came under fire for not living in the city, eventually leading to litigation in 2018.

Orlando Gudes, who improperly claimed a homestead exemption on a property he owns, said he has little patience for highly-paid, high-ranking officials who flout the rules.

Gudes said he doesn’t care if department heads reside in Tampa, but administrators and the police and fire chiefs should.

“That’s just what I believe,” Gudes, a retired Tampa police officer, said. “I live where I work.”

Poor schools or lack of adequate housing are just excuses, he said.

“That’s bullsh--t. I don’t believe in that,” he said.

Council member Lynn Hurtak said she used to think similarly, but her position has evolved, in part because it’s gotten so expensive to live in the city. She said she’s open to considering changing the policy. Guido Maniscalco said he’s also open to a discussion.

Thursday evening, council member Bill Carlson asked city staff to report back early in February about the residency requirement. Carlson said he wants a list of senior managers that aren’t in compliance. He said the O’Connors aren’t abiding by the spirit of the charter. Carlson pointed to the body cam video and Mary O’Connor’s assertion that they live in East Lake Woodlands.

“It’s something we need to resolve,” he said, adding that he supports a strict adherence to the existing charter requirement.

Castor was at Harvard University on Friday on a panel about mayors and policing. She was unavailable for comment, Rozyla said.