TAMPA — City Council members overturned four out of five charter amendment vetoes by Mayor Jane Castor Thursday, marking the latest tension-filled standoff between the board and Tampa’s mayor.
One of the mayor’s vetoes stood: a measure to let voters decide whether the city’s police oversight board should have its own outside attorney. The 4-3 vote meant that question won’t appear on the March 7 ballot. To overturn the mayor’s veto, the council needed at least a five-vote supermajority.
The last time a Tampa mayor used her veto powers was in 1990. It was Sandy Freedman.
Public commenters and council members referenced the political implications of the vote. And many spoke in terms of political wins and losses.
The vote likely will have an impact on the looming city elections.
Chairperson Joseph Citro tried and failed to persuade his colleagues to scrap a vote on the charter changes and adopt the changes through an ordinance or resolution. No one backed him.
Bill Carlson asked Citro if the mayor had put him up to a political ploy. Carlson said Castor’s attacks on council members have convinced him that the mayor is doing “despicable” things. Citro denied the accusation and, in a tense exchange, asked Carlson to make public-records requests on his phone.
Lynn Hurtak, who led the charge for the measures, said voters needed to weigh in on changes to the city’s governing document.
“They don’t want us to do it — they want to do it,” Hurtak said.
The four charter amendments that will be on the ballot ask voters whether: to switch from the mayor to City Council for the creation of city boards; to clarify that council members must approve high-ranking mayoral appointments and that the mayor can’t name a department head as “interim” for more than six months; to shorten the length of time between citizen-led charter reviews from 10 to eight years; and to limit council members to serving four consecutive terms.
On Wednesday, Castor published an opinion column in the Tampa Bay Times announcing her vetoes, saying that the process by council members had been rushed and lacked transparency. Her op-ed went online hours before council members received formal notice of the mayor’s intentions through a memo.
Castor’s tactics were criticized by a long line of speakers during public comment. James Shaw, a lawyer associated with the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the mayor was acting like an authoritarian ruler.
Castor’s concern with challenges to the city’s “strong mayor” system is misguided, he said.
“The mayor is elected by the people. That’s all (”strong mayor”) means. It doesn’t mean the city of Tampa is governed by a monarch,” Shaw said to applause from a large crowd in the council chambers.
Robin Lockett, an activist with a progressive social justice nonprofit, Florida Rising, who is also running for the City Council, said the members’ vote on the veto would define their political future. Council members should allow voters to decide, she said.
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And Stephanie Poynor, a South-of-Gandy community activist, added a barb aimed at Castor, saying the mayor should face her critics in person.
“She needs to woman up and walk over here and say it to everyone’s face,” Poynor said, also to applause.
No one from the public spoke in favor of Castor’s vetoes during public comment. Her chief of staff, John Bennett, and City Attorney Andrea Zelman spoke in defense of the mayor’s decisions and answered council members’ questions.
Castor did not appear at the meeting. She was in Washington, D.C. After the vote, she issued a statement.
“Every decision I make as mayor is based on what’s best for Tampa residents today and their children tomorrow, rather than what’s easy or politically expedient,” she said. “My charter amendment vetoes reflected that, but I was under no illusion that I would convince every council member to change his or her mind.”
Efforts to curtail the mayor’s power have been at the heart of a yearslong fight between Castor and council members. All of them are up for reelection on March 7, although some, including the mayor, have yet to draw significant opposition.
For a more detailed look at the five charter changes at issue Thursday, click here.