TAMPA — It was the first comment during one of Mayor Jane Castor’s regular “Coffee with Castor” events at the Westin Tampa Waterside hotel on Harbour Island on Wednesday morning.
“It is my understanding that your partner is lobbying for a group that is associated with the Liberty Group. And that your mother-in-law is running for City Council as well. … These people showed up to show our opinion on that situation and we’re concerned that there is going to be an undue influence,” said Donovan Pullen, a Harbour Island resident.
Pullen was speaking about a hotel project on the island proposed by Liberty Hospitality Management LLC, which has garnered opposition from its potential neighbors. The proposal has been voted down twice by the City Council. The developer, Punit Shah, has sued the city.
Castor said that Ana Cruz stated publicly before Castor became mayor that she would not lobby the city or county. She has not lobbied the city, county or other agencies within the county, the mayor said.
“So that information is blatantly false. And I know how it’s nice not to let the facts get in the way of a good story but the fact is that she has zero to do with the city. And anyone that knows Janet Cruz knows that she isn’t going to be influenced by anyone,” Castor said.
A recent Tampa Bay Times review found no evidence that Ana Cruz, a partner in the influential Ballard Partners lobbying firm, had directly lobbied the city. However, Ballard Partners did represent the Liberty Hotel project last year, and has represented others with interests at City Hall.
Janet Cruz faces council member Lynn Hurtak in the April 25 runoff election for the citywide District 3 seat, which is widely considered to be the highest-profile of the four council seats to be decided that day.
Hurtak has questioned how the familial relationship with the mayor will affect Cruz’s decisions on the City Council. Janet Cruz responded to those comments at a February candidate forum by attacking Hurtak, the only council member to have been endorsed by local LGBTQ group, asking if she had a problem with gay people.
About 100 residents gathered Wednesday in the Westin’s ballroom to ask the mayor questions about traffic conflicts between cars and pedestrians from hotels and crowds from Tampa Bay Lightning games and other downtown events.
They also urged her to halt further development on the island. The event’s hosts told the crowd before the question-and-answer session began that the mayor wouldn’t address the hotel project because of the lawsuit.
The mayor did make clear in her comments that City Council members had control over zoning and land use issues, not her. And, at one point, she told a man urging her to halt future development: “I think everyone’s heard that message.”
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The crowd applauded loudly.
The hotel project has been a flashpoint between residents of the upscale residential neighborhoods on the island, who have loudly opposed it, packing council chambers. They say the hotel will harm their quality of life and worsen traffic and other congestion problems.
Hurtak voted against the project in December after previously voting in favor of it. She didn’t elaborate from the dais on her switch, aside from saying the project had changed since her first vote.
The mayor also answered lighthearted questions. One man asked her to recount her best basketball performance. The mayor mentioned that she had scored 42 points — twice — while playing for the University of Tampa, but was self-effacing about her spot in the university’s sports hall of fame, saying her son pointed out to her years ago that scoring so many points meant that she didn’t pass much.